Britain’s Coalition government has been desperate to be seen as on the cutting edge of technology since the beginning of its term. It is bizarre, then, that it pressured some of the country’s biggest internet providers to censor the internet by default. Each glaring PR disaster shines a spotlight on a recurring theme among the largest political parties. They just don’t show much willingness to get tech.
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Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to coerce Britain’s biggest internet providers into censoring ‘adult’ content by default was always under the pretense of a moral crusade – but it did not appear to be his own. Tabloids screamed victory. Conversely, critics from the technology community argued that the idea did not make any sense at all. As well as setting a nasty precedent, the benefits, if there are any, were never clear except from an extremely subjective moral standpoint.
Back in 2010 the Coalition government launched an initiative to turn east London into a ‘Tech City’. Boris Johnson, London mayor and Conservative court jester, bumbled through a speech promising plenty of 3G and 4G for the capital, although at the time he did not appear to grasp what that actually meant.
By no means is technological shortsightedness limited to the actions of this cabinet. The previous Labour government’s Digital Economy Act was widely decried but it was rushed through Parliament. During that time and since, there has been no shortage of lofty IT overhauls, yet again and again they face highly public criticism, are delayed, or simply do not work. Iain Duncan Smith’s universal credit is the latest disastrous example but here is a handy ‘cut out and keep’ chart of incompetencies compiled by ComputerWeekly. These blunders and how they are handled are intrinsically linked to digital rights and internet policy.
Despite its best efforts to appear modern and tech-savvy, Parliament seems to view “technology” as a monolith. The internet is mistakenly thought of as something to be used rather than the necessary day-to-day utility that it is. According to David Chan, director of the information leadership network at London’s Cass Business School, politicians and IT decision makers in the public sector try to push through decisions without actually spelling out to the public what those decisions mean. ”Take for example the working of Universal Credit,” Chan says. “Why the hell does it have to be one big centralized system, operated by the Department for Work and Pensions? Wouldn’t it be better to be delivered through the local authority? No one is asking those questions.” Chan believes there is a certain extent of what he calls “control freakery” at play.
There are few disadvantages for the career civil servant who is put in charge of such a project. Her job is safeguarded for the next two or three years, and if something spectacularly goes wrong, someone below further down in the pecking order tends to get the blame. Meanwhile, running a prestige project, regardless of results, can open the doors to promotion.
Chan suggests technological direction is often laid out in a glossy veneer by politicians as and when it suits them. They are chiefly, Chan says, about appearing to be taking action rather than a pragmatic results-based approach. At worst, government IT can take the form of political maneuvering, point scoring and vote grabbing. In reality these projects often serve as a means to handing public money over to the familiar faces of the big IT cartel – the same companies, such as Capita and its ilk, that tend to get the contracts over and over again.
“The big spenders are still under control and only work with the big systems integrators,” Chan says. “The small guys can’t get a foothold in big government contracts, and while we still think of multimillion pound contracts and big gesture politics, rather than things that can work in a small way, this will always happen.”
Speaking on digital rights, Loz Kaye, leader of the Pirate Party UK, tells Forbes that it would be political suicide to actually legislate for something as unpopular as Cameron’s web filter. But this filter itself is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a deep misunderstanding or mistrust of technology.
“It seems like the government has taken the view they have the right to pry into every part of our lives whereas we’re not allowed to inform ourselves in the way the internet allows,” Kaye says. “Clearly, the government knew that any move towards legislation in this area would be hugely controversial, not just because there will be questions in terms of competition law and the EU, but because it would be massively unpopular among consumers themselves.
“The government has been resisting press regulation, as much as the Leveson report came up with, so it would be seen as hugely inconsistent. They think they’ve got away with it, but the outcry has been massive.”
“It is absolutely an agreement that’s been taken by the major ISPs after considerable government and press pressure. It’s voluntary and it doesn’t involve all ISPs. Some have said they won’t take part, and from a business sense there may be benefits because of that.”
From one SNAFU to the next, the brands of the major internet providers have been tarnished – probably not irreparably, but enough for them to view government-led censorship with a certain amount of scorn. Simply put, in the eyes of the public, some providers have begun a transformation from “communications companies into non-communications companies,” as Kaye puts it.
“That’s going to be hugely detrimental to their place in the market, surely, and I think that perhaps that penny is beginning to drop for them,” he says. “The calculation has been that they can be more scared of the Daily Mail than their customer base. They may have calculated wrong.”
Another problem is a certain unwillingness by successive governments to thoroughly engage with people who understand IT in politics.
Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, working within the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport has, is responsible for broadband, spectrum and telecoms, culture, heritage and the built environment, internet and creative industries, libraries and media. Each of these could easily fill any given working day.
“It’s a very troubled and underfunded ministry,” Kaye says. “And frankly, my view is that Ed Vaizey is not up to the job.”
With the internet-related industry expected to contribute as much as 12 percent to British GDP by 2016, perhaps it is not good enough to straddle the fence between vote winning and reaction in an area so vital to the economy. Less appropriate, surely, is bowing to the frenzied screeching of the tabloids – a shameful display of no backbone to both voters and industry .
“The government’s happy when it suits them to do frankly embarrassing, Thick of It style promotions saying how much they love broadband,” Kaye says. “But they can’t pick and choose. They have to really engage with the tech community, in a broader sense, or it simply isn’t going to work and we’re going to be left behind.”
David Chan, meanwhile, believes the long standing pattern of ballooning government IT and lack of transparency shows Parliament’s tendency not to “trust the people, fundamentally.”
“They will pay lip service to democracy but the reality is it’s all about control,” Chan says. “Why do governments not want transparency? Accountability. It removes their freedom for action. They want to take decisions without having a reasonable public debate. My sense is when governments try to invest in digital and IT projects, they should confer with people outside their small select group.
“Government’s use of technology is they try to constrain and control, they see it as a machine rather than an organism. You look after a forest, you make sure the ecology works. Farming is about taming the ecology, making the thing sustainable, producing the goods. But they see technology very much as a machine, that it has to be controlled.
“What I think you’re getting is a phenomena called groupthink: you have people advising you who are all like-minded, and who will not voice dissent.”