Theresa May Plans To Regulate, Tax And Censor The Internet
from the who-would-vote-for-that? dept
With UK Prime Minister Theresa May recently calling for a new election there, which she is expected to win easily (despite recent reports of narrowing polls), last week May’s Conservative party released its Manifesto (what we in the US tend to call a party’s “platform”). There are all sorts of things in there that are getting press attention, but for the stuff that matters here on Techdirt, let’s just say May’s view of the internet is not a good one. A part of the plan is basically to regulate, tax and censor the internet, because the Conservative Party leadership doesn’t seem to much like the internet — and they especially dislike the fact that Google and Facebook are so successful.
What’s hilarious is that the manifesto basically promises to put in place all sorts of rules that will absolutely kill off any internet economy in the UK, as no company in its right mind would agree to these restrictions, while, at the same time, it talks up how important it is to support digital businesses in the UK. Of course, some of the plan is couched in nice sounding language that should actually scare you:
A Conservative government will develop a digital charter, working with industry and charities to establish a new framework that balances freedom with protection for users, and offers opportunities alongside obligations for businesses and platforms. This charter has two fundamental aims: that we will make Britain the best place to start and run a digital business; and that we will make Britain the safest place in the world to be online.
“Balances” freedoms? Freedoms aren’t supposed to be “balanced.” They’re supposed to be supported and protected. And when you have your freedoms protected, that also protects users. Those two things aren’t in opposition. They don’t need to be balanced. As for “obligations for businesses and platforms” — those five words are basically the ones that say “we’re going to force Google and Facebook to censor stuff we don’t like, while making it impossible for any new platform to ever challenge the big guys.” It’s a bad, bad idea.
Of course, immediately after that, there’s a bunch of nonsense about how the UK will be the “best” place to run a digital business. That’s, uh, not even remotely true based on what is said in the immediately preceding paragraph.
We will ensure there is a sustainable business model for high-quality media online, to create a level playing field for our media and creative industries.
This is a dog whistle to the legacy film and recording industries about terrible copyright laws on the way. For a few years now, those industries have been whining about the need for a “level playing field” — which to them means no internet innovation in business models, but rather a government mandated business model that protects an old, legacy way of doing business. Promising a “sustainable business model” from the government makes no sense. That’s not how it works unless you’re giving companies monopolies… oh, wait, yeah, that’s what copyright is all about. So, basically, say goodbye to lots of innovation in the creative fields in the UK, because Theresa May wants to lock in the business model from 1998.
Our starting point is that online rules should reflect those that govern our lives offline. It should be as unacceptable to bully online as it is in the playground, as difficult to groom a young child on the internet as it is in a community, as hard for children to access violent and degrading pornography online as it is in the high street, and as difficult to commit a crime digitally as it is physically.
Again, these are the kinds of things that lots of people find reassuring… if they know absolutely fuck all about how the internet works and what it would actually take to do this. First off, the rules that govern offline do govern online. Second, it is just as socially unacceptable to bully on the playground as it is to online — but (spoilers!) it still happens in both places. It’s sad and unfortunate, but history has yet to come up with a way to stop bullying on the playground, and most suggestions for how to do it online involve ridiculous surveillance and censorship, which creates a whole host of other problems. And, the whole “grooming children” on the internet is an overblown moral panic that happens extremely rarely. As for running into pornography and violence — certainly an issue, but one that parents generally are supposed to handle, rather than the government seeking to censor the entire internet. And, what the hell does it even mean to say it should be as difficult to commit a crime digitally as it is physically? In many cases, it’s more difficult. In some cases, it’s easier. But, given the long list of crimes, it’s difficult to argue that digital crime, as a whole, is somehow “easier” than offline crime. It’s a silly, meaningless statement that just plays on bogus fears about the “dangers” of the internet.
We will put a responsibility on industry not to direct users ? even unintentionally ? to hate speech, pornography, or other sources of harm. We will make clear the responsibility of platforms to enable the reporting of inappropriate, bullying, harmful or illegal content, with take-down on a comply-or-explain basis.
Basically: we will make private internet companies our internet censorship police, or we’ll fine them millions of dollars. This will create all sorts of unnecessary problems. First, to avoid liability, companies will massively over-censor. We see this happen all the time. All sorts of perfectly fine and legitimate content will be censored just to avoid the potential liability. Second, this will be massively expensive. Sure, Facebook and Google can probably handle the expense, but no one else will be able to. If you’re trying to start the next Facebook or Google in the UK, you’re fucked. You can’t afford to police all the content on your platform, nor can you afford the potential liability. Probably best to just move somewhere else. Third, does the UK government really want private platforms like Google and Facebook making these determinations? Why is it handing off the responsibility of what kind of speech is “illegal” to private, for-profit companies (foreign companies, at that)?
In addition, we do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability.
And this may be the most terrifying line of all here. That’s the dog whistle for “we’ll outlaw encryption” because encryption — in the minds of foolish, scaredy-cat politicians — creates “safe spaces” for terrorists. Nevermind that the same encryption creates “safe” spaces for every other person and that undermining that makes absolutely everyone less safe. This is a dangerous plan that seems to echo the words of the UK’s Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, from a few months ago, where she wanted to find people who knew the necessary hashtags to silence terrorists online. This isn’t policy making. This is nonsense.
We will educate today?s young people in the harms of the internet and how best to combat them, introducing comprehensive Relationships and Sex Education in all primary and secondary schools to ensure that children learn about the risks of the internet, including cyberbullying and online grooming.
First of all, why is the education only on the “risks” of the internet, and not the benefits and opportunities? What an odd thing to focus on. Second, it’s 2017. Are there really still schools that don’t already teach this stuff? And, as mentioned earlier, the bogeymen of “cyberbullying” and “online grooming” are both overblown moral panics.
We will give people new rights to ensure they are in control of their own data, including the ability to require major social media platforms to delete information held about them at the age of 18, the ability to access and export personal data, and an expectation that personal data held should be stored in a secure way.
And… there’s the “right to be forgotten.” Apparently, the plan is a blanket right to be forgotten for anything about you from before you’re 18. Look, I did stupid things before I was 18. You probably did too. It’s kind of part of being a teenager. You do stupid things. Most people then grow up. They regret what they did, but most normal people recognize that when others did stupid stuff in their teens, it was because they were teenagers who then grew up as well. In other words, most people put that stuff into context. You don’t need to delete it. You just recognize it happened, that the person was a teenager when they did it, and you assume they probably grew up and matured.
We will continue with our £1.9 billion investment in cyber security and build on the successful establishment of the National Cyber Security Centre through our world-leading cyber security strategy. We will make sure that our public services, businesses, charities and individual users are protected from cyber risks. We will further strengthen cyber security standards for government and public services, requiring all public services to follow the most up to date cyber security techniques appropriate.
How the hell are you going to do that at the same time that you’re outlawing encryption?
Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.
Yeah, we got that from all the nonsense above.
Nor do we agree that the risks of such an approach outweigh the potential benefits.
Then you need to hire at least someone in your leadership who understands the internet, because it’s clear that that’s severely lacking.
We will introduce a sanctions regime to ensure compliance, giving regulators the ability to fine or prosecute those companies that fail in their legal duties, and to order the removal of content where it clearly breaches UK law. We will also create a power in law for government to introduce an industry-wide levy from social media companies and communication service providers to support awareness and preventative activity to counter internet harms, just as is already the case with the gambling industry.
There’s the censorship and taxation bit, all in the course of a couple of sentences. Sanctions to “ensure compliance” with the censorship regime and “levies” to tax Facebook and Google to pay up because of imaginary “internet harms.”
We believe that the United Kingdom can lead the world in providing answers. So we will open discussions with the leading tech companies and other like-minded democracies about the global rules of the digital economy, to develop an international legal framework that we have for so long benefited from in other areas like banking and trade.
So, not only will they tax, regulate and censor the internet, they want to get other countries to do the same thing.
There’s much more in the manifesto, but this is basically a joke, and would destroy the tech sector in the UK, rather than help it. It shows an astounding level of ignorance about the internet and technology, and seems to be written by technically illiterate people who fall for internet hoaxes and now only think of the internet in terms of what they fear about it. It’s a bad look, and a rather stunning one from a Conservative Party that supposedly favors deregulation/free market kind of ideas. This plan is the exact opposite. It’s technically clueless, top-down paternalism.