Opinion: We need Digital Liberalism

libdems.org.ukI think we Liberal Democrats are missing a trick.

There was recently a revamp of the party website – clearly designed for a digital age, and to be used by touchscreens. I discussed it with a friend, who observed that, for all the party’s talk of openness, transparency and frankness with the public, there are still areas of the site which are off-limits, behind a membership wall. I said that it stands to reason that parties keep their forums, campaigning, electoral and training materials private – nothing sinister, just sense-making common practice. And then it hit us: why not say so, in so many words – on the party website, what it is that we’re hiding? A small addition – a cheap way to reframe the debate and make ourselves clear; the only voices raised on a subject that other parties are content to ignore.

This would already set us apart; we are a party which has sought to align itself with digital issues – the last motion debated at Spring Conference (and wonderfully so, by inspirational speakers) was the Digital Bill of Rights. But why leave it there?

We have extremely eloquent experts within our party – why not level with the public on their digital footprint? Although, as a party, we cannot share their details along the lines of commercial organisations (and wouldn’t dream of it), we still gather information, as all parties do. Why not be frank about this? Besides, the simple act of accessing the party website – or, indeed, Lib Dem Voice, or any website – alters one’s digital footprint. Does the public know this? As was said in the Bill of Rights debate, ignorance breeds fear, scaremongering, and poor legislation. As a digital party, we should be telling the public about what their digital footprint is, and what we are doing to safeguard it and give them control of their own.

But again, why leave it there?

Looking to the future – and what must inevitably be a more integrated world – digital footprints aren’t going anywhere. They are currently a battleground between the forces of liberalism and authoritarianism – the voices saying that individuals have a right to control data concerning themselves, and those callously declaring that the innocent have nothing to fear (implying that the ‘innocent’ have nothing to fear, yet). As a party, we should be looking towards what we can do to capitalise on digital footprints that already exist.

For now, the digital footprint is a battleground, but we can make it a powerful tool for liberalism and the causes our party holds dear: the empowerment of individuals, the delivery of good public services, and increasing engagement and involvement with democracy and the governance of our community at every level. As both liberals and Liberal Democrats, we are the best-positioned party to capitalise on this, and, dare I say it, we are this notion’s natural home.

To me, it is clear: we must engage with this issue. We need Digital Liberalism.

* John Grout is a admin of the Lib Dem Newbies Facebook group and lives in Reading.

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  • I read this having just looked through what happened on11th March1914, one hundred years ago today, the slashing of The Rokeby Venus.. Link here —

    The contrast between the politics of feminism in March 1914 and the concerns of John Grout today as set out above seem light years apart rather than just a hundred years. I am stil l trying to cope with the extraordinary mental gear change necessary to go from one to the other.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 11th Mar '14 - 9:56am

    I think John Grout has the beginnings of something here. Not just with this issue but a whole lot further. I have just spent a couple of days delivering leaflets through doors and while I was doing so I thought, how little has changed in the delivery of our message. We live now in a digital age, just about everyone has a smartphone (I admit to being the odd one out by not actually owning one 🙂 ), just about everyone is linked to the internet, yet we still utilise, above everything else, old fashioned means of getting our message out.

    I don’t know enough about this subject to be able to make concrete suggestions but there must be those in the party who do have the knowledge and could guide us into a more modern method of contacting the electorate.

  • >”why not level with the public on their digital footprint?”

    I think it’s akin to levelling with the public regarding all CCTV surveillance undertaken of a day. Few people will thank you for demonstrating that they’re tracked by dozens of organisations every time they leave the house or click a mouse – they seemingly don’t want to know.

    After you tell them you’ll need a practical plan to help them deal with this situation, which nobody really has (listen to Snowden @ SXSW). The outcome may be fewer people politically engaging online as they become more aware of the risks of internet usage and its transnational legal reality. So, now you’ve you’ve switched to Linux, you use Tor to browse, e-mails are all PGP encrypted, you’ve closed all Google/Facebook accounts, you’ve turned on a bunch of anti ad-tracking software and you’ve got the whole rig running through 2 layers of proxies, and then you think…I’m glad that John Grout showed me my digital footprint or I wouldn’t have to do all this! From that point on you’re considered the paranoid, edgy member of your social circle and you might start to think that your personal freedoms have practically lessened by following such a strategy.

    I think there’s a good reason why political parties ignore technical subjects – they seldom understand the issues to any great depth and neither do the electorate. I completely agree that these subjects are really important but I’ve yet to hear a Lib Dem speak convincingly about them. Come the election few will care and those that do will probably have a greater understanding than someone who spends their days in parliament.

    This probably sounds quite defeatist, and it is, because I believe that the current paradigm doesn’t allow for ideas like the ones we’re discussing. In the modern political climate technical based politics generally fails. I think that political parties need to start working more as system designers and it’s in systems theory that we can see a clear path ahead – you don’t need to understand Objective C to use an iPad! If Huppert or Farron had started to map the blueprint of a secure internet then I’d be impressed, but from what I heard it was a showcase for the technical ineptitude of the Lib Dems and a display of willingness to give our liberty up to the worlds largest companies, at their behest. Technical problems often require technical solutions, so come equipped, preferably with some basic proofs of concept. Personally, I would like to scrap about a quarter of the current MPs and replace them with apolitical systems designers and theorists. It seems odd to me that we have such crude systems design and modelling at political level, and that might explain why so much is so broken!

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Mar '14 - 1:16pm

    I don’t like false dichotomies or extremes. Some authoritarian measures protect us and liberals need to accept positive liberty in the digital world, as well as negative liberty.

  • ChrisB – Surely, that’s entirely the point. The only way we can begin to turn that juggernaut around is to begin engaging with it on a political level; I don’t believe for a moment that it can’t be done. Julian Huppert and Tim Farron all spoke very well on this general area at the Conference, as did Martin Horwood and a range of other speakers. I’m not suggesting that the party advocate people removing their digital footprint entirely, merely raising public awareness that such a thing exists in the first place. I agree that the party needs to wake up to the implications of policies adopted (particularly with regards to Midata and other projects), but in order to do so, this debate needs to be had.

    If the paradigm doesn’t allow for ideas like this, then, you know, change the paradigm! That’s why I wrote this article in the first place. The only way to change things like this is to bring them into the sphere of political debate. I’m not advocating technical politics; I’m advocating politics which takes account of the reality and potential of the internet. They’re separate things.

  • Nick Collins 11th Mar '14 - 1:55pm

    Displayed on the shelf of my local pharmacy is a digital painkiller. I asked them if they had anything for a painful knee.

  • Andrew Suffield 11th Mar '14 - 7:12pm

    I don’t see what specific things you’re proposing the party does here.

  • Hey John,

    If you regard the storage and transport of datasets by any organisation as anything but technical then you’ve misunderstood the topic. You’re advocating a thing that you call “Digital Liberalism”, the digital part of it is going to be technical in nature, surely?

    The conference speakers no doubt impressed conference, but outside of that who is going to want to be told about the dangers of their digital footprint? I think selling fear to people is a hard sell, and if it’s not this you’ll need to be far more specific about what you’re proposing because it isn’t the job of political parties to tell “the public about what their digital footprint is, and what we are doing to safeguard it and give them control of their own” (sell that on the doorsteps!).

    In response to my post you’ve said “change the paradigm”. What you’ve made clear is that you don’t understand the current paradigm as regards digital politics (and I’m not implying I do), so you’re probably not in a good position to change it. Everyone has an opinion on the internet, which is often founded on what someone else told them, and it’s this sort of technical folklore I think incredibly dangerous. Your opinion seems to of been informed by the Huppert/Farron DBR “debate”, but if you look at their early day motion for that bill you’ll see that their opinion has been handed to them directly from Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and AOL (http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2013-14/869). I hear most people at conference voted for that bill, I doubt many of them could hold a technical conversation about digital politics and this is my problem – for lack of their own opinion they’ve been convinced by Huppert/Farron who in turn have been very vocal about how they were persuaded by Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and AOL.

    I think you’re fitting right in to the Lib Dem state of play with digital discourse – you think you’re engaged in an issue and the rights of it but you’re not, because you’ve misevaluated the scope. This isn’t an issue that’s being played out at country level, it’s far bigger than that, and the emergent structures are far greater than the UK government as regards the currency of this medium – data. It’s this wishy-washy catchphrase approach that’s sleepwalking us into a situation whereby the worlds richest and most powerful organisations legislate for us, because we don’t have the technical understanding to do so ourselves. Where do you think this is going to get us? Who’s going to benefit from these changes really?

    >”The only way to change things like this is to bring them into the sphere of political debate.”

    Obviously not true – the way you change anything online is by putting it online and telling people about it. If the content is legally dubious in any given jurisdiction its then up to the respective government to legislate accordingly. This process usually takes a long time, the legal debate happens years after the content went online and people started enjoying it. By the time politicians debate it their views are irrelevant and there’s nothing they can do to stop it anyway. Even if that weren’t true, they’re seldom technically educated enough to give proper consideration to any scheme that could control the content. For example – Google used their mapping car to capture the ID’s of home wi-fi networks : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24047235 . When we found out the data watchdog ordered them to destroy the data. No fine or penalty, and of course no proof that they destroyed anything. Welcome to the future and the difficulty of legislating in the digital arena – some mass theft is fine, because we don’t really understand it.

    I remember a time (20 years back) when there was no “real” porn on the internet, only weird ASCII art. Nobody waited for the “sphere of political debate” to remedy that. Legislation happened a long time afterwards, and was done in a situation whereby the content at question had spread and diversified to such an extent that the best hopes of a politician were to deal with the very worst of it. By looking to parliament for political change on the internet, you are looking to the most ineffective and slow mechanism available. You’re backing the wrong horse – buy Google if you want power! https://www.google.co.uk/finance?chdnp=1&chdd=1&chds=1&chdv=1&chvs=maximized&chdeh=0&chfdeh=0&chdet=1394625786762&chddm=486013&chls=IntervalBasedLine&q=NASDAQ:GOOG&ntsp=1&ei=-EwgU6CbK8SIwAP6qAE

    Anyway, now that I’ve explained a few of my objections to what you’ve said so far, I understand that you’d like to see liberal ideas applied to the internet. I think this is common ground, so I’d look to build on it, but you’re going to need some concrete ideas rather than telling people about the fears of the internet – because they’re not looking to buy a fear branded product at the moment, they’ve got UKIP for that!

  • Simon Banks 14th Mar '14 - 8:55am

    OK, then, ChrisB, having patronised Julian Huppert and Tim Farron by assuming they hadn’t thought for themselves – what are your proposals?

  • Hi Simon,

    I’m not patronising them and I’m certainly not assuming anything, I’m demonstrating something – read the early day motion : http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2013-14/869 . They’ll tell you themselves where their ideas have come from (which is here : http://www.reformgovernmentsurveillance.com – read both of these in quick succession, notice anything?). I never got information from anywhere but direct statements by the 2 MPs involved or the EDM, if they didn’t want people to think they weren’t thinking for themselves, maybe they could have changed the wording from the corporate sponsors document? If you copy someones homework, it’s only polite to change some words?

    To my mind, this is a far more robust liberal approach to the Digital Bill Of Rights concept :


    I prefer it because it treats all organisations the same, rather than creating a framework specifically designed to cripple the government and not big business. There is a clear problem here that I’ve highlighted previously – those businesses are too powerful already to allow this approach to become law, and Huppert/Farron have shown us how quickly they can get legislation started. As such, I feel that any serious efforts to reduce wholesale data gathering will be hampered pretty quickly, and so I see this whole process as slightly farcical because it can only give us so much (there are things government no long have power over, we’re discussing legislation of that type). These folks at least understand that Google is more of a threat to their privacy than their government, which means they’re way ahead of the Lib Dem “digital democracy by selling fear of government” approach currently emerging. So, my number one recommendation is to drop all the Farron/Huppert stuff now before anyone notices it and adopt TBL’s “Web We Want” approach forthwith, before someone else does.

    Surely this is far better Simon? Where do you stand on these issues? You can’t honestly tell me you favour an approach based on stultifying governments and leaving business unimpeded?

    I do have lots of other “digital democracy” proposals too, but I’ve done most of the talking on this page and I feel a bit rude about that – despite not agreeing with the content, I’ve enjoyed the meta of this article and thank the author for his contribution. Plus I answered your previous questions on another thread and you haven’t replied to that yet, so I don’t think you really want to discuss digital liberalism at all; you seem more interested in me! If you genuinely would like to discuss more of my ideas, let me know and I’ll proceed, but it’ll be a long topic and I’m not convinced you (nor anyone else) really wants to listen. Maybe you have a plan you’re not letting on about too, but judging from your recent posts it probably involves me. 🙂 I like it. 🙂

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