The UK Government Digital Strategy is out, and it’s rubbish

On 28 February the UK Government published its Government Digital Strategy.

(A mea culpa first. I had confused the Government Transformation Strategy, the internal blueprint for Whitehall digital, with the external strategy. I suspect I was not the only one, given how obstructive the government has been in the fifteen months it fluffed excuses.)

That being said, I can tell you that the Government Digital Strategy – the document focusing on the external big picture rather than the internal nuts and bolts – was absolutely not worth the wait.

In fact, it’s one of the more desperate strategies I’ve seen. And I spent two years writing about VATMOSS.

The Government Digital Strategy, contrary to the sycophantic cheerleading that greeted its release, is not the industrial blueprint for a proud, forward-thinking digital Britain. This is a vague and hesitant pastiche of halfhearted triumphalism, rehashed information, and digital solutionism.

The Strategy has seven sections. Feel free to read. Or not.

  1. Connectivity – building world-class digital infrastructure for the UK
  2. Skills and inclusion – giving everyone access to the digital skills they need
  3. The digital sectors – making the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business
  4. The wider economy – helping every British business become a digital business
  5. Cyberspace – making the UK the safest place in the world to live and work online
  6. Digital government – maintaining the UK government as a world leader in serving its citizens online
  7. The data economy – unlocking the power of data in the UK economy and improving public confidence in its use

I am not going to review all seven sections, rather, I have picked out a few areas of relevance to our industry or of odd interest.

Other caustic coverage is also available at Ars Technica, Computer Weekly, and TechCrunch.

Brexit? Never heard of it.

The digital strategy’s party trick, if you could call it that, is to minimise the discussion about the impact of Brexit on the digital industries as much as is possible. Brexit becomes an afterthought, a mention in passing brushed off to other matters.

Brexit is the biggest tidal wave ever to hit our craft. Ever.

Yet rather than facing its implications for the digital industry with courage and stamina, this strategy avoids the topic altogether and instead bangs on about message and supporting innovation.

For example, in the section about Making the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business, the government says:

Both here in the UK and overseas, we strongly promote the message that the UK is not only the best place to internationalise, but that we have the clusters that make us the best place in the world to find innovative technology solutions, products and services.

That would be the UK which is hellbent on ending freedom of movement, withdrawing from the Digital Single Market system, treating tech talent as bargaining chips, and surveilling all data in a way that even left Edward Snowden gobsmacked.

That is not a place any digital business in their right mind would want to internationalise.

What we should have received was: “here’s Brexit, here’s what’s going to happen, and here’s what we’re going to do about it.” Instead, we have received right-wing meritocracy at its most banal. The Digital Britain envisioned here is about throwing the industry into a regulatory blender and expecting the cleverest businesses to climb out of it by their plucky entrepreneurial sensibilities.

I am reminded that as Captain Smith went down with the Titanic, his reported last words were: “Be British.”

Social engineering

The overall vibe you will get from this strategy is that it is not a strategy. It is vintage May government. It’s wooly, it repeats information we already know, and it ducks and dodges the questions it is meant to deal with.

Headings like “Digital Skills for a Digital Economy” (is that like a local shop for local people?), “Encouraging Digital Innovation for Social Good”, and “Every Business a Digital Business” read as aspirational social engineering, not actual…strategies.

And why would it? If you release a SMART strategy, someone has to do the work, someone has to take responsibility, and someone has to be willing to stand up and speak for the results. Who in Whitehall is going to raise their hand to do that?

GDPR

This strategy makes it clear that the UK will be going into GDPR regardless of Brexit.

The thing is, we knew that already. The question of what, if anything, comes after GDPR continues to be hinted at:

As part of our plans for the UK’s exit from the EU, we will be seeking to ensure that data flows remain uninterrupted, and will be considering all the available options that will provide legal certainty for businesses and individuals alike.

I did have to laugh at the Strategy’s claim that

we will review the data protection offences, and introduce stronger sanctions for deliberate and negligent re-identification of anonymised data. It is essential that the regulator has effective powers and that sanctions are a deterrent to the misuse of data.

They are getting this anyway under GDPR. The government sparing no expense to leave the EU is still happy to claim credit for EU decisions.

There is also a strange side plot unfolding here.

The strategy notes “the government will continue to support the work of the Information Commissioner’s Office.”

Uh, what? Why would they feel a need to make this statement?

To publicly reassert support for a privacy watchdog is to imply that support was somehow under consideration. Might this be an early indicator as to the May government’s post-GDPR approach to data protection?

Big data…collection

This is what made my stomach drop.

There is a lot in this strategy rehashing the government’s favourite hobby horses of identity verification, such as the Gov.UK verify programme (“establishing that the user is who they say they are and not someone pretending to be them”), and child safety, ensuring that “children and young people are protected from inappropriate or harmful material such as extremist or age-inappropriate content.”

These policy aims are the trade-off between privacy and safety in action. To verify identity you must collect more data about individuals. You must introduce more processes, more documents, more uploads, and build more data collection systems.

The legislative basis given for this in the Strategy is, of course, the Digital Economy Bill, which is the most awful regulatory clusterfuck I have ever seen, and one which is nowhere near being finalised. The Strategy proclaims these lofty ambitions as if the Bill has already passed into law. The implication, as has been blatantly stated so far, is that if you’re against the Bill, you’re therefore pro-child abuse and you probably want people to get cancer too. It’s not just legislative trickery; it’s smarmy manipulation of the worst kind.

Back to ihre papierien bitte. These plans now sweep in everyone. In the interest of making the web “safer”, it will no longer be ‘prove who you are because we think you’re doing something wrong’. It’s going to be ‘prove who you are to receive a benefit’, or even ‘prove who you are to look at the menu of a restaurant that serves beer’.

So what happens when the populist moral panic which sees everyone as a potential fraudster or nonce meets a secretive, xenophobic government working hand in hand – literally – with an openly racist and authoritarian regime?

You figure it out.

The Government Digital Strategy is the respectable face of the surveillance state, and one that proudly proclaims that these data collection identification processes – and, by implication, the data – “can be reused in the wider public and private sectors.”

Nerd for Britain

There is quite a bit of depressing digital solutionism in this strategy. For example:

In order to support digital innovation that helps people better manage their money, we will launch a competition to encourage the development of digital approaches to support financial inclusion. This will be run by Tech City UK, as part of its wider role on FinTech, with external support from both charitable and financial service providers.

I am as financially excluded as it is possible to be *eats cut-price out-of-date food* so let me tell you how it works. Financial exclusion is a response to things like poverty, bank closures, and a lack of income caused by working in the gig economy. Financial exclusion is what happens when people who have no money to “better manage” to begin with see no reason to aspire to joining a market they can’t afford. So what’s the solution to that?

Naturally, it’s throwing money on a spec work hackathon.

Take that, China:

In the midst of what is supposed to be an economic strategy, the government threw in this unexpected chunk of geopolitics:

We will continue to work closely with international partners to ensure the continuation of a free, open and secure internet that supports our economic prosperity and social well-being. The UK and our allies have been successful in building a broad consensus that the multi-stakeholder approach is the best way to manage the complexities of internet governance. However, there remain those who promote an alternative vision of an internet that is controlled by governments and where national borders are recreated in cyberspace. We reject such an approach and will continue to play an active role in the United Nations and other international organisations to strengthen the multi-stakeholder model and ensure that the internet remains open for technical innovation and for economic and social development around the world.

Why is that here, in this document? Was this the designated Home Office contribution? Was someone short a word count?

One last stab in the back for digital

So what’s the bottom line? It isn’t there.

There was something that should have been in the strategy document but was nowhere to be found. That omission is the most damning indictment of the effort.

I know am a broken record about this issue but it is absolutely fundamental to the stability of our industry.

Back in January the Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Committee reiterated its demand for clarity on the future of specific digital regulations after Brexit:

[Parliamentary question] 4.The Government must also explain how the Digital Strategy will be affected by the referendum result. It should also set out in its reply and in the Digital Strategy a list of specific, current EU negotiations relating to the digital economy.

[Government response] The decision taken by the British people to leave the European Union will clearly change our relationship with the EU, but it will not stop our progress toward a more digital economy. The decisions around priorities for the renegotiation will be taken by the Prime Minister in due course…

We are engaging with the digital sector to understand their perspectives in following the referendum result, and are committed to ensuring that the UK retains its reputation as one of the best places in the world to start, scale up and invest in a digital business.

We are currently involved in the following EU negotiations related to the digital economy:

  • Reforming the European Copyright Law package
  • Electronic Communications Framework Review
  • Services Package, as part of the Single Market Strategy, including the Services notification procedure
  • General approach on geoblocking
  • General approach on Consumer protection Co-operation
  • Digital Single Market VAT (e)-package (VAT on e-commerce, e-publications, e-books)
  • Free flow of data initiative
  • Legislative Proposal on Services Passport

That list, in that answer to a Parliamentary question, in a January response to a question asked last July, is the only place you will see these policies mentioned.

Anywhere.

They are not discussed in the Government Transformation Strategy.

They are not discussed in the Government Digital Strategy.

There is no information about who is conducting these negotiations.

There is no information about how these negotiations are being conducted.

There is no information about where these negotiations are being conducted.

There is no information about what discussions have been held so far.

There is no information about how to consult on these negotiations.

There is no discussion.

There is no transparency.

There is no accountability.

The existence of the negotiations, and indeed, the very list of which laws are being negotiated, had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of government, by Parliament, after seven months of demanding.

So after all of that, that fifteen months of waiting and dozens of excuses, all we know about the future of our industry is this:

the fundamental policies which shape the digital industry in Britain are being discussed without us because this government is of the opinion that those policies are none of the digital industry’s business.

How dare they say this strategy is about making the UK “the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business.”

How dare they.

About the author

Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.