Last year I penned a few tech predictions on Hogmanay. They all came true by late May, even the darker ones. It’s in that dubious vein of success that I share my thoughts on what might lie ahead for UK internet regulation in 2022.
Policy by whataboutery
The first prediction is a thumpingly obvious one. Throughout the year, we will continue to see quite daft ideas for internet regulation being enthusiastically embraced, on the grounds that any old mince of a plan is worth endorsing if it sticks two fingers up to Big Tech.
As always, policy by whataboutery will be the way that ideas which aren’t technically feasible, violate international standards of human rights, or are just plain laughable will be allowed to pass as viable policy proposals, feted on the front pages of the broadsheets. Allowing safety tech lobbyists to gut the Computer Misuse Act in the interests of their surveillance technology? Yeah, but Facebook! Mandatory ID registration required for internet use – no ID, no internet use? Yeah, but Instagram! Up to 26 mandatory online safety compliance processes required for open source projects? Yeah, but OnlyFans! And so on, and so forth.
And as always, policy by yeah but will also take the form of accusing anyone who retorts those daft ideas as being apologists/enablers/shills in the pockets of Big Tech.
That’s not to say – and it never is – that Big Tech are the innocent parties or the good guys. What it is to say that it’s hard for anyone – politicians, civil society, or the tech companies themselves – to work together to find the right solutions when you’re dealing with the policy equivalent of a jealous alcoholic sneering “yeah, but you” in your face every time you point out that he’s got shit leaking out of his trouser leg.
The real work, as always, will continue quietly in the background.
At last, a regulatory race to the top
UK tech policy is a cloud cuckoo land where you have a very good regulator – the Competitions and Markets Authority – doing stellar work on content regulation and online safety, despite it not technically being their remit. You also have one mediocre and one unprepared regulator – the ICO and Ofcom – who are actually tasked with platform regulation and online safety as their remit. Throw in the Online Safety Bill’s implications for journalism and press regulation, and we have four regulators all working on the same issues in different silos which aren’t always theirs to occupy.
(I love Ellen Judson’s depiction of the ensuing UK internet regulatory framework as a Jenga tower, where everyone is counting on someone else, in another regulator, to supply their foundation.)
So I’m strangely heartened to see a very good regulator triggering a race to the top, in the context of a pending law which has the potential to be a race to the bottom. Look for the CMA to continue leading on issues such as interoperability, adtech, and media diversity, while the other regulators create a lot of jobs which will involve covering walls with post-it-notes.
I have another prediction, inspired by the CMA’s success, about these regulators. All of these bodies are on a hiring spree right now, looking to get the right people in to handle internet regulation. It’s no secret that not all of these regulators operate under the healthy distance from government which independent regulators are supposed to have. That fact has not been helped by various Ministers for Digital (who tend to have the lifespan of Spinal Tap drummers, or hamsters) openly stating their intentions to use the online safety framework to censor content in their political interests.
So at some point this year, these regulators – and who knows, maybe even the Minister for Digital /s – will finally suss that you can’t get the right people in for internet regulation jobs if they perceive that they’re being hired to act as government mouthpieces, or as cudgels to troll the libs. The penny will finally drop that the hiring problem isn’t about salaries or remote working – the problem is at the top.
In other words, to get the online strategy it’s grasping for, government is going to have to let it go.
This is the BBC in London. Please stand by for an important announcement.
There’s only one reason you would ever hear that phrase.
I don’t like writing about this, at all. But as uncomfortable as it feels, we are all going to have to engage in that conversation, very soon, about the 95-year-old woman with the broken heart who is quite visibly wasting away.
Prince Philip’s passing in April gave companies across the UK a beta test run for handling the death of a senior royal for the first time since 2002. Online service providers weren’t exempt from getting into the act; even my train timetabling app deployed a black-and-white colour scheme and a memorial splash screen. For his part, you know that the DoE would have loved being the subject of a grand nationwide technical experiment. But Philip was Philip. The Queen is another matter.
We’ve never experienced what happens when a royal death, with the global emotional impact of August 1997, meets the social media era. We also haven’t had a royal death take place in the context of a national pivot towards nostalgia, imperial revival, and Blitz fanaticism. Very soon, we will.
When that sad day comes, the UK will more or less shut down for a ten days of national mourning. We’ll all be at home, not at work, at a very loose end, with not much to do but scroll on our phones. And as with 1997, the national tone and mood will be dictated by Conservative/right-leaning tabloids. What could possibly go wrong.
So I worry – I really do worry – about what will transpire, in the major release after the beta test, for freedom of expression and content moderation. The affectionate nod offered to Prince Philip will give way to the worst of what post-Brexit Britain has to offer. It might well look like this:
- Politicians will put pressure on platforms to limit speech, and its reach, which speaks of the Queen and the monarchy with anything other than the most breathless grief and deference.
- The Minister for Digital may introduce a negative statutory instrument to impose a temporary lèse majesté law, for legal-but-harmful content about the monarchy, which somehow becomes a permanent Ofcom Code of Practice under the Online Safety Bill.
- Repurposed hard-right troll armies will coordinate pile-ons, takedown requests, and doxxes against anyone – be it a journalist or a social media poster – who takes a different tone or fails to exhibit a Daily Express-approved standard of patriotic grief.
It will be one of the ugliest months the internet has ever known. But it will be one that will demonstrate what those of us working on the Online Safety Bill have known for years: the ugliest trolls who pose the greatest threat to the open internet aren’t paid provocateurs in call centres in hostile countries. They have titles, suffixes, second and third homes, and good PRs.
And just when we’ve recovered from all of that, we’ll have to go through it all again, a few months later, for the coronation of King Charles III.
An update to this post, added 30 December, inspired by a Twitter comment (my followers rock).
As we brace for the impact of the Queen’s passing on our public discourse, it’s also worth reflecting on what it will mean for government’s online communications. Politico reports that
“in a sign of the times, many of the immediate plans relate to social media….[t]he U.K. government website — GOV.UK — will display a black banner at the top. All government departmental social media pages will also show a black banner and change their profile pictures to their departmental crest. Non-urgent content must not be published. Retweets are explicitly banned unless cleared by the central government head of communications.”
In other words, the period of official mourning will be used as leverage for government to go virtually silent for ten days, under a black banner. I’ll call this time the Blackout, because that’s what it will be, in every sense.
We have no idea what this is going to feel like, because the last time this happened was 1952, when society was hierarchical, information came from one source, authority was never questioned, transparency in government wasn’t a concept, and you could generally trust the state to not want to kill you.
But this isn’t 1952. This is 2022, when none of those things are true anymore. And this is 2022, in the midst of the pandemic, economic and social chaos, and leadership a la Boris. We need a Blackout on government intrigues and transparency like we need a hole in the head. But it’s coming.
So when it happens, there will be a need for citizens, civil society, and the media to be hypervigilant, both online and off, about what’s happening behind the Blackout. Decisions might get pushed through, agreements might be signed, scrutiny might fall by the wayside, backs might be scratched, due diligence might be skipped, and transgressions might be forgiven without due process, all under the cloak of official mourning. Raising the alarm about these things during the period of official mourning will be attacked as unpatriotic, why, an insult to the late Queen.
I think you’ll find that patriotism means the exact opposite.
So set up your automatic alerts, load up your RSS feeds, subscribe to newsletters, and more importantly, learn how the machine works. Learn how the gears turn, and learn who turns them. When the Blackout comes, we’re going to need a lot of torches.
And now, the joke predictions
(Keeping in mind that when I joke about something it tends to actually happen, leaving me shaking my head at some eejit who wasn’t supposed to take me seriously.)
- The Minister for Digital will tweet before she thinks, and will trigger a pile-on against a fundamentally good person which finally goes too far, resulting in them having to leave their home and seek physical safety. In response, the Minister for Digital will make it all about herself and will resign, saying she can’t take the ensuing abuse directed against her. She will return to her cultural calling of writing nostalgia porn novels for women in care homes. The new Minister for Digital will be an actual hamster.
- The Online Safety Bill will be delayed for months after a celebrity Tory donor demands that the Bill cover the misuse of their image in NFTs, while a pressure group will also demand that the Bill cover the money they lost in an NFT scam. They truly believed, in their heart of hearts, that they had purchased the original Macarena Macaroni from 1996.
- Two MPs from opposing parties – I’m not naming names, but give me a beer and I will – will overcook their “unregulated Wild West internet” rhetoric, resulting in a public spat over who’s going to be the Sheriff and wear the shiny star. (“I’m the sheriff of this here town!” “No, I’M the sheriff of this here town!”) Pippa Crerar will scoop a drunken dick fight in a bar in St James.
- Tech companies, civil society organisations, and even privacy shamers will finally start to chill out, get over their insecure credentialism, and start to hire people who have actual lived experience in over 25 years of building, making, and evolving the open internet, regardless of the lack of a Ph.D (gasp), law degree (shock), or roster of peer-reviewed papers that like seven people read. Gatekeeping gives way to empathy. Qualifications give way to quality.
..I mean, an unemployed woman with over 25 years of lived experience can live in hope, right?
Happy new year.