Back to 1984 as UK politicians erase history from the internet

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan November 13, 2013
Summary:
We have always been at war with Eurasia. We never promised more open government. We have not said we'd match the previous government's spending commitments. We have not attempted to rewrite uncomfortable realities.

 

1984

So there I was fresh from talking up the efforts of the UK government in driving forward the transparency and open data agendas when along comes a bizarre Orwellian attempt to erase history by the British Conservative Party that leaves you realising that nothing much has changed in some quarters.

The scandal was exposed in an excellent scoop by Mark Ballard of Computer Weekly, who found that the Conservative Party set out to erase a 10-year backlog of speeches from the internet - not just their own web site, but the whole ruddy internet!

These would, of course, include any pre-election commitments that ministers would find politically convenient not to be reminded of - including those made by Prime Minister David Cameron pledging a shift to a new era of transparent politics!

But sadly people have long memories Prime Minister, such as the occasion in 2006, when you were still in opposition, and you spoke at the Google Zeitgeist conference, declaring:

“Democratising is the right word to use because by making more information available to more people, you're giving them more power.

"Above all, the power for anyone to hold to account those who in the past might have had a monopoly of power - whether it's government, big business, or the traditional media.”

Ah yes, all good and well when you’re in opposition, but perhaps an idealistic stance that sits more uncomfortably when you’re the one with the power, eh?

Perhaps he needs to remind himself of what someone - Now who was it? Oh, yes, him! - said at another Google Zeitgeist event a year later .

06-16-13-Ministry-of-Truth
The Ministry of Truth

(Cameron went through a bit of a Zeitgeist phase which has tapered off somewhat since he became Prime Minister and people started asking why he seemed to be hanging out with Google so much.)

On that second occasion, his warning to the political elite was stark:

“It's clear to me that political leaders will have to learn to let go. Let go of the information that we've guarded so jealously."

Just a couple of weeks ago, Cameron was grandstanding at the Open Government Partnership Summit in London where he admitted:

“Open government isn’t some kind of optional add-on or a ‘nice to have’ but it is absolutely fundamental to a nation’s success in the 21st Century.”

He went on to attack nations such as North Korea for their closed and corrupt information societies. In the light of this week's revelations, that's worth a cynically raised eyebrow at the very least.

Orwell must be spinning in his grave at this personification of political double think...personified. In 1984, we had always been at war with Eurasia. That was history said, even if there was no record and our memories told us something different.

Cock-up or conspiracy?

When I first heard about the story, my immediate reaction was one of cock-up rather than conspiracy. It’ll be some flashy Sloane Square type who’s come up with a jolly wheeze about removing embarrassing information so the media can’t get at it in the run up to the 2015 election.

But it goes so much further that I’m firmly in the conspiracy camp now.

This was a deliberate action that required clear intent to put into practice.

A file called robots.txt on the party’s website instructed those who visited the site to ignore certain pages, notably its archive of news and speeches.

The instructions in the robots.txt file in turn caused the Internet Archive - the digital library that seeks to preserve the public web - to block access to its records of the speeches.

victorygin
Cameron’s made no personal comment to date on all this - and to be fair to him there’s no concrete evidence that he sanctioned the decision to go ahead with this deletion attempt.

Equally there’s been no denial that he did nor confirmation that he did not. Someone pretty senior must surely have been involved? If not, it's time for the Conservative campaign team to clear up the speculation.

But instead a party spokesman has declined to address questions, choosing to waffle on about web design and scoring party political points:

“These changes [to the website] allow people to quickly and easily access the most important information we provide – how we are clearing up Labour’s economic mess, taking the difficult decisions and standing up for hard working people.”

Shameful

The reality is that the Conservatives have been caught out in a act that denigrates democracy in a digital age and makes a mockery of the high minded pledges around open data and transparency.

It’s  also a betrayal of those in the UK public sector that have been working incredibly hard on meeting those pledges.

Whoever authorised this action, it’s backfired splendidly thanks to Computer Weekly which notes that the Internet Archive has now started to restore some of the files to its searches.

Elsewhere The Guardian reports that one British institution may have foiled this cunning plan anyway:

The British Library points out it has been archiving the party's website since 2004. Under a change in the copyright law, the library also downloaded 4.8m domains earlier this year – in effect, anything on the web with a .co.uk address – and says although the Conservative pages use a .com suffix they will be added to the store "as it is firmly within scope of the material we have a duty to archive".

But overall a shameful episode for which a public apology is overdue from the highest levels within Downing Street.

The only saving grace - for the wider cause of open government and transparency, not for the sake of Conservative blushes - is that these revelations didn't come to light before  Cameron stood up at the OGP Summit and told everyone else to put their house in order.