What the election manifestos mean for internet policy

22nd April 2015

Last week saw the UK’s General Election campaign move from the ‘phoney war’ to the start of the real battle, with the main UK parties publishing their election manifestos. So what do they tell us about the parties’ plans for the internet and the wider technology sector.

Promises or shopping lists?

Election manifestos have traditionally been seen as a ‘contract with the electorate’: a set of commitments to which politicians could be held to account at the next election. However, after five years of coalition government and with all the polls still pointing to a hung Parliament, this year’s manifestos read much more like political wish lists. They are more likely to be the starting point for coalition negotiations rather than cast iron policy commitments.

For a high-level summary of the measures in the manifestos which broadly relate to the tech sector, I’d recommend the summaries from start-up advocacy group Coadec, which did blog posts on the key measures from Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Reading between the lines

There is much common ground between the parties on the positive issues like access to superfast broadband, the promotion of digital skills in the education system, and the use of digital technology to create more efficient public services. The differences between the parties are more apparent in what they see as the potential negative effects of digital technology on our lives. These points are not always made explicitly in the manifestos, but by reading between the lines you can see the directions of travel that have been developing over the past year or so influencing the party’s wider agenda.

Protecting children and national security

The Conservatives are keen to emphasise measures to protect children online and to protect national security. These areas have formed a central element of the Party’s approach to the sector while in government. While they have steered away from regulating directly, internet service providers and multinational internet companies have come under significant political pressure from Downing Street to introduce measures against inappropriate material – for example, through parental control filters, or by taking action on extremist content.

Closing the skills gap

Labour, who say the least in their manifesto about specific tech-related issues, frame the economic opportunities of digital innovation through the lens of those without the skills to get online and fully participate in today’s labour market. This has been an area of focus for Labour in opposition and, although it is not mentioned in the manifesto, the Party was particularly supportive of Maggie Philbin’s digital skills report.

Protecting personal data

For the Liberal Democrats, who in government opposed the introduction of the “Snoopers Charter”, the concern is about data protection and privacy in relation to both the state and companies. Their manifesto includes a pledge to introduce a “Digital Bill of Rights” with measures on data privacy including “stricter limits on surveillance” by the state and giving everyone “the right to […] view, correct, and (where appropriate and proportionate) delete their personal data, wherever it is held.” This has strong echoes of the draft Data Protection Regulation which is focus of much debate and lobbying in Brussels, and in particular the proposal for a “right to be forgotten”.

A free and open Internet

From Nominet’s perspective as a company at the heart of the UK’s internet infrastructure, with an active involvement in global internet governance, it is notable that the Liberal Democrats were the only party to include a commitment to support “a free and open Internet around the world, championing the free flow of information”. While this may be very important to us, it is unsurprising that most parties did not feel this was an issue likely to swing the electorate’s votes.

So what does this tell us?

The reason to focus on these points of difference rather than the positive areas of agreement is that they may well be the subject of negotiations between the parties as they seek to form a future coalition government or any sort of agreement to support a minority government. With the strong likelihood of a hung parliament in mind, we also need to consider the manifestos of the smaller parties who could end up playing a role in providing parliamentary support to a minority government.

Last week saw manifestos from UKIP, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru and so far this week we have had the SNP’s as well. These parties all tended to focus on their core political messages, but they each have some sort of reference to internet issues, which could be influential on a coalition or minority government. UKIP’s one mention of the internet is a commitment to update laws and sentencing guidelines to reflect new areas of cyber crime. The Green Party’s commitment on data privacy and surveillance are similar to those outlined above from the Liberal Democrats, but less detailed. Both the SNP and Plaid Cymru’s commitments on technology are focused on broadband access. Plaid Cymru also call for a new Welsh language “multimedia service” to operate online and on radio while the SNP focus on more Scottish Government influence over BBC Scotland.

The result of this election is the most difficult to call in many years. But one thing we do know is that at Nominet we will continue to work with politicians from all parties to help inform policy debates, and act as an advocate for responsible self-regulation and an open, trusted internet.