The role of Internet and ICT policies in the UK after the 2010 election: does it make a difference for the role of the Internet in British society if there will be a Labour-Lib Dem or a Conservative-Lib Dem government?

Will there be changes in Internet and ICT politics and policies after the 2010 elections for the Westminster parliament? Willit in this context make a difference if there will be a Tory-LibDem government or a Labour-LibDem government? The election manifestos of the three parties give us an idea of what to expect in the near future for UK Internet politics.

Liberal Democrats: No agenda is also an agenda

The Liberal Democrats do not have an agenda for the role they want to assign to ICTs and the Internet in Britain. In their “Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010”, the prospects for the economy are fully focused on establishing a Green economy. There is no discussion of the role of ICTs and the Internet in the economy. One finds a few passages in the 109 pages of the document, where ICTs or the Internet are mentioned: The LibDems seem to consider social networking sites and web 2.0 primarily as problem, where users become victims of individual crimes. Therefore they want to tackle ”online bullying by backing quick-report buttons on social networking sites, enabling offensive postings to be speedily removed“ (p. 17). They do not discuss the problem of online commodification of users and the circumstance that the Internet is dominated by a commercial, advertising-oriented culture that results in data surveillance for economic purposes. Discussions about the online bullying report button ignore the positive aspects that web 2.0 has for the socialization and growing-up process of adolescents. The LibDems want to advance “better government IT procurement, investigating the potential of different approaches such as cloud computing and open-source software“ (p. 17) and  “support public investment in the roll-out of superfast broadband, targeted first at those areas which are least likely to be provided for by the market“ (p. 26). They do not argue what kind of broadband Internet they want to provide, if it should be freely available to all citizens or if it fit should be a manifestation of an intensified commodification of the Internet so that users have to pay private companies for getting access to a broadband Internet that is dominated by commercial culture. The message that the Liberal Democrat’s manifesto gives is that they have no clue about what role the Internet and ICTs should play in society. Having no ICT and Internet agenda is also an agenda, although not a particularly good one. So what about the Conservatives and the Labour Party? Can they make a difference in ICT and Internet politics?

Conservative Party and Labour Party

Other than the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party in their 120-page Conservative Manifesto 2010 and the Labour Party in their 78-page Labour Party Manifesto 2010 give significant attention to the role of ICTs and the Internet in British society. The Tories have even published a 9 page “Conservative Technology Manifesto” for the 2010 elections. But an analysis of these manifestos shows that large quantity does not necessarily mean good quality.

Both the Conservatives and Labour want to advance the rollout of a super-fast Internet broadband infrastructure. They want to invest public money in building this infrastructure and leave no doubt that private companies should control it. “We want Britain to become a European hub for hi-tech, digital and creative industries – but this can only happen if we have the right infrastructure in place. Establishing a super-fast broadband network throughout the UK could generate 600,000 additional jobs and add £18 billion to Britain’s GDP“ (Conservative Manifesto 2010, p. 24). “Our plans will give Britain the fastest high speed broadband network in Europe, helping to create 600,000 additional jobs. We will make the British government the most technology-friendly in the world, and meet our ambition that the next generation of Googles, Microsofts and Facebooks are British companies“ (Conservative Technology Manifesto, p. 2). “We will be the first country in Europe to extend superfast 100 mbps broadband across most of the population. This is up to 50 times faster than Labour’s planned broadband network – and will open up new opportunities for the next generation of British high tech companies, and put Britain at an advantage when it comes to developing innovative online platforms and services. We will unleash private sector investment to build this superfast broadband network by opening up network infrastructure, easing planning rules and boosting competition“ (p. 6).

The Labour Party also wants to advance a high-speed Internet broadband infrastructure. It speaks of “Broadband Britain“: “Britain must be a world leader in the development of broadband. We are investing in the most ambitious plan of any industrialised country to ensure a digital Britain for all, extending access to every home and business. We will reach the long-term vision of superfast broadband for all through a public-private partnership in three stages: first, giving virtually every household in the country a broadband service of at least two megabits per second by 2012; second, making possible superfast broadband for the vast majority of Britain  in partnership with private operators, with Government investing over £1 billion in the next seven years; and lastly reaching the final ten per cent using satellites and mobile broadband. Because we are determined that every family and business, not just some, should benefit, we will raise revenue to pay for this from a modest levy on fixed telephone lines. And we will continue to work with business, the BBC and other broadcasting providers to increase take-up of broadband and to ensure Britain becomes a leading digital economy” (Labour Party Manifesto 2010, pp. 1:7f).

Both the Conservatives and the Labour Party leave no doubt that they want to invest taxpayer’s money for creating a high-speed broadband infrastructure that is controlled by private companies and that can be accessed by people in the UK by paying fees to Internet service provider companies. This means that public investment is used not for creating a public infrastructure that is universally accessible, which means accessible for all without payment, but for privatizing the infrastructure so that is in the hands of companies and thereby de-facto becomes commodified and private property. If access to knowledge, knowledge production, and communication are universal conditions of human and societal flourishing, then Internet access – a central infrastructure for contemporary information, communication, and co-operation – should be treated as being part of the commons of society and should be made available without payment to all citizens. A commodified Internet infrastructure privileges high-income classes, stratifies Internet access, as a tendency excludes lower-income groups, and commodifies the access to knowledge and communication.

The Conservatives do not think about Internet access solutions beyond the market, whereas the Labour Party suggests to “build on our network of UK Online centres and public libraries to spread free internet access points within the community, and develop new incentives for users to switch to online services“ (Labour Party Manifesto, p. 9:5). Free Internet access within libraries is a strange idea, it is like not being able to take home a book from the library, but having to read the full book in the library. The Internet is a highly flexible and mobile technology, containing access to certain places, such as libraries, is therefore an odd and backward-oriented policy suggestion. The only viable solution is to create freely available, non-commercial wireless Internet access points all over the country.

What kind of Internet content and platform providers do the Tories and Labour favour? Both parties claim that they will advance economic growth by fostering entrepreneurship in the ICT industry and providing tax cuts and start-up subsidies for ICT and Internet companies. “A Conservative government will build a new model of economic growth, based on high tech and high value industries. This means harnessing and catalysing the next generation of technologies, and helping businesses to create highly paid new jobs in every part of the country. We will build a high tech 21st century infrastructure that is fit for purpose, and we will lay the foundation for a British technology revolution” (Conservative Technology Manifesto 2010, p. 6). “As recommended by the Dyson Review, we will keep R&D tax credits but will simplify and refocus them on high tech companies, small businesses and new start-ups in order to stimulate a new wave of technology” (Conservative Technology Manifesto 2010, p. 7).

Similar policies are envisioned by Labour: “Labour believes we should rebuild our economy in new ways: with more high-tech business, fairer rewards and responsibility from all, including at the top” (Labour Party Manifesto 2010, p. 0:4). “Within this, the Growth Capital Fund will focus on SMEs which need capital injections of between £2 and £10 million, while the Innovation Investment Fund will focus on the needs of high-tech firms” (Labour Party Manifesto 2010, p. 1:6). “At the heart of our approach to building a strong and fair Britain is a commitment to support enterprise” (Labour Party Manifesto 2010, p. 1:7).

Both the Tories and Labour cling to the 1990s Californian ideology (throwing public money at ICT companies and thereby hoping for economic prosperity and a new job wonder). The result of the Californian ideology was not long-time economic growth, stability, and a new job wonder, but the bursting of the Internet economy bubble in 2000 and as a result the new economy crisis. It is therefore surprising that the two largest British parties show continued faith in ICT and Internet corporatism and do not look for possibilities for public investment in alternative Internet and ICT models that try to go beyond crisis capitalism, finance capital, and try to see the Internet and ICTs as part of society’s commons. The Internet that both parties imagine is one that is dominated by monopoly capital, and in a nationalistic tone it is envisioned that Internet monopolies will be British in the future. So the Tories speak of the “ambition that the next generation of Googles, Microsofts and Facebooks are British companies“ (Conservative Technology Manifesto 2010, p. 2). There is not the slightest awareness in these documents of the many problems associated with Internet and ICT monopolies and the domination of the Internet by capitalist logic.

Both the Tories and Labour consider ICTs and the Internet important for public administration and democracy. However, the ideas of both parties on digital democracy are conventional and do not go beyond eGovernment. The Tories want to increase the transparency of public administration with the help of the Internet: ”We will open up Whitehall recruitment by publishing central government job vacancies online, saving costs and increasing transparency. [...] We will: require public bodies to publish online the job titles of every member of staff and the salaries and expenses of senior officials paid more than the lowest salary permissible in Pay band 1 of the Senior Civil Service pay scale, and organograms that include all positions in those bodies “ (Conservative Manifesto 2010, p. 69). We will “require senior civil servants to publish online details of expense claims and meetings with lobbyists; examine the case for giving Select Committees the power to prevent increases“ (p. 70).

Similar announcements can be found in Labour’s election programme: “Public services in the digital age: Citizens expect their public services to be transparent, interactive and easily accessible. We will open up government, embedding access to information and data into the very fabric of public services. Citizens should be able to compare local services, demand improvements, choose between providers, and hold government to account. We have led the world with the creation of, putting over 3,000 government datasets online. Entrepreneurs and developers have used these datasets to unleash social innovation, creating applications and websites for citizens from local crime maps to new guides to help find good care homes or GPs. We will now publish a Domesday Book of all non-personal datasets held by government and its agencies, with a default assumption that these will be made public. We will explore how to give citizens direct access to the data held on them by public agencies, so that people can use and control their own personal data in their interaction with service providers and the wider community“ (Labour Party Manifesto 2010, p. 9:5).

The Tories present themselves as the harbingers of direct democracy: ”Give citizens more power: People have been shut out of Westminster politics for too long. Having a single vote every four or five years is not good enough – we need to give people real control over how they are governed. So, with a Conservative government, any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to be voted on in Parliament. and we  will introduce a new Public reading Stage for bills to give the public an opportunity to comment on proposed legislation online” (Conservative Manifesto 2010, p. 66). ”We will throw open the doors of Parliament by introducing a technology enabled Public Reading Stage that will involve the public in the legislative process, and harness the wisdom of crowds to improve bills and spot potential problems before legislation is implemented” (Conservative Technology Manifesto 2010, p. 3). The idea of the Conservatives is to let citizens suggest proposals that are discussed in parliament and to make use of the Internet to let citizens express their opinion on proposed legislation. This means that they want to foster political talking and interaction, but do not want to give citizens real power to influence and decide on legislation outside of general elections. The suggested reforms are not an expression of grassroots democracy and grassroots digital democracy, but rather of populist digital plebiscitarianism or what Carole Pateman in the 1970s called pseudo-participation: citizens are summoned to “participate” by communicating and voicing opinions in order to silence them and discourage real participatory politics, in which they can directly influence decisions and have a say in politics.

Also Labour wants to strengthen democracy with the help of ICTs and the Internet, although their ideas remain more abstract: “Opening up government – central and local – in this way offers huge potential for Britain. We can use new technologies to give people a say on policy-making; enable citizens to carry out more of their dealings with government online; and save money for taxpayers as we switch services over to digital-only delivery” (Labour Party Manifesto 2010, p.  9:5). It remains unclear what exactly it means to “use new technologies to give people a say on policy-making”. Such a vague abstractness is a shame for an election programme.

Both the Tories and Labour understand digital democracy to mean that government provides more information to citizens with the help of ICTs and that citizens can communicate opinions to politicians, the government, and parliament with the help of the Internet. This understanding of digital democracy is narrow because it fully leaves out the importance of civil society and citizen-to-citizen political communication for a flourishing and dynamic democracy. The notion of democracy is confined to politics, there is no talk about economic democracy, work place democracy, and democracy in other spheres of society and the role that ICTs and the Internet could play for advancing participatory democracy in all realms of society. The understandings of digital democracy that can be found in the election manifestos of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party are one-dimensional, government-focused, and do not realize the actual potentials that the Internet can pose for democratic reforms that enable participatory democracy.

The Tories speak about the threats of a “database state” (Conservative Manifesto 2010, p. 79). “We will strengthen the powers of the Information Commissioner to penalise any public body found guilty of mismanaging data. We will take further steps to protect people from unwarranted intrusion by the state” (p. 79). It is no surprise that the Conservatives do see privacy threats, problems of surveillance and data misuse only in relation to public administration and not also in the context of private companies that gather, store, assess, and sell personal data for economic ends because the Tories have a neoliberal ICT agenda in mind that only considers ICT and Internet companies as harbingers of economic growth, but not as potential threats to consumer and user interests. Economic surveillance is not an issue for the Conservatives, but neither is it one for the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.

The only realm, where the Conservatives see problems of a corporate Internet, is in relation to children. They argue that children should be protected from online advertising. “Children should be allowed to grow up at their own pace, without excessive pressure placed on them by businesses. We will take a series of measures to help reverse the commercialisation of childhood. We prefer to gain voluntary consent to these actions but we are prepared to legislate if necessary. We will: * prevent any marketing or advertising company found to be in serious breach of  rules governing marketing to children from bidding for government advertising contracts for three years; * ban companies from using new peer-to-peer marketing techniques targeted at children, and tackle marketing on corporate websites targeted at children; * establish a new online system that gives parents greater powers to take action against irresponsible commercial activities targeted at children; and, * empower head teachers and governors to ban advertising and vending machines in schools“ (Conservative Manifesto 2010, p. 43). One wonders why only children need protection from online advertising? Also adolescents and adults have to fear negative consequences from the activities of online advertisers and Internet corporations that gather and commodify personal data for economic ends as well as from employers and managers who look for private information about job applicants and employees on web 2.0.

The Labour Party mentions eLearning in one paragraph, whereas both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats do not tackle this topic at all. “Because the learning environment itself matters, we will take forward our Building Schools for the Future programme to rebuild or refurbish secondary schools, giving our children first-rate facilities that support inspirational teaching and access to ICT, sports and the arts” (Labour Party Manifesto 2010, p. 3:5). The view underlying this passage is that more ICTs are always good for learning, there is no sense for what kind of ICTs and that a blended approach is needed that combines participatory educational institutions with participatory learning technologies.

66% of British Internet users aged 15-24 say that it is morally acceptable to download music for free and 70% say they do not feel guilty for downloading music for free (Youth and Media survey 2009, N=1026, Office of Communications: Communication Market Report 2009, 278). Refusing and opposing the interests of young people and other citizens, both the Conservatives and the Labour Party intend to continue the criminalization of file sharers in order to guarantee profit interests for the culture industry. No matter which party will be in power, a tightening of intellectual property right protection and of the repression against file sharers and thereby the interest of the majority of young people can be expected. The Labour Party has announced: “We will update the intellectual property framework that is crucial to the creative industries – and take further action to tackle online piracy” (Labour Party Manifesto 2010, p. 7:6). Similarly the Tories have said: “We will ensure that Britain has the most favourable intellectual framework in the world for innovators and high tech businesses. We recognise the need to tackle digital piracy and make it possible for people to buy and sell digital intellectual property online. However it is vital that any anti-piracy measures promote new business models rather than holding innovation back” (Conservative Technology Manifesto 2010, p. 7).

Both parties miss an understanding of the question if free access to digital knowledge is a form of cultural democracy that strengthens capabilities, communication, the public sphere, and cultural dynamics. They put the corporate interests of the culture industry first and above the interests of cultural prosumers. Also alternative policy measures, such as the culture flat rate, are not discussed. The actual or potential criminalization of a large share of Internet users is simply accepted, not questioned. Also the problem of how cultural production can be remunerated in an age of file sharing without enhancing the dependency of these producers on large media companies and without criminalizing users is not discussed.


No matter if the solution to the situation of a hung parliament in Great Britain will be a Conservative or a Labour government supported by the Liberal Democrats, one thing is for sure: there will not be any significant positive changes in the realm of Internet and ICT politics and policies. The Liberal Democrats have simply ignored this topic in their 2010 election manifesto, which shows that they consider the Internet and ICTs as unimportant. In contrast, the Labour Party and the Conservatives compete for which of the two parties can create a more neoliberal ICT policy framework. Both Labour and the Tories stand for the advancement of the commodification of the Internet and ICTs, the weakening and economization of the cultural commons of society, the criminalization of Internet users, opposition to the cultural interests of young Internet users, ignorance towards ICT-enhanced participatory democracy, civil society, and citizen-to-citizen political communication; and the focus on conventional and unoriginal eGovernment measures. In the UK, government will in the coming years pursue Internet politics with a backwards-oriented neo-neoliberal agenda. We can expect an extension and intensification of neoliberal Internet policies. The answer to the question asked in the title of this contribution is: No!

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