Why Labour just lost the tech sector’s vote

UK policy
Dead summer roses, my front garden

Building the web in the UK makes you a useful political football.

You get used to walking through your work on the receiving ends of barbs, accusations, and exclusive op-eds from politicians and policymakers who despise tech, the internet, and all who sail in her, and are damn well determined to do something about it.

And they do.

On conference stages, Zoom calls, and on Twitter, I’ve explained to my audiences so many times how politicians think the internet is five or six companies, and want to regulate it as such. The one-woman business which I was for so many years, the open source project with the best volunteer community in the world, the cool little studio that punches well above its weight, the digital agency which becomes a killer acquisition, the hold-my-beer startup idea which somehow worked – this internet isn’t on their radar, and it’s well out of their comprehension.

As far as politicians – and the think tanks which advise them – are concerned, we’re all Big Tech, we’re all in bed with Big Tech, and we’re all complicit in the evils of Big Tech.

At times, this gets very personal. And unforgettable.


Back in early 2017, I watched in horror as Amber Rudd, a Tatler columnist, made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows and broadsheets on the back of an ill-advised report written by a think tank which seeks to constrain internet freedom. This round, which all Home Secretaries periodically engage in, involved a lot of scowling about the internet and terrorism and complicity in it, and also more scowling, plus some scowling.

To make her point, she dragged a personal friend of mine into her media round, without his knowledge or will or, for that matter, any comprehension that she, as the highest law enforcement officer in the country at the time, was aiming at the wrong target.

Mike, you see, forked a bit of open source code, in 2003. That fork grew and forked a bit more and grew a bit more and now it’s an open source content management system powering something like 40% of the world’s web sites.

Mike is one of the kindest people you’ve ever met. He’s a pioneer in being Black in tech. He’s very huggable and I highly recommend you experience this.

Mike also got accused of being openly complicit in, and financially profiting, from terrorism, because someone somewhere used the CMS which grew out of the patch of code he forked in 2003 to discuss terrorist acts.

Front page of the Telegraph, March 2016, describing "Apps That Let Terrorists Plot In Secret"

That, for me, was a galvanising moment. I don’t like seeing my friends hurt. Nobody does. Seeing my friend being publicly and falsely accused of complicity in terrorism because it served a politician’s ambitions?

You couldn’t have done anything more to radicalise me than she did that morning.

In doing so, the Home Secretary established the playbook which all parties have since followed: When you’re aiming for the big tech boys in other countries, it’s OK to take down homegrown British talent as collateral damage. Even when they’re completely innocent.

It’s a playbook which has since been followed, for example, by Sajid Javid, who has called for the use of end-to-end encryption – for any reason – to be criminalised under the Online Safety Bill, and for those criminal sanctions to apply retroactively.

That means that if you, an Average British Developer, are deploying end-to-end encryption – for any reason – now, he wants to circle back and arrest you for it later on.

Joy.

And it’s a playbook which has now been followed by the Labour Party, who are ecstatic that their wild west sheriff fantasy about arresting and jailing Facebook’s Nick Clegg, as revenge for his siding with the Tories during the Coalition government, has been brought forward as government policy for the Online Safety Bill.

They call it senior management and director liability, but make no mistake, that’s their goal for it.

And the fact that they’re going to build a legal framework to take down homegrown British talent as collateral damage, on the way to getting that revenge, is something they will make no apology for.


I’ve explained why imposing senior management liability onto sites, services, and apps is the stupidest idea in a Bill full of stupid ideas, many, many times. I’ve explained it in terms of the chilling effect it will have on freedom of expression, the disincentive it will create for tech talent to work on online harms, and the inspiration it will provide to authoritarian regimes, many, many times.

(If you haven’t read that piece what I wrote, please do, or I’ll have to use subjectively harmful language on you.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve also tried to discuss these points with Labour MPs. They don’t want to hear it. They’re not interested. Only witchhunts and arrests and show trials will satisfy them.

The Conservatives, as of yesterday’s PMQs, are increasingly on board with that.

So if you work in the tech and digital sectors, you need to reflect on that, and  make contingency plans for how you’re going to respond when it’s you they come for on the way to getting them.

The fact that you don’t actually work for big tech and you aren’t actually evil will not protect you. Look what happened to Mike.

So as the debate progresses over the next few months, I can’t be any more clear on this. Politicians of all parties need to understand this, and if you work in tech and digital, so do you:

When you’re talking about mandating director liability and senior management arrests, you are not going to round up and arrest your targets.
You are not going to round up and arrest American celebrities.
You are not going to round up and arrest billionaires.
You are not going to round up and arrest your former political enemies.

You are going to round up and arrest your constituents.
You are going to round up and arrest workers in your constituency.
You are going to round up and arrest investors into your constituency.
You are going to round up and arrest people who are currently students and children in your constituency.

These truths should be reflected on by Labour, formerly the party of workers, whose table-thumping about jailing Nick Clegg company leadership has caused them to lose the vote of every worker in tech and digital, as well as every student aspiring to become one. Senior management liability is a deal-breaker. It should be. For those workers, and for you, this is a matter of your personal preservation and safety. Don’t vote Labour. You can’t.

Labour joins the Conservatives, who already lost the tech and digital vote by forcibly withdrawing you from a market of half a billion, in the interests of pivoting your work to building a surveillance state over 70 million, and are now compelling you to act as privatised law enforcement and social safety net over a society that they have deliberately broken. Don’t vote Conservative. You can’t.

There’s obviously a gap here for a political party who will seek to represent the tech and digital sectors, rather than aiming all their resources at arresting the British workers in them if they don’t constrain public discourse to authoritarian specifications.

It might also be time for that party to show up.

Header image: dead summer roses, my front garden. I’m like a low rent Anton Corbijn

The Author

I advocate for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. I'm currently searching for my next tech policy role, and you should probably sort that.

2 Comments

  1. Phil says

    The authoritarians are in the ascendency right now sadly.

  2. Éibhear says

    > There’s obviously a gap here for a political party who will seek to represent the tech and digital sectors, rather than aiming all their resources at arresting the British workers in them if they don’t constrain public discourse to authoritarian specifications.

    Ironically, as I was reading this, the words “Liberal Democrats” slowly impinged themselves onto my mind.

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