The predicted Tory landslide means huge things for the internet as we know it
If the polls are to be believed (and it’s worth remembering that when they’ve been wrong, they’ve badly overestimated Labour support), Theresa May will still be prime minister on 9 June. Only this time, she’ll have the kind of whopping majority unseen by the Tories since Margaret Thatcher was at her peak. While most of the media have been focusing on the parts of proposed policy with the letter X in (tax, Brexit, foxes), the area that could have the biggest impact in the long run is tucked away towards the end of the manifesto, under the headline “A framework for data and the digital economy.”
Given the Conservatives are now led by the woman who was chosen as the Internet Service Providers’ Association villain of the year in 2015 thanks to her work on the Snoopers’ charter, the first line should be be cause for alarm: “Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.”
Unsurprisingly, much of this is explained away as a response to the ever-present threat of terrorism (“we do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability”) but there are also references to cyberbullying, cybercrime and pornography. “We will put a responsibility on industry not to direct users – even unintentionally – to hate speech, pornography, or other sources of harm,” the manifesto says, which sounds like a plan to force companies to actively block sites from British internet users. Conservative aides told Buzzfeed News that a future Conservative government plans to rein in the power of Google and Facebook.
Assuming this can be done (and that’s a ginormous “if” given the power of Facebook and Google), there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this ambition. But the vague bundle of words in the manifesto offers a hugely simplified view on a remarkably complex set of problems, and the heavy-handed approach of the Snoopers’ Charter alongside the past tech illiteracy of those in government doesn’t inspire confidence that such a major rebalancing of power will be done competently.
Still, that rebalancing remains the Conservative Party’s ambition: “We will be the global leader in the regulation of the use of personal data and the internet.” That inevitably means trampling over privacy, and we’ve seen a glimpse of things to come in leaked proposals. It could also bring back talk of banning services such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Telegram in the UK, if they don’t agree to break their own encryption for government use (again: there’s no such thing as a backdoor that only goodies can use).
In short, the internet could look very different by the next time the country goes to the polls in 2022. Whether or not the Tory measures for reshaping the internet are popular, a thumping great three-digit majority will allow the government to argue it has a mandate for making the changes. That, I’ve come to believe, is the thing people hate most about politicians: when campaigning for election, politicians acknowledge the complexity of public opinion. There’s a tacit understanding that voters might not like every platform you stand on, but “hold your nose and vote for us to stop the other guys getting their hands on Brexit negotiations/Trident/the NHS/immigration”. As soon as the campaign is over, things turn black-and-white on the most minute details of policy that nobody even read, let alone endorsed: people explicitly voted for our plans to block WhatsApp and rifle through your data. It’s our duty to follow through with our promise.
That’s democracy for you.