Demos’ response to digital prosperity and security pledges in the Conservative Party Manifesto

The Conservative manifesto contains a whole section on digital prosperity and security – an interesting proposal, with ideas ranging from the much-needed to the ominously vague. As ever, the key here will be how these thoughts are translated into regulation.
Digital Economy
Demos welcomes the manifesto’s focus on the British Business Bank, where linked to digital business. It is vital that the new digital and tech start-ups do not all cluster in London, and that they can be a force for local economic growth throughout the country.

Also from the economic side, the focus on digital signatures is pleasing; new forms of digital identity verification are expected to be a major industry in the coming years. Finally, it is interesting to note that the UK plans to lead the way on autonomous vehicle testing. This is potentially an extremely disruptive industry: it will be important for the Government to consider the impact of this on jobs, skills, training and road policy.

More broadly, the creation of a data use and ethics commission is a step in the right direction, reflecting the growing awareness inside Government that for digital business to work – while respecting user privacy – we need a solid framework for how data can be used.

Participation and Youth
Rolling out broadband under a Universal Service Organisation to connect every home and business by 2020 will do much to lower the bar to digital participation across the country, although it should be noted that Labour have made similar commitments to network infrastructure in their manifesto.

More could have been said on increasing education for young people around the risks of digital life online, which, if implemented correctly, could also be hugely valuable. Indeed, increasing this ‘demand-side’ resilience to abuse and misinformation online is something Demos have advocated for years.

Content Regulation and Extremism
On online content, we have seen some extremely carefully worded commitments around extreme content on social media, which focus on the responsibility of platforms to enable reporting of content and explain when content is not removed. The language used for these promises are worryingly vague: illegal content yes, but “sources of harm” is extremely unclear. It also discusses a responsibility for sites not to direct users to this content. If this is enacted, expect a heated debate over what precisely constitutes ‘direction’.

More alarming are the claims that May’s team ‘do not believe there should be a safe space for terrorists to communicate online’. This should raise alarm bells, and it is difficult to see how it could be delivered – the technology which allows anybody to encrypt their communications is not only key to many aspects of online life beyond terrorists on Whatsapp, it’s also free, easy to use, and has been around for years.

It will be interesting to see how these commitments are enacted. The manifesto pledges to ensure that ‘content creators are appropriately rewarded for the content they make available online’, and that public services follow the most up to date ‘appropriate’ cyber security procedures, but whether these promises will survive contact with the global media environment online or the funding needed to secure difficult-to-upgrade sectors such as the NHS remains to be seen.

One final thought – the Conservatives want to lead the way in international agreements over how to regulate the internet well. A noble goal, but one that might have been better done inside the EU. How we will do this, especially if there are disagreements with other EU member states, and what that means for being part of the 2018 EU Data Protection Act, will be vital.