Will the government ‘get’ digital policy?

I had an interesting time at the ‘Seventh Annual Parliament and Internet Conference’ yesterday – and came away slightly less depressed than I expected to be. It seemed to me that there were chinks of light emerging amidst the usually stygian darkness that is UK government digital policy and practice – and signs that at least some of the parliamentarians are starting to ‘get it’. There were also some excellent people there from other areas – from industry, from civil society, from academia – and I learned as much from private conversations as I did in the main sessions.

The highlight of the conference, without a doubt, was Andy Smith, the PSTSA Security Manager at the Cabinet Office, recommending to everyone that they should use fake names on the internet everywhere except when dealing with the government – the faces of the delegation from Facebook, whose ‘real names’ policy I’ve blogged about before were a sight to behold. Andy Smith’s suggestion was noted and reported on by Brian Wheeler of the BBC within minutes, and made Slashdot shortly after.

It was a moment of high comedy – Facebook’s Simon Milner, on a panel in the afternoon, said he had had a ‘chat’ with Andy Smith afterwards, a chat which I think a lot of us would have liked to listen in on. The comedic side, though, reveals exactly why this is such a thorny issue. Smith, to a great extent, is right that we should be deeply concerned by the extent to which our real information is being gathered, held and used by commercial providers for their own purposes – but he’s quite wrong that we should be able and willing to trust the government to hold our data any more securely or use it any more responsibly. The data disasters when HMRC lost the Child Benefit details of 25 million families or the numerous times the MoD has lost unencrypted laptops with all the details of both serving and retired members of the armed forces – and potential recruits – are not exceptions but symptoms of a much deeper problem. Trusting the government to look after our data is almost as dangerous as trusting the likes of Facebook and Google.

The worst aspect of the conference for me was that there seemed to still be a large number of people who believed that ‘complete’ security was not just possible but practical and just a few tweaks away. It’s a dangerous delusion – and means that bad decisions are being made, and likely to continue. A few other key points of the conference:

  • Chloe Smith, giving the morning keynote, demonstrated that she’d learned a little from her Newsnight mauling – she was better at evading questions, even if she was no better at actually answering them.
  • In Chi Onwurah, Labour have a real star – I hope she gets a key position in a future Labour government (should one come to pass)
  • We’ve got a long way to go with the Defamation Bill – without seeing the regulations that will accompany the bill, which apparently haven’t even been drafted yet, it’s all but impossible to know whether it will have any real effect (at least insofar as the internet is concerned)
  • In a private conversation, someone who really would know told me that one of the problems with sorting out the Defamation Bill has been an apparent obsession that Westminster insiders have with the ‘threat’ from anonymous bloggers – I suspect Guido Fawkes would be delighted by the amount of fear and loathing he seems to have generated in MPs, and how much it seems to have distracted them from doing what they should on defamation and libel reform.
  • After a few conversations, I’m quietly optimistic that we’ll be able to defeat the Communications Data Bill – it wasn’t on the agenda at the conference, but it was on many people’s minds and the whispers were generally more positive than I had feared they might be. Time will tell, of course.
  • Ed Vaizey is funny and interesting – but potentially deeply dangerous. His enthusiasm for the ‘iron fist’ side of copyright enforcement built into the Digital Economy Act was palpable and depressing. The way he spoke, it seemed as though the copyright lobby have him in the palm of their hand – and that neither they nor he have learned anything about the failure of the whole approach.
  • Vaizey’s words on porn-blocking – he seemed to suggest that we’ll go for an ‘opt-out’ blocking systems, where child-free households would effectively have to ‘register’ for access to porn, something which has HUGE risks (see my blog here) – were worrying, but again, another insider assured me that this wasn’t what he meant to say, nor the proposal currently on the table. This will need very careful watching!!
  • The savaging of Vaizey by a questioner from the floor revealing how much better and cheaper broadband internet access was in Bucharest than in Westminster was enjoyed by most – but not Vaizey, nor the industry representatives who remained conspicuously quiet.
  • Julian Huppert – my MP, amongst other things – was again impressive, and seems to have understood the importance of privacy in all areas: the fact that Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch was invited to the panel on the internet of things that Huppert chaired made that point.
  • On that subject – mentions of either privacy or free speech were conspicuous by their absence in the early sessions on cybersecurity, but they grew both in presence and importance during the day. I asked a couple of questions, and they were both taken seriously and answered reasonably well. There’s a huge way to go, of course, but I did feel that the issue is taken a touch more seriously than it used to be. Mind you, none of the government representatives mentioned either in their speeches at all – it was all ‘economy’ and ‘security’, without much space for human rights….
  • The revelation from the excellent Tom Scott that though the rest of us are blocked from accessing the Pirate Bay, it IS accessible from Parliament was particularly good – and when my neighbour accessed the site and saw the picture of Richard O’Dwyer on the front page, it was poignant…

I came away from the conference with distinctly mixed feelings – there are some very good signs and some very bad ones. The biggest problem is that the really good people are still not in the positions of power, or seemingly being listened to – and those at the top don’t seem to be changing as fast as the rest. If we could replace Ed Vaizey with Julian Huppert and Chloe Smith with Chi Onwurah, government digital policy would be vastly improved….

Quality matters!

Momentum seems to be building for the idea that internet access is a universal right – and more than that, that high quality internet access is a universal right. As seems often to be the case in the digital world, the lead is coming from Scandinavia – Finland have made broadband a ‘legal’ right, according to a report in the BBC. From the 1st of July 2010, every Finn has the right to access to a 1Mbps (megabit per second) broadband connection. As reported by the BBC, Finland’s communication minister Suvi Linden sad that “We considered the role of the internet in Finns everyday life. Internet services are no longer just for entertainment.”

That much is becoming clearer and clearer. We need internet access for proper access to government services, we need internet access to get the best prices for goods and services – indeed, there are some goods and services that are almost impossible to get without access to the net. We need internet access for access to information and news – and we need information and news if we are to fully participate in our society. What the Finnish government have realised is that it’s not just ‘access’ that matters, but the quality of that access, if some of the ‘digital divide’ issues are to be dealt with – and that, surely, is what really matters.

From a human rights perspective, what is needed is an infrastructure that allows all people to fully participate in society. Making access to broadband a legal right doesn’t just mean giving people the right to download music or watch YouTube videos fast, it means that they have an opportunity to take advantage of the huge benefits that the internet can bring – benefits that those on the ‘advantaged’ side of the digital divide are already enjoying. Try searching for legal advice as to your rights as an employee when your job is under threat – as so many are in the current economic climate – and you soon discover why broadband is important. If you have to sit there waiting and waiting when you don’t even know what you’re waiting for, it’s all too easy to give up – and hence not to discover what your rights might be.

The Finns have taken the lead – but others will follow, and it is to be hoped that they will follow not just with bland statements or aspirations, but legal rights.