Here’s a $64,000 question: how can we possibly expect decent digital policy to be made when too many of our politicians are technologically illiterate, and when our main political institution itself refuses to change with the times? I do not mean, of course, that most MPs are incapable of using a computer or sending an email. In fact, a survey in 2009 found, perhaps surprisingly, that 92% of MPs use email, while 83% have a personal website of some kind. (Perhaps we should be wary of how much even that means, given what some of these sites look like!)
However, in terms of using more dynamic social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook to interact with constituents and with the public at large, MPs continue to be far behind the curve. Tweetminster, the website which aggregates official MP Twitter accounts, currently has a total of 247 MPs – just 38% of all MPs – and that does not even account for those who use Twitter as just another way to link to press releases or constituency events.
The overall impression is one of MPs who are constantly transmitting information, but do not open up channels for people to respond. As someone who was already a heavy user of Twitter before I was elected, it has largely been simple for me to continue to canvas opinion and generate debate since last May. The access one can gain to industry experts, academics and researchers is invaluable, as are the many and varied suggestions from all corners of the globe when asked for ideas for Parliamentary questions!
Yet Parliament itself does not encourage MPs to learn more about the use of technology. It is surely one of the most arcane and traditional institutions in the world – a place where everything must be printed and signed, rather than emailed, to avoid the (apparently terrifying) possibility that a Parliamentary Assistant might send a question or an EDM on behalf of their boss; where questions are transferred between departments by printing them out and typing them up again; and where votes take fifteen minutes each.
It is no surprise that many of the newer MPs have already expressed shock at these outdated practices. There is certainly an appetite for change, and many interesting ideas, including the possibility of electronic voting, and the use of tablets such as iPads in Committees. This latter idea would at a stroke deal with the main cause of the vast amount of paperwork that is printed, duplicated and then binned on the Parliamentary estate, often within the space of a few hours.
Just before the general election in 2010, a particularly obscure piece of Parliamentary procedure suddenly found itself in the spotlight. The ‘wash-up’, in which dying bills are dragged over the finishing line in opaque and hasty deals between party whips, gained notoriety mainly as a result of the Digital Economy Bill. This piece of legislation, widely despised by consumers, creative artists and corporations alike, was greeted by a wave of protest which eventually saw more than 20,000 people write to their MPs. An emergency motion was passed at Liberal Democrat Spring Conference setting out the party’s opposition to many of the Bill’s provisions, and its emphasis on punishment rather than innovation. Yet thanks to a deal between Labour and the Conservatives, the Bill was passed and is now on the statute book – the Tories having performed their usual trick of professing disappointment in the measures, and then supporting them regardless.
These events were the culmination of the Labour government’s general approach to digital policy: suspicious of innovative new distribution methods, determined to prop up the major corporations, and often technologically illiterate. But most worryingly of all, to Labour, the main purpose of technology was to act as a tool of mass state intrusion, through the use of surveillance and huge information databases.
That view was partly what led to, and justified, the creation of schemes like the Identity Card, the National Identity Register and the ContactPoint database. All of these were immensely costly IT projects designed to collect and hold the data of ordinary citizens, often for reasons of security or public protection. They were put in place as part of a wider reaction to the perceived threat of international terrorism; an attempt to restore our security as part of the ‘war on terror’.
It speaks volumes for just how far Labour went in their pursuit of centralised control that one of the central planks of the Coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was a commitment to rolling back the authoritarian excesses of the previous government. And indeed, during my first few months as a new MP, one of the most heartening aspects of life in Parliament has been seeing the Government chipping away successfully, for example by scrapping ID cards.
The Coalition has also, to its credit, attempted to make progress in the area of government transparency. The amount of data released on the expenditure of government departments since the general election has been unprecedented and more than a little bewildering; thankfully, there is a sufficient battery of geeks ready and willing to pore over the spreadsheets in search of a salacious story or three. I am not in favour of scapegoating public servants – I have too much experience of private sector workers feathering their nests – but I am wholeheartedly behind greater scrutiny of expenditure.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing though. It is natural and obvious that the Liberal Democrats will want to push further and faster on civil liberties than the Conservatives – after all, the clue’s in the names – and that tension is constantly expressed in different aspects of government policy. This constant tug-of-war between two ideologies suddenly and hastily stitched together means that sometimes there are pleasant surprises, and sometimes there are disappointments. But if you cannot take the rough with the smooth, then Westminster is not the right place for you.
Overall, though, it has been ten months of slow but steady progress in unravelling Labour’s database state. Yet in common with my Liberal Democrat colleagues, I am acutely conscious that our approach to digital policy cannot simply be to undo the mistakes that have previously been made, important though that is.
Labour were committed to an entirely negative approach: they obsessed about stopping piracy and failed to support industry. This was an enormous missed opportunity. What is clear from a Liberal Democrat perspective is the important and urgent need to develop a coherent and positive policy framework that stimulates innovation, strips away red tape, and moves the public debate decisively away from the same old wrangles over copyright and piracy.
There are any number of questions that remain unanswered at a political level. The vexed issue of net neutrality, for instance, is one that has continued to prove difficult for government Ministers to address; Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, even gave a speech which was interpreted by one side as signalling open season on traffic management, and by the other as a reiteration of the importance of neutrality. He then issued a textbook Whitehall clarification: that is, one that muddied the waters yet further.
The debate over net neutrality goes to the heart of digital policy. Is it genuinely liberal to allow competition on the basis of existing service providers offering different packages based on traffic management which favours one company over another? Or is it, instead, better to provide what is often called a level playing field – where traffic flows at the same speed, whatever the content and whoever owns and operates the website?
Ultimately, we need to take a liberal view of the internet and digital policy, rather than a conservative, authoritarian and punitive one. The emergency motion on the Digital Economy Act recognised this need and called for a Liberal Democrat policy working group to be set up to look into precisely these issues. As the Chair of that working group, I am confident that we will come forward with considered, serious and liberal proposals for the future of the digital economy.
And, finally, as a Coalition backbencher, I also look forward to bringing those proposals to bear on the future policy of this government over the next four years. As the deficit is gradually tackled, and the economy is brought back towards an even keel, it will be an exciting opportunity to shape the future of society. A genuinely liberal environment for digital businesses, entrepreneurs and creatives will help us to grasp that opportunity.
Julian Huppert is Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge and chairing the party’s Information Technology and Intellectual Policy Working Group.