[iDC] The role of Internet and ICT policies in the UK after the 2010 election: does it make a difference for the role of the Internet in British society if there will be a Labour-Lib Dem or a Conservative-Lib Dem government?

Christian Fuchs christian.fuchs at sbg.ac.at
Sat May 8 20:42:20 UTC 2010

The role of Internet and ICT policies in the UK after the 2010 election:
does it make a difference for the role of the Internet in British
society if there will be a Labour-Lib Dem or a Conservative-Lib Dem

Source: NetPoliticsBlog, http://fuchs.uti.at/367/

Will there be changes in Internet and ICT politics and policies after
the 2010 elections for the Westminster parliament? Willit in this
context make a difference if there will be a Tory-LibDem government or a
Labour-LibDem government? The election manifestos of the three parties
give us an idea of what to expect for the near future for UK Internet

Liberal Democrats: No agenda is also an agenda

The Liberal Democrats do not have an agenda for the role they want to
assign to ICTs and the Internet in Britain. In their “Liberal Democrat
Manifesto 2010”, the prospects for the economy are fully focused on
establishing a Green economy. There is no discussion of the role of ICTs
and the Internet in the economy. One finds a few passages in the 109
pages of the document, where ICTs or the Internet are mentioned: The
LibDems seem to consider social networking sites and web 2.0 primarily
as problem, where users become victims of individual crimes. Therefore
they want to tackle ”online bullying by backing quick-report buttons on
social networking sites, enabling offensive postings to be speedily
removed“ (p. 17). They do not discuss the problem of online
commodification of users and the circumstance that the Internet is
dominated by a commercial, advertising-oriented culture that results in
data surveillance for economic purposes. Discussions about the online
bullying report button ignore the positive aspects that web 2.0 has for
the socialization and growing-up process of adolescents. The LibDems
want to advance “better government IT procurement, investigating the
potential of different approaches such as cloud computing and
open-source software“ (p. 17) and  “support public investment in the
roll-out of superfast broadband, targeted first at those areas which are
least likely to be provided for by the market“ (p. 26). They do not
argue what kind of broadband Internet they want to provide, if it should
be freely available to all citizens or if it fit should be a
manifestation of an intensified commodification of the Internet so that
users have to pay private companies for getting access to a broadband
Internet that is dominated by commercial culture. The message that the
Liberal Democrat’s manifesto gives is that they have no clue about what
role the Internet and ICTs should play in society. Having no ICT and
Internet agenda is also an agenda, although not a particularly good one.
So what about the Conservatives and the Labour Party? Can they make a
difference in ICT and Internet politics?

Conservative Party and Labour Party

Other than the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party in their
120-page Conservative Manifesto 2010 and the Labour Party in their
78-page Labour Party Manifesto 2010 give significant attention to the
role of ICTs and the Internet in British society. The Tories have even
published a 9 page “Conservative Technology Manifesto” for the 2010
elections. But an analysis of these manifestos shows that large quantity
does not necessarily mean good quality.

Both the Conservatives and Labour want to advance the rollout of a
super-fast Internet broadband infrastructure. They want to invest public
money in building this infrastructure and leave no doubt that private
companies should control it. “We want Britain to become a European hub
for hi-tech, digital and creative industries – but this can only happen
if we have the right infrastructure in place. Establishing a super-fast
broadband network throughout the UK could generate 600,000 additional
jobs and add £18 billion to Britain’s GDP“ (Conservative Manifesto 2010,
p. 24). “Our plans will give Britain the fastest high speed broadband
network in Europe, helping to create 600,000 additional jobs. We will
make the British government the most technology-friendly in the world,
and meet our ambition that the next generation of Googles, Microsofts
and Facebooks are British companies“ (Conservative Technology Manifesto,
p. 2). “We will be the first country in Europe to extend superfast 100
mbps broadband across most of the population. This is up to 50 times
faster than Labour’s planned broadband network – and willopen up new
opportunities for the next generation of British high tech companies,
and put Britain at an advantage when it comes to developing innovative
online platforms and services. We will unleash private sector investment
to build this superfast broadband network by opening up network
infrastructure, easing planning rules and boosting competition“ (p. 6).

The Labour Party also wants to advance a high-speed Internet broadband
infrastructure. It speaks of “Broadband Britain“: “Britain must be a
world leader in the development of broadband. We are investing in the
most ambitious plan of any industrialised country to ensure a digital
Britain for all, extending access to every home and business. We will
reach the long-term vision of superfast broadband for all through a
public-private partnership in three stages: first, giving virtually every
household in the country a broadband service of at least two megabits
per second by 2012; second, making possible superfast broadband for the
vast majority of Britain  in partnership with private operators, with
Government investing over £1 billion in the next seven years; and lastly
reaching the final ten per cent using satellites and mobile broadband.
Because we are determined that every family and business, not just some,
should benefit, we will raise revenue to pay for this from a modest levy
on fixed telephone lines. And we will continue to work with business, the
BBC and other broadcasting providers to increase take-up of broadband
and to ensure Britain becomes a leading digital economy” (Labour Party
Manifesto 2010, pp. 1:7f).

Both the Conservatives and the Labour Party leave no doubt that they
want to invest taxpayer’s money for creating a high-speed broadband
infrastructure that is controlled by private companies and that can be
accessed by people in the UK by paying fees to Internet service provider
companies. This means that public investment is used not for creating a
public infrastructure that is universally accessible, which means
accessible for all without payment, but for privatizing the
infrastructure so that is in the hands of companies and thereby de-facto
becomes commodified and private property. If access to knowledge,
knowledge production, and communication are universal conditions of
human and societal flourishing, then Internet access – a central
infrastructure for contemporary information, communication, and
co-operation – should be treated as being part of the commons of society
and should be made available without payment to all citizens. A
commodified Internet infrastructure privileges high-income classes,
stratifies Internet access, as a tendency excludes lower-income groups,
and commodifies the access to knowledge and communication.

The Conservatives do not think about Internet access solutions beyond
the market, whereas the Labour Party suggests to “build on our network
of UK Online centres and public libraries to spread free internet access
points within the community, and develop new incentives for users to
switch to online services“ (Labour Party Manifesto, p. 9:5). Free
Internet access within libraries is a strange idea, it is like not being
able to take home a book from the library, but having to read the full
book in the library. The Internet is a highly flexible and mobile
technology, containing access to certain places, such as libraries, is
therefore an odd and backward-oriented policy suggestion. The only
viable solution is to create freely available, non-commercial wireless
Internet access points all over the country.

What kind of Internet content and platform providers do the Tories and
Labour favour? Both parties claim that they will advance economic growth
by fostering entrepreneurship in the ICT industry and providing tax cuts
and start-up subsidies for ICT and Internet companies. “A Conservative
government will build a new model of economic growth, based on high tech
and high value industries. This means harnessing and catalysing the next
generation of technologies, and helping businesses to create highly paid
new jobs in every part of the country. We will build a high tech 21st
century infrastructure that is fit for purpose, and we will lay the
foundation for a British technology revolution” (Conservative Technology
Manifesto 2010, p. 6). “As recommended by the Dyson Review, we will keep
R&D tax credits but will simplify and refocus them on high tech
companies, small businesses and new start-ups in order to stimulate a
new wave of technology” (Conservative Technology Manifesto 2010, p. 7).

Similar policies are envisioned by Labour: “Labour believes we should
rebuild our economy in new ways: with more high-tech business, fairer
rewards and responsibility from all, including at the top” (Labour Party
Manifesto 2010, p. 0:4). “Within this, the Growth Capital Fund will
focus on SMEs which need capital injections of between £2 and £10
million, while the Innovation Investment Fund will focus on the needs of
high-tech firms” (Labour Party Manifesto 2010, p. 1:6). “At the heart of
our approach to building a strong and fair Britain is a commitment to
support enterprise” (Labour Party Manifesto 2010, p. 1:7).

Both the Tories and Labour cling to the 1990s Californian ideology
(throwing public money at ICT companies and thereby hoping for economic
prosperity and a new job wonder). The result of the Californian ideology
was not long-time economic growth, stability, and a new job wonder, but
the bursting of the Internet economy bubble in 2000 and as a result the
new economy crisis. It is therefore surprising that the two largest
British parties show continued faith in ICT and Internet corporatism and
do not look for possibilities for public investment in alternative
Internet and ICT models that try to go beyond crisis capitalism, finance
capital, and try to see the Internet and ICTs as part of society’s
commons. The Internet that both parties imagine is one that is dominated
by monopoly capital, and in a nationalistic tone it is envisioned that
Internet monopolies will be British in the future. So the Tories speak
of the “ambition that the next generation of Googles, Microsofts and
Facebooks are British companies“ (Conservative Technology Manifesto
2010, p. 2). There is not the slightest awareness in these documents of
the many problems associated with Internet and ICT monopolies and the
domination of the Internet by capitalist logic.

Both the Tories and Labour consider ICTs and the Internet important for
public administration and democracy. However, the ideas of both parties
on digital democracy are conventional and do not go beyond eGovernment.
The Tories want to increase the transparency of public administration
with the help of the Internet: ”We will open up Whitehall recruitment by
publishing central government job vacancies online, saving costs and
increasing transparency. [...] We will: require public bodies to publish
online the job titles of every member of staff and the salaries and
expenses of senior officials paid more than the lowest salary
permissible in Pay band 1 of the Senior Civil Service pay scale, and
organograms that include all positions in those bodies “ (Conservative
Manifesto 2010, p. 69). We will “require senior civil servants to
publish online details of expense claims and meetings with lobbyists;
examine the case for giving Select Committees the power to prevent
increases“ (p. 70).

Similar announcements can be found in Labour’s election programme:
“Public services in the digital age: Citizens expect their public
services to be transparent, interactive and easily accessible. We will
open up government, embedding access to information and data into the
very fabric of public services. Citizens should be able to compare local
services, demand improvements, choose between providers, and hold
government to account. We have led the world with the creation of
data.gov.uk, putting over 3,000 government datasets online.
Entrepreneurs and developers have used these datasets to unleash social
innovation, creating applications and websites for citizens from local
crime maps to new guides to help find good care homes or GPs. We will now
publish a Domesday Book of all non-personal datasets held by government
and its agencies, with a default assumption that these will be made
public. We will explore how to give citizens direct access to the data
held on them by public agencies, so that people can use and control
their own personal data in their interaction with service providers and
the wider community“ (Labour Party Manifesto 2010, p. 9:5).

The Tories present themselves as the harbingers of direct democracy:
”Give citizens more power: People have been shut out of Westminster
politics for too long. Having a single vote every four or five years is
not good enough – we need to give people real control over how they are
governed. So, with a Conservative government, any petition that secures
100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The
petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to
table a bill eligible to be voted on in Parliament. and we  will
introduce a new Public reading Stage for bills to give the public an
opportunity to comment on proposed legislation online” (Conservative
Manifesto 2010, p. 66). ”We will throw open the doors of Parliament by
introducing a technology enabled Public Reading Stage that will involve
the public in the legislative process, and harness the wisdom of crowds
to improve bills and spot potential problems before legislation is
implemented” (Conservative Technology Manifesto 2010, p. 3). The idea of
the Conservatives is to let citizens suggest proposals that are
discussed in parliament and to make use of the Internet to let citizens
express their opinion on proposed legislation. This means that they want
to foster political talking and interaction, but do not want to give
citizens real power to influence and decide on legislation outside of
general elections. The suggested reforms are not an expression of
grassroots democracy and grassroots digital democracy, but rather of
populist digital plebiscitarianism or what Carole Pateman in the 1970s
called pseudo-participation: citizens are summoned to “participate” by
communicating and voicing opinions in order to silence them and
discourage real participatory politics, in which they can directly
influence decisions and have a say in politics.

Also Labour wants to strengthen democracy with the help of ICTs and the
Internet, although their ideas remain more abstract: “Opening up
government – central and local – in this way offers huge potential for
Britain. We can use new technologies to give people a say on
policy-making; enable citizens to carry out more of their dealings with
government online; and save money for taxpayers as we switch services
over to digital-only delivery” (Labour Party Manifesto 2010, p.  9:5).
It remains unclear what exactly it means to “use new technologiesto
give people a say on policy-making”. Such a vague abstractness isa
shame for an election programme.

Both the Tories and Labour understand digital democracy to mean that
government provides more information to citizens with the help of ICTs
and that citizens can communicate opinions to politicians, the
government, and parliament with the help of the Internet. This
understanding of digital democracy is narrow because it fully leaves out
the importance of civil society and citizen-to-citizen political
communication for a flourishing and dynamic democracy. The notion of
democracy is confined to politics, there is no talk about economic
democracy, work place democracy, and democracy in other spheres of
society and the role that ICTs and the Internet could play for advancing
participatory democracy in all realms of society. The understandings of
digital democracy that can be found in the election manifestos of the
Conservative Party and the Labour Party are one-dimensional,
government-focused, and do not realize the actual potentials that the
Internet can pose for democratic reforms that enable participatory

The Tories speak about the threats of a “database state” (Conservative
Manifesto 2010, p. 79). “We will strengthen the powers of the
Information Commissioner to penalise any public body found guilty of
mismanaging data. We will take further steps to protect people from
unwarranted intrusion by the state” (p. 79). It is no surprise that the
Conservatives do see privacy threats, problems of surveillance and data
misuse only in relation to public administration and not also in the
context of private companies that gather, store, assess, and sell
personal data for economic ends because the Tories have a neoliberal ICT
agenda in mind that only considers ICT and Internet companies as
harbingers of economic growth, but not as potential threats to consumer
and user interests. Economic surveillance is not an issue for the
Conservatives, but neither is it one for the Labour Party and the
Liberal Democrats.

The only realm, where the Conservatives see problems of a corporate
Internet, is in relation to children. They argue that children should be
protected from online advertising. “Children should be allowed togrow
up at their own pace, without excessive pressure placed on them by
businesses. We will take a series of measures to help reverse the
commercialisation of childhood. We prefer to gain voluntary consent to
these actions but we are prepared to legislate if necessary. We will: *
prevent any marketing or advertising company found to be in serious
breach of  rules governing marketing to children from bidding for
government advertising contracts for three years; * ban companies from
using new peer-to-peer marketing techniques targeted at children, and
tackle marketing on corporate websites targeted at children; * establish
a new online system that gives parents greater powers to take action
against irresponsible commercial activities targeted at children; and, *
empower head teachers and governors to ban advertising and vending
machines in schools“ (Conservative Manifesto 2010, p. 43). One wonders
why only children need protection from online advertising? Also
adolescents and adults have to fear negative consequences from the
activities of online advertisers and Internet corporations that gather
and commodify personal data for economic ends as well as from employers
and managers who look for private information about job applicants and
employees on web 2.0.

The Labour Party mentions eLearning in one paragraph, whereas both the
Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats do not tackle this topic at all.
“Because the learning environment itself matters, we will take forward
our Building Schools for the Future programme to rebuild or refurbish
secondary schools, giving our children first-rate facilities that support
inspirational teaching and access to ICT, sports and the arts” (Labour
Party Manifesto 2010, p. 3:5). The view underlying this passage is that
more ICTs are always good for learning, there is no sense for what kind
of ICTs and that a blended approach is needed that combines
participatory educational institutions with participatory learning

66% of British Internet users aged 15-24 say that it is morally
acceptable to download music for free and 70% say they do not feel
guilty for downloading music for free (Youth and Media survey 2009,
N=1026, Office of Communications: Communication Market Report 2009,
278). Refusing and opposing the interests of young people and other
citizens, both the Conservatives and the Labour Party intend to continue
the criminalization of file sharers in order to guarantee profit
interests for the culture industry. No matter which party will be in
power, a tightening of intellectual property right protection and of the
repression against file sharers and thereby the interest of the majority
of young people can be expected. The Labour Party has announced: “We
will update the intellectual property framework that is crucial to the
creative industries – and take further action to tackle online piracy”
(Labour Party Manifesto 2010, p. 7:6). Similarly the Tories have said:
“We will ensure that Britain has the most favourable intellectual
framework in the world for innovators and high tech businesses. We
recognise the need to tackle digital piracy and make it possible for
people to buy and sell digital intellectual property online. However it
is vital that any anti-piracy measures promote new business models
rather than holding innovation back” (Conservative Technology Manifesto
2010, p. 7).

Both parties miss an understanding of the question if free access to
digital knowledge is a form of cultural democracy that strengthens
capabilities, communication, the public sphere, and cultural dynamics.
They put the corporate interests of the culture industry first and above
the interests of cultural prosumers. Also alternative policy measures,
such as the culture flat rate, are not discussed. The actual or
potential criminalization of a large share of Internet users is simply
accepted, not questioned. Also the problem of how cultural production
can be remunerated in an age of file sharing without enhancing the
dependency of these producers on large media companies and without
criminalizing users is not discussed.


No matter if the resolution to the situation of a hung parliament in
Great Britain will be a Conservative or a Labour government supported by
the Liberal Democrats, one thing is for sure: there will not be any
significant positive changes in the realm of Internet and ICT politics
and policies. The Liberal Democrats have simply ignored this topic in
their 2010 election manifesto, which shows that they consider Internet
and ICTs as unimportant. In contrast, the Labour Party and the
Conservatives compete for which of the two party can create a more
neoliberal ICT policy framework. Both Labour and the Tories stand for
the advancement of the commodification of the Internet and ICTs, the
weakening and economization of the cultural commons of society, the
criminalization of Internet users, opposition to the cultural interests
of young Internet users, ignorance towards ICT-enhanced participatory
democracy, civil society, and citizen-to-citizen political
communication, and the focus on conventional and unoriginal eGovernment
measures. In the UK, government will in the coming years pursue Internet
politics with a backwards-oriented neo-neoliberal agenda. We can expect
an extension and intensification of neoliberal Internet policies. The
answer to the question asked in the title of this contribution is: No!

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