The tension between investment and ambition versus tax and regulation show an ideological battle at the heart of May’s digital master plan
Technology and digital businesses and innovators must be heartily fed up of the mixed messages from our politicians and political parties. Attitudes seem to swing wildly, often within days on the same issue.
[Proposals to limit encryption]“will put our communications companies at a severe disadvantage, as their overseas competitors are permitted to offer fully secure services forbidden to UK companies.”David Davis - 2015On Monday digital innovation and start-ups may be hailed as the saviours of the UK economy, by Tuesday the Internet is attacked as a harbour of abuse, terrorism and criminality, a digital wild west with tech companies not doing enough to play sheriff. On Wednesday encryption and privacy are promoted as a vital part of security online, whilst on Thursday they are held up as a fundamental threat to our way of life. And on Friday everyone is looking forward to the weekend…
It’s hard to make sense of this shifting landscape of policy positions as a voter, let alone if you have to write a long term business plan or make sensible investment decisions.
For all that politicians are keen to say they support the digital economy, their actions speak louder than their words. We have had Digital Economy Acts rushed through at the tail end of government terms, during the so-called “wash up”, not once, but twice this decade. This does not suggest a real desire to get the approach to tech business right in a considered way.
Of course now it is manifesto time again. For most people, the one to watch for this General Election is “Forward Together” from the Conservatives. After all, on the launch day political analyst Professor Glen O’Hara was projecting a majority for May of 100+ seats, despite the rally in Labour numbers. It seems likely that “Forward Together” could well be the foundation of the next government’s legislative agenda.
The 88 page, (or 336 kilobyte PDF if you prefer..) screed cements the mixed message approach to tech and digital. Politically the emphasis on policies that favour government intervention seem very much at odds with traditional Conservative inclinations.
The Goliath problem
What sets the tone is that technological change is set out as one 1 of the 5 “giant challenges”:
Fast-changing technology. For the sake of our economy and our society, we need to harness the power of fast-changing technology, while ensuring that our security and personal privacy – and the welfare of children and younger people – are protected.
(Page – 7)
When it comes to technology, the Tories have been more thorough than any of the other big parties. “Forward Together” outstrips Labour’s Manifesto “For the Many, Not the Few” significantly on references to digital in their policy.
The key take away points for digital are –
- A digital charter working with business and charities to create a “rules based framework”
- £740 million of digital infrastructure investment
- By 2020 every home and business will have high-speed broadband
- 5G technology will be implemented by 2022 with 75% UK coverage
- New institutes of technology in every major English city
- A new data protection law
- More open data will be released
- The Verify online identification system will be rolled out
- A levy on social media to “counter internet harms”
- Continued emphasis on safety on-line and removing terrorist propaganda
A Digital Charter
This is one of the most ambitious manifestos for digital that UK politics has seen in its scope, covering skills, infrastructure and the real needs of businesses. Never before has tech been highlighted in quite this way by a major party with the vision of the “world’s most dynamic digital economy”. However, in terms of investment £740m is comparatively modest. On the £1bn 2016 autumn statement Lawrence Jones, CEO of Manchester technology brand UKFast said:
“This investment in our digital infrastructure is welcomed but the government has got its priorities wrong. When you examine the £55bn being splurged on HS2 compared to a paltry £1bn being spent on future-proofing the entire UK’s digital economy, which is worth £180 billion a year to the country, it’s an insultingly small figure.”
It’s the policies dealing with the perceived threats that pull this document in a different direction than creating a dynamic digital economy.
The stated aim of the Digital Charter is to “establish a new framework that balances freedom with protection”. It is not understating to say this may be tough, and if it were that easy we would be closer already. What it may well be, is a proposal for Internet regulation, although one that the Conservatives have shied away from stating explicitly.
The proposal for the social media levy is vague in the extreme both in terms of how it will actually deal with the very real problem of online abuse and how it would function. It certainly leaves a coming Conservative government wide open to accusations of a “Twitter Tax”. The strong and stable need to beware of the power of alliteration.
— Loz Kaye (@LozKaye) May 18, 2017
The responsible approach has to be decide what is illegal and what is not, and enforce the law. Using taxation as a nudge instead could well be a burden on the very sector that the Conservatives say they are championing.
A missed opportunity
More broadly the proposals remain reactive and based in the present, rather than grasping the future.
None of the UK big parties want to wrestle with implications of robotics, AI, next generation skilling, digital citizenship, smart cities. And that is a shame given that many of those issues are already making their mark on our economy and society.
While the Danish government has instituted a “disruption commission”, the Tories remain suspicious of the gig economy. Plans for unified identity lack the energetic embracing of e-Governance that characterises Estonia’s approach. Setting aside visas for a digital workforce won’t counter the fact that anti-immigration rhetoric is the most important factor for Thersa May, or Emmanuel Macron’s obvious charm offensive.
There is real desire for many in the Conservative party, and the centre-right to embrace the value of the digital economy. And whilst a good first step in some regards, certainly in putting digital issues more in the forefront of every day politics, this is not the document that will take the UK digital economy forward.
As for technology businesses, they will have to put up with mixed messages from politicians and parties a little longer.