On the world-leading failure of the Conservative vision for internet regulation


Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
UK policy
Monty Python. Black Knight. You know the rest

I‘ve had two moments in my policy work, in recent months, where I’ve experienced that phenomenon that probably has a German word. It’s the one where you find yourself, just for a few seconds, perfectly sober but tripping: hold on, am I awake or dreaming? what year is this? have I gone back in time? is this real?

The first was being in the exact same room, in Parliament, to discuss the exact same policy issue, which was no further forward, for the third time, in four years. i swear I’ve done this before. oh wait. i actually have. did that pandemic thing actually happen or was that Station Eleven?

The second was seeing myself back in Politico, again, this morning, discussing the exact same permutations of UK digital policy that I have been talking about, including to Politico, since a certain sweaty summer morning in 2016. oh my god. i’m still talking about this. i just looked at the calendar. it says it’s 2024. Dude.

But enough of my niche drivel.

While the very safe-for-work article presents itself as being about adult content and online pornography, because ooh err missus clicks, it’s actually a wider view from much higher up. Really, it’s about the influence that age and identity verification lobbyists have had on digital policy since that summer morning. None of those thoughts, or facts, are new. They’re just in one place, in a current policy context.

After I spoke with the journalist last month, I reflected a bit on the journey we’ve all been on since the referendum. Indeed, as fourteen years of Conservativism squirms towards its gruesome end, and attention begins turning to the scope of Labour policies as opposed to the psychodramas of Tory culture wars, we can, I think, begin to step back and reflect on the whole picture.

What I find myself reflecting on is how much of the Conservative vision for the Great British Internet has actually failed. And if it hasn’t failed outright, it’s hopping around on one leg, exclaiming “I’m invincible!”, in a world-leading manner, while the rest of us just throw our arms up and walk away.

I’m repeating my years and years of blogging on this, and apologies for that; but it’s worth remembering, as I explained to Politico, what we were looking at at the dawn of the post-Brexit experiment in Conservative internet regulation, starting in the summer of 2016, and why it made a lot of us lose a lot of sleep.

As you’ll recall, the taxonomy for the Conservative blueprint for the Great British Internet, the “Doctrine of Mayism”, was neatly defined by Sky’s former tech correspondent Rowland Manthorpe:

  1. Antagonism towards Big Tech, establishing them as the new ideological “other”, meaning the new superstate enemy whom control needed to be “taken back” from;
  2. Technological nationalism, building a British Internet for British People, even if it meant cutting ourselves off (more on that in a tic);
  3. The surveillance state, with technology’s role being to keep people in their assigned place and behaving, as both a growth opportunity for the UK tech sector and as a means to keep government small by outsourcing public order to them; and
  4. Inaction, in which the personal limitations of British policymakers, paired with the technical irrationality of many their proposals, made any meaningful progress impossible, even when that progress was badly needed.

So that – Mayism – was the political foundation for the Great British internet regulation experiment.

That resulted in a…uh…creative view of the policy positioning which aimed to bring those goals about, as I wrote:

  1. The deliberate conflation of platform regulation with internet regulation, which are apples and oranges, allowing the UK to make broad pronunciations about “Big Tech” which actually impacted everything, everyone, everywhere, no matter what;
  2. The messaging top line, which is now clearly a running joke for Westminster and a potentially fatal drinking game for wonks, about the UK creating a “world-leading” internet, which is…not how the internet works, at all, unless you’re China or Russia;
  3. The fact that the messaging about the UK’s goals changed so frequently, depending on the news story of the day, that any attempt to convey the narrative required some amount of spin (at best) and disinformation (at worst).

Happy days.

What both those political and policy views meant, on a technical level, was a splinternet. It’s not that they sat down and planned one. It’s that their ideological zealotry, matched with a refusal to acknowledge how the internet itself works because they know best, meant that a splinternet was what they ordered.

Because in their vision, the Great British Internet would have three additional technical layers (as I wrote in the summer of 2022, reflecting what was on the table at that time):

The first additional technical layer is the identity layer, meaning the mandatory age verification requirement for all sites, all services, all users, and all content, regardless of scope, risk, or proportion, because of rent-seeking by the age verification industry.

The second additional technical layer is the general monitoring obligation, which as I’ve previously covered, will require service providers in scope (meaning everyone) to install automated filtering, monitoring, surveillance, and tracking technology, because of rent-seeking by the filtering, monitoring, surveillance, and tracking technology industry.

The third additional technical layer, as I’ll cover in the next point, is the likely requirement to break the security of end-to-end encrypted communications. This is ostensibly because of the four horsemen of the infopocalypse – isn’t it always? – but in this particular political context, the Bill also covers subjective and legal communications. It also means any subject which a political appointee (e.g. the Secretary of State for DCMS) determines must fall into scope, for wholly political reasons.

I should note that the technical state of play, repeated above, was in the context of Nadine Dorries being put in charge of digital policy, but I’m not prepared to talk about that without a cigarette, and I don’t even smoke.

None of these plans went unchallenged at any step. In fact, if you’re reading this, you owe a great deal of debt to the representatives of civil society, in areas ranging from minority rights to internet governance to digital rights, working on poverty wages for dysfunctional employers, who showed up in good faith over these years to countless “stakeholder” meetings with government, for which they all prepared their legal, technical, and policy briefings to the letter, knowing full well that the whole purpose of these meetings was to sit there being ranted, raged, and shouted at for 90 minutes about Meta, and then leave with nothing accomplished; whilst government accomplished its goal of ticking the box of saying that it had held stakeholder consultations with civil society. I was in many of these meetings. I’m older, smarter, and wiser for all of them; which is more than I can say for some of the numpties that government sent to the table.

So what’s left, now, in the waning months of Mayism? Well, we have an Act in place and in force which absolutely everyone hates; we have a regulator consulting on how to enforce it in a way that makes it clear what they really think of it; and we have another Bill which has been hijacked by the last wheezing gasps of Mayism that, as with all Mayist visions, just doesn’t work technically. For what’s new, we have a fresh crop of wealthy London luvvies screeching about banning this, reining in that, and controlling everyone and everything else; for there is nothing new under the sun.

But in the end, they didn’t get what they ordered. We don’t have a British Internet for British People. We don’t even have one for wealthy white surveillance profiteers from the Home Counties. We don’t have a techno-nationalist security state to keep people safe online, and in fact, we don’t even have a functioning state to keep people safe offline. We haven’t “reined in the tech giants”. We’ve not created the “safest place in the world to be online” (drink!) or the “best place in the world to start a digital business” (driiiiink!) Real problems with Big Tech haven’t been fixed. Real problems with society haven’t been fixed. We are all, by every emotion and every measure, far worse off than we were 14 years ago, and far more hopeless.

But they’re alright Jack, because the ultimate legacy of this regulatory experiment is that we have both a Prime Minister, and a Minister for Digital, who are openly phoning it in until this all ends and they can go take the eight-figure jobs they’ve clearly been gunning for in the Silicon Valley sun. Left with the choice between a techno-nationalist internet run on surveillance tech, jam, and Jerusalem, or an open internet in an open world, they’ve chosen the latter.

So in the end, it’s not that Mayism, and the Conservative vision for the Great British Internet, has failed. It’s that it was never going to work in the first place. Any plans in play drawn up, or born, under the spell of Mayism can only ever follow suit.

If you don’t believe that because you don’t want to believe that, keep hopping.

Hey Rowland, if you’re reading this:
Tech in Westminster has never been the same without you around.
Hugs,
Everyone.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.

5 Comments

  1. It just occurred to me that I forgot to discuss one of the most bizarre parts of the British internet regulatory experiment.

    That was the one where DCMS attempted to retroactively nationalise the internet as a British invention on Sir Tim Berners Lee’s back.

    Hence, “the World Wide Web was invented by a Brit!” – e.g. Sir Tim being the father of the WWW – became an ideological justification for the UK putting itself in charge of global internet regulation, which ultimately lands on Ofcom’s patch.

    I even noticed this in my passport, where the WWW is cited as an Iconic British Innovation:
    UK passport citing the WWW as an iconic British invention
    see the right-hand page.
    They’re just gagging to stick Sir Tim in there next to Babbage and Lovelace, but they can’t, because he’s not dead.

    To continue the Holy Grail comparisons, it’s generally never healthy when anyone begins claiming a divine right to rule the land based on magical qualities apparently bestowed at birth, but after all, that’s how we got the royal family.

    Needless to say, the world wide web is not British, and it is not a British invention because a Brit (…working in Switzerland…) came up with the idea.

    In fact, it belongs to everyone. That’s what he said, at the time.

    That’s what he said, you may remember, on an amazing night in July 2012.

    Now that was real magic.

  2. i’m a bit confused. do you think the worst part’s of the OSA won’t be enforced? i only ask because labour seem just as interested in making the OSA work.

    • Oh make no mistake, Labour are going to give us a fresh new set of headaches, also grounded in equal amounts of technical illiteracy and policymakers’ personal limitations. The OSA is just one of the things to worry about. But the (say it in Tom Baker’s Little Britain voice) Britain! Britain! Britain! technonationalism, which only served to reveal how small and narrow the Conservatives’ world is as opposed to world-leading, is dead and buried.

      • But again (blame my autism for wanting specifics, that’s right I’m blaming something other than myself for being annoying) do you think the worst part’s of the OSA won’t be enforced? Never mind replacing technonationalism with tech illiteracy I’m just keen to be sure if the worst parts of the OSA will happen or not?

        • Ofcom are consulting on how to enforce as part of their 1700+ page consultation on their administration of the OSA, which is due 10 days from now. See volume 6.

          What they enforce, how, and when, in theory, is their judgement as an independent regulator. What they enforce, how, and when, in practice, will hinge on government and public pressure.

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