A progressive digital policy?

Yesterday I read a call for submissions to Labour Left’s ‘Red Book II’, by Dr Éoin Clarke – to develop a way forward for the Labour Party. It started me thinking about what would really constitute a progressive digital policy – because for me, any progressive party should be looking at how to deal with the digital world. It is becoming increasingly important – and policies of governments seem to be wholly unable to deal with or even understand the digital world.

It must be said from the outset that I am not a Labour Party member, but that I was for many years. I left in 1999, partly because I was leaving the country and partly because I was already becoming disillusioned as to the direction that Labour was taking – a stance that the invasion of Iraq only confirmed. I have not rejoined the party since, though I have been tempted at times. One of the reasons I have not been able to bring myself to join has been the incoherence and oppressiveness of Labour’s digital policies, which are not those of a progressive, positive and modern party, of one that represents the ordinary people, and in particular the young people, of Britain today.

That seems to me to be very wrong. Labour should be a progressive party. It should be one that both represents and learns from young people. It should be one that looks forward rather than back – and one that is brave enough to be radical. Right now it isn’t: and the last government presided over some appalling, oppressive and regressive digital policies.

I’ve written in the past about why governments always get digital policy wrong – but it’s much easier to snipe from the sidelines than it is to try to build real policy. Here, therefore, is my first attempt at putting together a coherent, progressive policy for digital government. It is of course very much a skeleton – just the barest of bones – and very much a first attempt. There is probably a lot missing, and it needs a lot more thought. It would take a lot of work to put flesh on the bones – but for me, the debate needs to be had.

The starting point for such a policy would be a series of nine commitments.

  1. A commitment to the right to access to the net – and to supporting human rights online as well as in the real world. This is the easiest part of the policy, and one where Labour, at least theoretically, has not been bad. Gordon Brown spoke of such a right. However, supporting such a right has implications, implications which the Labour Party seems to have neither understood nor follows. The most important such implication is that it should not be possible to arbitrarily prevent people accessing the net – and that the barrier for removal of that right should be very high. Any policy which relies on the idea of blocking access should be vigorously resisted – the Digital Economy Act is the most obvious example. Cutting people’s access on what is essentially suspicion is wholly inconsistent with a commitment to the right to access the internet.
  2. A commitment against internet surveillance – internet surveillance is very much in the news right now, with the Coalition pushing the Communications Data Bill, accurately labelled the ‘snoopers’ charter’, about which I have written a number of times.Labour should very much oppose this kind of surveillance, but doesn’t. Indeed, rather the opposite – the current bill is in many ways a successor to Labour’s ‘Interception Modernisation Programme’. Surveillance of this kind goes very much against what should be Labour values: it can be and has been used to monitor those organising protests and similar, going directly against the kinds of civil rights that should be central to the programme of any progressive, left wing party: the rights to assembly and association. Labour should not only say, right now, that it opposes the Snoopers Charter, but that it would not seek to bring in other similar regulation. Indeed, it should go further, and suggest that it would work within the European Union to repeal the Data Retention Directive (which was pushed through by Tony Blair) and to reform RIPA – restricting the powers that it grants rather than increasing them.
  3. A commitment to privacy and data protection – rather than just paying lip service to them. I have written many times before about the problems with the Information Commissioner’s Office. First of all it needs focus: it (or any replacement body) should be primarily in charge of protecting privacy. Secondly, it needs more real teeth – but also more willingness to use them and against more appropriate targets. There has been far too little enforcement on corporate bodies, and too much on public authorities. If companies are to treat individuals’ private information better, they need the incentive to do so – at the moment even if they are detected, the enforcement tends to be feeble: a slap on the wrist at best. The current law punishes each group inappropriately: public authorities with big fines, which ultimately punish the public, corporates barely at all. Financial penalties would provide an incentive for businesses, while more direct personal punishments for those in charge of public authorities would work better as an incentive for them, as well as not punishing the public!
  4. A commitment to oppose the excessive enforcement of copyright – and instead to encourage the content industry to work for more positive ways forward. This would include the repeal of the Digital Economy Act, one of the worst pieces of legislation in the digital field, and one about which the Labour Party should be thoroughly ashamed. Labour needs to think more radically and positively – and understand that the old ways don’t work, and merely manage to alienate (and even criminalise) a generation of young people. Labour has a real opportunity to do something very important here – and to understand the tide that is sweeping across the world, at least in the minds of the people. In the US, SOPA and PIPA have been roundly beaten. ACTA suffered a humiliating defeat in the European Parliament and is probably effectively dead. In France, the new government is looking to abolish HADOPI – the body that enforces their equivalent of the Digital Economy Act. A truly progressive, radical party would not resist this movement – it would seek to lead it. Let the creative minds of the creative industries be put to finding a creative, constructive and positive way forward. Carrots rather than just big sticks.
  5. A commitment to free speech on the internet. This has a number of strands. First of all, to develop positive and modern rules governing defamation on the internet. Reform of defamation is a big programme – and I am not convinced that the current reform package does what it really should, focussing too much on reforming what happens in the ‘old media’ (where I suspect there is less wrong than some might suggest) without dealing properly with the ‘new media’ (which has been dealt with fairly crudely in the current reforms). There needs to be clarity about protection for intermediaries, for example.
  6. A commitment against censorship – this is the second part of the free speech strand. In the current climate, there are regular calls to deal with such things as pornography and ‘trolling’ on the internet – but most of what is actually suggested amounts to little more than censorship. We need to be very careful about this indeed – the risks of censorship are highly significant. Rather than strengthening our powers to censor and control,via web-blocking and so forth, we need to make them more transparent and accountable. A key starting point would be the reform of the Internet Watch Foundation, which plays a key role in dealing with child abuse images and related websites, but falls down badly in terms of transparency and accountability. It needs much more transparency about how it works – a proper appeals procedure, better governance structures and so forth. The Labour Party must not be seduced by the populism of anti-pornography campaigners into believing in web-blocking as a simple, positive tool. There are huge downsides to that kind of approach, downsides that often greatly outweigh the benefits.
  7. A radical new approach to social media – the third strand of the free speech agenda. We need to rethink the laws and their enforcement that have led to tragic absurdities like the Twitter Joke Trial, and the imprisonment of people for Facebook posts about rioting. The use of social media is now a fundamental part of many people’s lives – pretty much all young people’s lives – and at present it often looks as though politicians and the courts have barely a clue how it works. Labour should be taking the lead on this – and it isn’t. The touch needs to be lighter, more intelligent and more sensitive – and led by people who understand and use social media. There are plenty of them about – why aren’t they listened to?
  8. A commitment to transparency – including a full commitment to eGovernment, continuing the good aspects of what the current government is doing in relation to Open Data. Transparency, however, should mean much more – starting with full and unequivocal support for Freedom of Information. There has been too much said over recent months to denigrate the idea of freedom of information, and to suggest that it has ‘gone too far’. The opposite is much more likely to be the case: and a new approach needs to be formulated. If it takes too much time, money and effort to comply with FOI requests, that indicates that the information hasn’t been properly organised or classified, not that the requests should be curbed. The positive, progressive approach would be to start to build systems that make it easier to provide the information, not complain about the requests.
  9. A commitment to talk to the experts – and a willingness to really engage with and listen to them. We have some of the best – from people like Tim Berner-Lee to Professor Ross Anderson at the Cambridge University Computer Lab, Andrew Murray at the LSE, the Oxford Internet Institute and various other university departments, civil society groups and so forth – and yet the government consistently fails to listen to what they say, and prefers instead to listen to industry lobby groups and Whitehall insiders. That is foolish, short-sighted and inappropriate – as well as being supremely ineffective. It is one of the reasons that policies formulated are not just misguided in their aims but also generally fail to achieve those aims. There is real expertise out there – it should be used!

Much more is needed of course – this just sets out a direction. I’ve probably missed out some crucial aspects. Some of this may seem more about reversing and cancelling existing policies rather than formulating new ones – but that is both natural and appropriate, as the internet, much more than most fields, it generally needs a light touch. The internet is not ‘ungovernable’, but most attempts to govern it have been clumsy and counter-productive.

A forward-looking, radical and positive digital policy would mark the Labour Party out as no longer being in the hands of the lobbyists, but instead being willing to fight for the rights of real, ordinary people. It would mark out the Labour Party as being a party that understands young people better – and supports them rather than demonises and criminalises them. Of course I do not expect the Labour Party to take this kind of agenda on. It would take a level of political courage that has not been demonstrated often by any political party, let alone the current Labour Party, to admit that they have got things so wrong in the past. Admission of past faults is something that seems close to political blasphemy these days – for me, that is one of the biggest problems in politics.

As I said at the start, this is very much a first stab at an approach for the future – I would welcome comments, thoughts and even criticism(!). We need debate on this – and not just for the Labour Party. Currently, though my history has been with the Labour Party, I find myself without anyone that I think can represent me. If any party were to take on an agenda for the digital world that would make more sense, I would be ready to listen.

The Internet IS a (Human) Right…

It isn’t often that I find myself disagreeing with something that Vint Cerf, one of the ‘fathers of the internet’ has said, but when I read his much publicised Op Ed piece in the New York Times, I did.

First of all, and perhaps most importantly, I didn’t like the headline, which stated baldly and boldly that ‘Internet Access is not a Human Right’. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with that statement, the piece said a great deal more than that – indeed, the main thrust of the argument was about the importance of the internet, and of internet access, to human rights. Many people will have just read the headline – or even read the many tweets which stated just that headline and a link – and drawn conclusions very different to those which Cerf might like. The headline, of course, may well have been the choice of the editorial team and the New York Times, rather than Cerf himself, but either he was OK with it or he allowed himself to be led in a particular direction.

Secondly, I think the point that he makes leading to this headline, and to his conclusions, reflects a particularly US perspective on ‘human rights’ – a minimalist approach which emphasises civil and political rights and downplays (or even denies) economic and social rights amongst others. Most of the rest of the world takes a broader view of human rights: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was introduced in 1966, and has been ratified by the vast majority of the members of the UN – but not by the US. The covenant includes such rights as the right to work, the right to social security, rights to family life, right to health, to education and so forth – and it isn’t too much of a stretch to see that right to internet access might fit within this spectrum.

That Cerf doesn’t see it this way is not surprising given that he is American – but I think his argument is weaker than that. In the piece, Cerf’s gives the example of a man not having a right to a horse. He talks about how a horse was at one time crucial to ‘make a living’, and that means that the ‘human right’ isn’t a right to have a horse, but a right to ‘make a living’. However, even that’s based on assumptions to do with our time and system. Do you ‘need’ to ‘make a living’ if your society isn’t based on capitalism? Non-capitalist societies have existed in the past – and indeed exist on small scales in various places around the world today. Can we really assume that they will never exist in the future? It is a bold assumption to make – but not, I think, one that needs to be made.

We need to be very careful about the assumptions we make about any human right – and that, in practice, many of what we consider to be human rights are instrumental, qualified, or contextual rather than absolute, pure and simple. Another example from the legal field: do we have a ‘right to a free trial’ – or a right to justice? Trial by jury may be the best way we know now of assuring justice, but might there not be other ways?

What does this mean? Well, primarily, to me, it means we need to be less ‘purist’ about the terms we use, and more pragmatic – and to understand that we live in a particular time, where particular things matter. Moreover, that the language that is currently used in most parts of the world is one in which the term ‘human right’ has power – and we should not be afraid to use that power. Right now, to flourish in a ‘free’, developed society, internet access is crucial. Perhaps even more to the point, internet access has shown itself to have a potential for liberation even in places less ‘free’ and less ‘developed. I’m not a cyber-utopian – and I fully acknowledge the strengths of the arguments of Morozov about the potential of the internet for control as much as for liberation – but for me that actually makes it even more important that we look at the internet from a rights perspective: if we have a right to internet access then it’s much easier to argue that we have rights (such as privacy rights) while we use the internet, and those rights are critical for supporting the more liberating aspects of the internet.

That’s another thing that disappoints me about Cerf’s Op Ed piece. He doesn’t mention privacy, he doesn’t mention freedom from censorship, he doesn’t mention freedom from surveillance – I wish he would, because next after access these are the crucial enablers to human rights, to use his terms. I’d put it in stronger terms myself. I’d say we have rights to privacy online, rights to freedom from censorship, and rights to freedom from surveillance. If you don’t want to call them human rights, that’s fine by me – but right now, right here, in the world that we live in, we need these rights. The fact that we need them means that we should claim them, and that governments, businesses and yes, engineers, should be doing what they can to ensure that we get them.

Finally, going back to the headline itself I think Cerf and other seminal figures in the history and development of the internet, have got to be careful about not letting themselves be used by those who’d like to restrict internet access and freedom: there are others with very dubious agendas who would like to push the ‘internet access not a human right’ point. When one of the fathers of the internet writes that internet access is not a human right, regardless of the details below, there is a significant chance that it will be latched onto by those who would like to restrict our freedoms, whether to enforce copyright, to ‘fight’ terrorism or online crime, or for other purposes. That is something that we should be careful to avoid.

ADDENDUM (15/1/2012)

There have been a number of other interesting blogs/responses on the subject. Here are links to a few of them:

Adam Wagner’s UK Human Rights Blog
Frank Pasquale on madisonian.net
Amnesty International’s Scott Edwards blog post on HUMAN RIGHTS NOW
Sherif Elsayed-Ali in Egypt Independent

All well worth a read!

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.