Election 2019: What do the party manifestos say about tech?
Note: This post originally appeared on The Inquirer, which heartbreakingly closed in December 2019, losing a huge amount of my best work in the process. Given it's all been scrubbed from the internet - aside from on the all-seeing eye of the Way Back Machine - there doesn't seem much harm in reposting this feature here for posterity. IF YOU'VE GOT an Advent calendar, it serves two purposes this year. Counting down to Christmas, but also counting down to DemocracyFest 2019 - or the 2019 United Kingdom general election, if you want to be formal.
Now that manifestos are digitally available for all to pick through, we decided it was time to get stuck in and see what the parties have to say about their plans for technology for the next five years. Here are our findings.
Though with apologies to Nicola Sturgeon, Adam Price, Arlene Foster, Michelle O'Neill, Anna Soubry, Colum Eastwood and Steve Aiken, we'll only be covering parties standing across England, Wales and Scotland for the purposes of this piece. And we won't be covering Ukip, either, because now we have a 'I Can't Believe it's not Ukip' party there seems little point.
The phrase "Brexit done" appears 33 times in the 64 pages of the Conservative Party manifesto - and nine of those are by the end of the second page. Britain, we're told, is "like some super-green supercar blocked in the traffic," and of course only a new Tory government to replace the decade-old Tory government is the solution.
That kind of sets the tone for the whole document, but there are some specific references to technology peppered throughout. Of these, Johnson has been most keen on shouting about broadband, which gives you an idea of how dull this manifesto really is.
"We are Europe's technology capital, producing start-ups and success stories at a dazzling pace," the manifesto says. "But not everyone can share the benefits. We intend to bring full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025."
That's not all though: hola cloud computing tax cuts! "We will increase the tax credit rate to 13 per cent and review the definition of R&D so that important investments in cloud computing and data, which boost productivity and innovation, are also incentivised."
There's also a very vague promise to take online crimes more seriously. "We will embrace new technologies and crackdown on online crimes," the manifesto boasts. "We will create a new national cybercrime force and empower the police to safely use new technologies like biometrics and artificial intelligence, along with the use of DNA, within a strict legal framework." Will this new national crime force will just be another rebrand of CCHQ, we wonder?
The much-maligned porn block doesn't get a mention. RIP stupid policy? Well yes, unless it's covered by this: "We will legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online - protecting children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content, and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online - but at the same time defending freedom of expression and in particular recognising and defending the invaluable role of a free press."
Yes, that was all one sentence - who will protect us from the global full-stop shortage?
The Labour Party's manifesto - "It's Time for Real Change" - has the distinction of being the only title that scans to the tune of Father and Son by Cat Stevens. A strong start.
Clocking in at 106 pages, this is the longest of the bunch and goes into a fair amount of detail, while leaving some wiggle room for interpretation. One such example: "We will enforce a legal duty of care to protect our children online, impose fines on companies that fail on online abuse and empower the public with a Charter of Digital Rights." Does this mean the porn block isn't off the table after all?
The biggest headline of the election so far, of course, is Labour's pledge to give every home and business full-fibre broadband by the year 2030. This will involve the nationalisation of parts of BT "with a jobs guarantee for all workers in existing broadband infrastructure and retail broadband work." How will this be paid for? "Taxation of multinationals, including tech giants, will pay for the operating costs of the public full-fibre network." Hmmm.
The general public seems to like the pledge but has doubts that the party can actually follow through. The Lord Ashcroft focus group on this is quite telling, with choice quotes such as "It would be like two megabytes a second, then you have to upgrade," and "next they're going to promise you three years of Greggs or something" capturing the air of scepticism.
Sadly, the Greggs pledge doesn't make the manifesto, steak bake fans. But it does touch on other interesting areas. For example, there will be "a legal right to collective consultation on the implementation of new technology in workplaces," for those concerned a robot could refresh Facebook more efficiently than them.
Perhaps most interestingly, Labour has the most detailed cybersecurity plans. "A Labour government, ever more dependent on digital technology, will overhaul our cybersecurity by creating a co-ordinating minister and regular reviews of cyber-readiness," the manifesto says.
"We will also review the structures and roles of the National Crime Agency, to strengthen the response to all types of economic crime, including cybercrime and fraud, and ensure a modern, technologically advanced police service that has the capacity and skills to combat online crime, supported by a new national strategy on cybercrime and fraud."
"The great advancements in technology and the ever-changing nature of the world of work mean that more of us will change careers throughout our lives," reads the introduction to the 96-page Liberal Democrat manifesto - which could well prove a bad omen for leader Jo Swinson on 13 December, if the current polls are to be believed.
"Our ambition is for the UK to lead the world in ethical, inclusive new technology, including artifcial [sic.] intelligence," the manifesto says. This will include a "Lovelace Code of Ethics" to "ensure the use of personal data and artifcial [again, sic.] intelligence is unbiased, transparent and accurate, and respects privacy." It'll also convene a citizens' assembly to decide whether governments should use algorithms to make decisions, but has decided that facial recognition surveillance would be banned "immediately."
As well as a Digital Services Tax "to ensure tech giants pay their fair share," the party wants a "UK-wide target for digital literacy" and for "all products to provide a short, clear version of their terms and conditions, setting out the key facts as they relate to individuals' data and privacy." Looks like Ms Swinson hasn't read all 96 pages of the iTunes Terms and Conditions either.
Like Labour and the Conservatives, the Lib Dems also quite fancy the idea of an online crime agency. For the yellows, this is to deal with "illegal content and activity online, such as personal fraud, revenge porn and threats and incitement to violence on social media."
On a related note, the education section includes a pledge to "include teaching about how to use social media responsibly in our 'curriculum for life' and provide advice and support for parents on how to help their children protect themselves online."
The Lib Dems' manifesto is the first to mention the gig economy. The party says it'll establish "dependent contractor" status which provides certain employment rights which would have Uber, Deliveroo and the like worried if, y'know, the Lib Dems stood any chance of forming the next government.
Oh, and if you're playing 'broadband bingo', the Lib Dems' promise is to ensure all households have "access to superfast broadband" - a definition the party pledges as 30Mbps download and 6Mbps upload. Pretty small potatoes in the game of broadband poker we seem to be playing.
The Brexit Party doesn't have a manifesto - instead, it has a contract. Albeit, an essentially meaningless one, given the party has stood down in all 317 Conservative-held seats and only has 274 candidates standing. In the hugely unlikely event that they win every single one, they'd be 52 seats short of an overall majority to put their plans into action.
But what do these plans involve?
Well, perhaps unsurprisingly for a party that's shop only stocks cases for the iPhone 7 and 8, said contract says very little about technology at all.
As part of the "Brexit Dividend" (citation needed), the party promises to "invest in digital infrastructure," and amazingly this isn't about paying the ransom required to buy the www.thebrexitparty.com domain. Instead, the party says it will be offering "free base level domestic broadband in deprived regions and free Wi-Fi on all public transport."
It also says that business taxes will be simplified to help high streets outside the M25, and this will be funded by an online sales tax. Jeff Bezos will be quaking in his boots.
The Green Party manifesto is rhetorically titled "If Not Now, When?" which is going to prove a difficult one to answer on December 13, should the party not make an unexpected 225 gains.
If you've been having a drink every time the word "broadband" comes up, then take another shot my friend: if elected, the Green Party would "better connect rural communities through reliable broadband and mobile internet, delivered through councils who understand local connection needs."
Otherwise, it's mainly about technological solutions to tackling climate change, as you might imagine. Though there is a bit about tackling the "big tech" control of the media, and other bits about online conduct: they plan to introduce a Digital Bill of Rights and a "regulatory framework for online harms" to make companies take responsibility for those engaging in "misogyny and online harassment."
They also namecheck Google and Amazon as examples of big companies that "exploit tax loopholes". Amusingly, the word "Amazon" comes up four times in the manifesto, but three-quarters of those refer to the Brazilian rainforest rather than the website.
So that's the end of our journey, but a couple of things are conspicuous by their absence.
First of all, nobody mentions the porn block, so as we predicted, that's truly dead in the water for the time being. Secondly, the word encryption doesn't come up once despite frequent calls for Facebook to create backdoors - though you could probably read that between the lines in the stuff about online crime agencies. No mention of 5G at all, though.
Otherwise, the main parties seem broadly on the same page with the tech and digital challenges facing the country: broadband, cybercrime, digital taxes and automation. Agreement on the problems, but the remedies will depend on who is sat in 10 Downing Street on 13 December. µ