Paul Bernal offers winners of general election advice re government internet policy – how about hiring advisers who know what they are talking about
Perhaps the most defining feature of government internet policy – and this means pretty much all governments around the world, and particularly the last two governments here in the UK – is its incompetence. It has also been largely pretty illiberal, but for the current government at least that should be no surprise because illiberalism has characterised almost all its policies.
That illiberalism, however, does not seem to be as pronounced as its incompetence. Very little that governments want to do – or at least say they want to do – do they actually achieve. Their measures against copyright infringements fail to stop copyright infringements. Their surveillance plans fail to catch terrorists. Their ‘porn’ filters fail to prevent people having access to porn.
What’s more, their efforts have side effects – and indeed often appear to be worse than ineffective: they’re actually counter-productive. Measures against copyright infringement encourage piracy and the development of new methods of illegal file-sharing. ‘Porn’ filters block sex education sites. Mass surveillance distracts from and sucks resources from more direct, targeted forms of intelligence work – in France, for example, conventional surveillance of the Charlie Hebdo shooters was dropped for lack of resources six months before the shootings, while money was being spent on ineffective mass surveillance.
There are two immediate questions to ask about that incompetence: why does it happen, and how can it be avoided?
Answering the first is complex – but a significant part of it is the ignorance of the politicians. They don’t understand the internet, the people who spend time on the internet and how they spend their time. They design their policies based on false assumptions and bad advice – advice from people who themselves either don’t understand the internet or have a vested interest in a particular kind of solution. Copyright legislation based on the advice of the copyright lobby. ‘Porn’ filters based on the beliefs (and that is the appropriate word) of people who essentially don’t like porn, and think that’s enough to build a system on. Surveillance systems based on the advice of what might be loosely called the spooks.
That, then, leads to the answer to the second – and to the policy that I would suggest to whatever government comes into power in May. The government needs better advice – and very different advisers. A panel of advisers should be put together, drawing not on the usual suspects – the PR people of the ‘copyright lobby’, the heads of the intelligence services, the pressure groups of the ‘family’ lobby – but on people with real knowledge and understanding of both the internet and the community that spend time there. There is a huge amount of expertise out there, if only the government were willing to consult them.
These experts should come from the internet industry itself – and by that I mean people working not just for the government’s current favourite internet giants, whether that be Google or Facebook, but the small, cutting edge operators who make up the membership of ISPA. They should come from the hacker community – people who write the code itself. They should come from academia – from the computer science departments of some of our excellent universities, from law departments such as the one I work for myself, from social sciences and so on. They should come from civil society – the expertise of groups like Privacy International and the Open Rights Group should be an invaluable resource.
The panel of advisers should be consulted at the earliest stage, not consulted about a policy after the policy has, effectively, already been decided upon. All too often over the last few years particularly, the wrong decisions have been made for the wrong reasons behind closed doors, before the people who really understand the issues, the technology and the potential impact of the policies have a chance to explain just why they’re misguided and won’t work.
Of course accessing this kind of expertise would require a step of humility that seems beyond most politicians. They would need to be honest enough to say ‘we don’t know’ and to ask for help. If they are brave enough to do so, they could actually get something done, which surely must be a goal for most politicians.
Paul Bernal is a lecturer in IT, IP and Media Law at the UEA Law School, the author of Internet Privacy Rights (published by CUP in 2014), tweets as @paulbernalUK, and spends a lot of time blogging about the internet, law, privacy and politics. His blog can be found here. He would be a good adviser for next government internet policy.
Other political week posts on trefor.net:
Gus Hosein on Data Protection Reform and Surveillance
The Julian Huppert crowd funding campaign here
See all our regulatory posts here.