Here's What's Missing from the 'Technology Manifesto'

Last week I wrote about the Labour Party's increasing flirtation with technology policy. That's obviously to be welcomed, since politicians have tended to regard the shift from analogue to digital as a mere detail that leaves the underlying...

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Last week I wrote about the Labour Party’s increasing flirtation with technology policy. That’s obviously to be welcomed, since politicians have tended to regard the shift from analogue to digital as a mere detail that leaves the underlying dynamics of life, business and government unchanged, or at most requiring a tweak here and there. In fact, the transition from the old analogue world to the new digital one is not just once in lifetime, but once in a civilisation – something that only needs to be done once (assuming that civilisation does not collapse, in which case we’ll have to do it all over again.)

It’s therefore good to see external groups offering their thoughts on what future policy for the UK (and more widely) should look like. Here’s one from Policy Exchange, entitled simply "Technology Manifesto":

This manifesto has been written to urge politicians and policymakers to put technology front and centre of their thinking for the 2015 general election.

If those politicians and policymakers ask why they should do that, Policy Exchange points out the following:

The internet economy will account for more than 12% of UK GDP by 2016, and Britain already has an online retail trade surplus of $1 billion – more than the USA and Germany combined.

That’s a very good reason to give the UK’s digital economy more respect than it’s had in the past – and to make better efforts to nurture it in the future.

The report, which is freely available as a single page or PDF, has three broad sections: those dealing with individuals, business and government. The last of these is perhaps the most satisfactory:

The primary goal for the next parliament should be to phase out the hundreds of bespoke pieces of hardware, software and processes used across the public sector and replace them with simple, standardised and interoperable building blocks that can be locally assembled and used repeatedly. Adopting such a ‘Government as a Platform’ (GAAP) model, based on open standards, is the only viable way to reduce the costs of IT, simplify interactions between different branches of government, and free departments to work with the best value vendors. For this to happen, the Government Digital Service cannot be an island of innovation in an otherwise unreformed civil service. Its role should be to develop and manage the platform; the rest of government needs to adopt it.

Although it’s good to see open standards in there, it’s disappointing that the Policy Exchange did not go further and call for open source, which is the most effective way of implementing those open standards. Simply mandating open standards allows lock-in through inertia – the argument being that the re-training costs etc. etc. make moving to new implementations of open standards too expensive. That’s a ridiculous way of looking at things, because it pretty much ensures that the status quo is maintained. What the Manifesto should have called for was a default use of open source software throughout government, unless there are compelling and clearly-articulable reasons not to take that route. The same applies to the following:

Local government must not be left out of the digital revolution. Local authorities face similar budgetary pressures and deliver some of the most frequently used citizen-facing transactions. Though they must be free to determine their own course, local authorities will fail to achieve the benefits of digital government if they try to undergo the transformation completely independently of one other. A local GDS hub should be established to help them apply platform technologies, converge on open standards and replace more than 400 local authority websites with a single domain, in the style of gov.uk.

I’ve written about the sterling work that gov.uk is doing by using open source, so the suggestion that it should be extended to local government is a good one. The following on open data is also welcome:

If knowledge is power, then the open data movement offers fundamentally to rebalance the relationship between government and citizen. For the first time, it is technically possible for citizens to have access to the same information as those that govern them. Open data’s other virtues include increasing transparency, spurring innovation and improving public services. There is also the economic benefit: making public sector information (PSI) open for use has been estimated to be worth over £6 billion to the economy. A key objective in 2015 must be to ensure that open data is not a passing fad, but a permanent shift in the way government works.

Even better is the following explicit recommendation:

Ordnance Survey should cease to be a trading fund and be removed from the Shareholder Executive to make their maps and data free to use. A report conducted for BIS listed geospatial data as being amongst the most valuable and frequently requested forms of Public Sector Information. The vast majority of central government departments and local authorities, together with public bodies such as Transport for London, use OS maps to plot their data. Current licence agreements prevent some of the most valuable data sets held by those organisations from being syndicated as open data.

This is something that I and many others have been calling for. It is a national disgrace that it will not be possible to do the same for the core postcode database, which has now been flogged as part of the absurdly-underpriced Post Office sell-off.

As far as business is concerned, the Manifesto also has some sensible concrete suggestions:

The two-year Post-Study Work Visa for students receiving good degrees in STEM subjects should be reinstated. The scrapping of the visa has been a major factor in the steep decline in the number of (non-EU) international students applying to study STEM subjects at UK universities. Having trained students at British universities, we should aim to take full advantage of their skills in the workforce.

The current approach is borderline racist, and completely counterproductive in terms of getting talented people to help build the UK economy.

Government should increase the proportion of funds from the National Cyber Security Programme (NCSP) that is targeted towards the investigation and prosecution of cases of online crime. As the proportion of criminal activity that takes place online rises (with a cost of £27 billion to the UK economy in 2012), government must ensure that the National Cyber Crime Unit, local police forces and the wider criminal justice system have the funds, training and expertise necessary to effectively address cybercrime and cyber-enabled fraud and theft. Only 16.1% of the National Cyber Security Programme (NCSP) budget for 2013/14 is directed towards Law enforcement for combatting cyber crime.

Although the term “cyber security” is inherently risible, the sentiment here is probably right: we need more work done to combat real online threats. However, I do want to emphasise the “real” part here: it is crucially important that the UK government focuses on the growing activity of criminals online, and not on the supposedly massive terrorist threat, which is driving current policy and budget allocations. That obsession with “terror” is at the root of the current surveillance regime imposed on us. The government seems to think that it can simply invoke terrorism to justify any infractions on law and liberties. It’s a serious failure of the Manifesto that it does not address – or even mention – what is the key challenge facing us in the digital realm. This failure is also evident in the section dealing with individuals, where we read:

A connected society is also one that is confident to use the internet safely. Government has a role to play in raising awareness of the potential dangers of cyber crime, e-commerce fraud, online bullying, predatory behaviour, and harmful content. In all these areas, government must also be aware that technology can only go so far in protecting internet users. The most effective safeguard is equipping individuals with the awareness and skills they need to manage online dangers safely.

And this:

We should also be clear about the goals of computing education: the aim should not be to create a workforce of programmers. Britain must instead differentiate itself in the global marketplace by educating students to combine technical expertise with analytical thinking; digital skills with creative pursuits; and coding ability with business acumen.

Again, I agree with both statements as far as they go. But what is missing here is a call for individuals to be educated about how to resist the greatest online threat we currently face: intrusive and disproportionate surveillance from the UK and other governments. It’s true that “[t]he most effective safeguard is equipping individuals with the awareness and skills they need to manage online dangers safely,” but in this case, the awareness concerns government surveillance, and the skills needed are how to combat and if possible nullify that constant invasion of our privacy, principally through the thoroughgoing encryption of all communications.

That’s a tall order, and one that the UK digital community itself can help to address by building crypto tools that are easier to use, unlike the current generation which are still far too hard. But given the UK government’s refusal even to acknowledge that its 24 by 7 spying on the entire UK population is a problem, this really seems the only solution available to us. The complete absence of this aspect from the Technology Manifesto’s analysis renders its otherwise sensible and welcome recommendations far less useful – and far less important – than they could have been.

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