Yesterday we looked at the proposal from the Conservative Party to double the skilled immigration levy if elected on 8 June. This article focuses on the remainder of the Conservative Party digital economy and digital government proposals in the manifesto.
There are two main digital agendas posited by Theresa May’s Tories – economic growth and online safety. To address both:
A Conservative government will develop a digital charter, working with industry and charities to establish a new framework that balances freedom with protection for users, and offers opportunities alongside obligations for businesses and platforms. This charter has two fundamental aims: that we will make Britain the best place to start and run a digital business; and that we will make Britain the safest place in the world to be online.
The Tories intend to open new branches of the British Business Bank in Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Manchester and Newport, each of which will have a local focus. Post-Brexit, the intention is to find the bank with “repatriated funds from the European Investment Fund”.
With the stated intention of making it easier for both consumers and companies to do business online, businesses will be given the right to insist on a digital signature and the right to digital cancellation of contracts. In addition, all digital companies will be required to provide digital receipts, clearer terms and conditions when selling goods and services online and support new digital proofs of identification.
As we’ve noted in the past, the current Conservative govenrment has set a minimum broadband requirement of 10 Mbps in the hastily-pushed through Digital Economy Act, despite the House of Lords wanting to set that baseline at 30 Mbps. It’s interesting to note that the Manifesto avoids specific speed commitments, only stating:
We will ensure that consumers and businesses have access to the digital infrastructure they need to succeed. By the end of this year, 19 out of 20 premises will have access to superfast broadband and our Universal Service Obligation will ensure that by 2020 every home and every business in Britain has access to high speed broadband. We will work to provide gigaspeed connectivity to as many businesses and homes as possible. We will introduce a full fibre connection voucher for companies across the country by 2018 and by 2022 we will have major fibre spines in over a hundred towns and cities, with ten million premises connected to full fibre and a clear path to national coverage over the next decade.
Social media and extremism
As was widely leaked in advance, there’s to be more pressure brought to bear on internet and social media platform providers to take more action on extermist content:
We will continue to push the internet companies to deliver on their commitments to develop technical tools to identify and remove terrorist propaganda, to help smaller companies build their capabilities and to provide support for civil society organisations to promote alternative and counter-narratives. In addition, 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.
As for those massive fines that were being threatened last weekend, the Manifesto argues:
Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree… So we will establish a regulatory framework in law to underpin our digital charter and to ensure that digital companies, social media platforms and content providers abide by these principles.
We will introduce a sanctions regime to ensure compliance, giving regulators the ability to fine or prosecute those companies that fail in their legal duties, and to order the removal of content where it clearly breaches UK law. We will also create a power in law for government to introduce an industry-wide levy from social media companies and communication service providers to support awareness and preventative activity to counter internet harms, just as is already the case with the gambling industry.
Also as leaked, the under-18s will be offered the Right to be Forgotten on social media platforms, with embarassing postings erased on request. There’s also a proposal for a wider societal consideration of data ethics:
To create a sound ethical framework for how data is used, we will institute an expert Data Use and Ethics Commission to advise regulators and parliament on the nature of data use and how best to prevent its abuse. The Commission will help us to develop the principles and rules that will give people con dence that their data is being handled properly.
While it’s already known that the UK will implement the forthcoming GDPR European Union regulations, post-Brexit things may change as the Manifesto states:
We will bring forward a new data protection law, fit for our new data age, to ensure the very best standards for the safe, flexible and dynamic use of data and enshrining our global leadership in the ethical and proportionate regulation of data. We will put the National Data Guardian for Health and Social Care on a statutory footing to ensure data security standards are properly enforced.
The Tory Manifesto is the only one to date to include a specific set of proposals relating to digital government (without once referring to the Government Digital Service incidentally), stating:
We believe government should not only be exceptional in dealing digitally with the people it serves but should also at the forefront of using digital technology in all its systems so that it can deliver better public services.
We will therefore create a new presumption of digital government services by default and an expectation that all government services are fully accessible online, with assisted digital support available for all public sector websites.
There are pledges around greater online transparency of public services data, including operational performance to enable citizens to “hold their local services to account”.
Other public sector pledges include:
- Central and local government will be required to release information regularly and in an open format, and data will be aggregated and anonymised where it is important to do so.
- Greater incubation of digital services within government.
- The introduction of digital transformation fellowships, to bring private sector tech leaders into government.
- The use of more common platforms across government and the wider public sector.
Following on from the platform mentality, there’s an endorsement of the Verify online identification, which will be part of all government online services by 2020. There will also be a push to pitch Verify beyond government:
We will also make this platform more widely available, so that people can safely verify their identify to access non-government services such as banking. We will set out a strategy to rationalise the use of personal data within government, reducing data duplication across all systems, so that we automatically comply with the ’Once-Only’ principle in central government services by 2022 and wider public services by 2025.
The Gig Economy
Like the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives turn their attention to the rise of the Gig Economy, although with a less disapproving eye:
In the modern economy many people choose jobs like driving, delivering and coding, that are highly flexible and can be mixed with other employment. This brings considerable advantages to millions of people but we should not ignore the challenges this kind of employment creates. These workers are officially classed as self-employed and therefore have fewer pension entitlements, reduced access to benefits, and no qualification for sick pay and holiday pay. Yet the nature of their work is different from the traditional self- employed worker who might be a sole trader, a freelancer or running their own business.
We will make sure that people working in the ‘gig’ economy are properly protected. Last October, the government commissioned Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, to review the changing labour market. We await his final report, but a new Conservative government will act to ensure that the interests of employees on traditional contracts, the self- employed and those people working in the ‘gig’ economy are all properly protected.
Antony Walker, deputy CEO of UK technology sector trade association techUK, said it is a “political first” to have such a digital focus:
Tech firms will sit up and take note of this ambitious digital agenda.This manifesto puts securing the UK’s digital future at heart of the Conservative’s programme for Government. techUK applauds the recognition of opportunities and challenges in a Digital Age. The next Government will need to work closely with the tech industry to navigate the best possible path for the UK.
But he warned:
Putting these commitments into practice will not be easy. There is a fine line between creating an enabling framework that supports a thriving digital nation and over reaching regulation that constrains the creativity of businesses and citizens. The UK cannot afford to get this wrong – one of the main reasons that the UK is a global tech hub is due to its environment of regulatory certainty and that must continue.
In relation to the digital government commitments, Walker added:
The recognition that Government itself must be at the forefront of using digital technology is highly welcome. Digital transformation will be vital to creating a Smarter State – protecting public services amid rising public sector debt and demands on usage. The focus now must be on ensuring focused delivery, an effective refresh of the Verify programme, and ensuring that this scale of ambition happens at local as well as central government. As the UK exits the European Union, it is crucial that the UK has a public procurement environment which is open to new innovative solutions in public service delivery.
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