In response to this week’s fun and games in British digital regulation, one of my Twitter followers – a wordsmith by trade – made a very astute observation:
Important blog from Heather re updates to the Online Safety Bill.
Short version: the Tories, deranged, want to create a UK silo of the internet – taking back control; deserted by major service providers; channelling public money to their chums.
It's internet Brexit. https://t.co/ePyLTjrsGr
— Tim Gray (@messagewords) March 18, 2022
He’s not wrong. What we are up against now is, indeed, an attempt by the sitting UK government to Brexit the Internet.
In fact, we’re now at least six months into a deliberate strategy – trial-ballooned in the past, but escalated at pace after the murder of Sir David Amess – which seeks to copy the same tactics, the same top lines, and the same narratives used to justify the UK’s exit from the European Union, and to paste them, wholesale, into internet regulation.
You are not crazy, nor am I: this is actually happening. Bear with me, because this makes a hell of a lot of sense once you put it into perspective.
The first aspect of the UK strategy to Brexit the Internet, as we saw happening around this week’s release of draft 2 of the Online Safety Bill, is to apply chest-beating, flag-shagging nationalism to a system which was specifically designed to be universal and international. The concept of being a European citizen, in the past; the open internet, today. It’s a xenophobic and reactionary mindset which says: well, you’ve had thirty years of living in a modern, interactive, borderless, cross-national environment, and that’ll be quite enough of that, young man. It is Mayism at its parochial worst.
The second aspect of the UK strategy to Brexit the Internet is a linguistic narrative of petulant, infantile victimhood at the hands of an other. The them. The evil external bogeyman responsible for all the ills of the world. That other used to be the EU. It’s now SiliconValleyWokeryNickCleggBigTech. That current narrative, now, is as false as the old one was then: the othering is the point.
In fact, one of the questions I asked myself during the Brexit years was: once this is all done, who will this government line up as their next other? Who will they turn on as their internal bogeyman on this sceptred isle + a bit? The answer is tech, which means, it’s you. You are now the them. Hell, there’s even a well-funded PR machine dedicated to producing the “victims” to further that narrative.
And the third aspect of the UK’s strategy to Brexit the Internet is to turn good people against each other. Brexit did a very good job, through a deliberate divide-and-conquer strategy, of splitting the nation apart. (Use London 2012 as your touchstone for who we used to be and how we used to feel about ourselves. I certainly do.)
Brexiting the Internet takes those strategic lessons learnt and monetises them for corporate profit. As a worker in tech, you will shortly be tasked with playing your part in creating a privatised surveillance state, in a nation which is mandating identity verification checks (for the children) and eliminating intermediary liability provisions (for the children). Going forward, your work on the open internet will involve checking and verifying people’s identities, profiling their actions and interactions, and proactively monitoring and filtering their content and conduct, well before you can build the things you actually went into tech to do. This will be a world where (for the children), everyone is presumed to be guilty before they are proven innocent.
Because if you’re constantly at risk of being personally arrested for failing to police your (presumed deviant criminal) users, you don’t have time to look at who’s really responsible for the problems we live with every day.
As the Online Safety Bill moves towards its second reading and the debates about it become more mainstream, I want you to pay close attention to the narratives, the tactics, and the strategies which government is using – or more to the point, recycling – from Brexit to the open internet.
Because if you think it’s preposterous that the UK, in the hands of the Conservatives, could cut itself off from international institutions, standards, and frameworks, build a virtual wall around itself, destroy personal and commercial relationships, and divide and conquer its own population against each other:
it already has, and it succeeded.