General Election 2017: Theresa May's chilling assault on the internet serves only to make us more vulnerable

Elliott Haworth
Follow Elliott
The UK Hosts The 2017 Somalia Conference
At once hubristic and jejune, May’s solution is draconian and disparages the firms that make the digital economy thrive. (Source: Getty)

The Tory manifesto contains plenty to make one feel persona non grata.

Attacking “the cult of selfish individualism” and rejecting “untrammelled free markets” is not, I thought, what conservatism is about. But, as if to add insult to injury, the full-frontal assault on internet freedom goes even further, plunging the hand of the state deep into the digital realm.

May’s insistence that her government will “regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning” amounts to a scope creep which only serves to make us more vulnerable.

The Prime Minister’s reaction to the heinous terrorist attacks in London and Manchester exemplifies the delusion she holds about restricting the digital realm to protect the physical one.

Promising the “destruction of safe spaces” for those who seek to harm us will raise few eyebrows as we mourn the dark weekend past.

But the way the Tory manifesto approaches cyber-security is myopic, a demonstrable misunderstanding of the fundamental purpose and function of such technologies. The proposed Technical Capability Notices, a likely extension of the loathed Investigatory Powers Act – the Snooper’s Charter – should concern us all. If the draft technical paper leaked to The Open Rights Group is anything to go by, it spells the end of secure, encrypted communications online.

It’s not just terrorists who will have nowhere “to hide”, but everyone. Encryption is binary: if the government has a back-door, so does anyone with malign intent and a slither of technical knowledge. It is the antithesis of internet safety. It is real-time, statist surveillance; a total rejection of the right to a private life, and an affront to liberty that serves only to make us powerless against those lurking in the darkest corners of the web.

The manifesto goes on: “we will put a responsibility on industry not to direct users – even unintentionally – to hate speech, pornography, or other sources of harm”. Again, this might seem reasonable – the internet is, after all, riddled with lurid content children shouldn’t see. But this is a dangerous precedent, for two reasons.

First, the wording strongly suggests that the government will have the ability to decide what is and isn’t published online.

Censorship – for want of a better word.

Second, it forces businesses to more deeply monitor communications of users, under the threat of a sanctions regime encompassing fines and prosecution for failed compliance. More corporate surveillance means more data, which when combined with the powers granted under the Snooper’s Charter – to collect the browsing records of everyone in the country – gifts the state unbridled access to even richer data about its citizens.

Balancing privacy with security is an unwelcome task in the digital age. But, at once hubristic and jejune, May’s solution is draconian and disparages the firms that make the digital economy thrive.

What difference her coveted actions will make to stopping terror are negligible, to say the least. Those who seek to harm us would simply go deeper underground. Technology will always outpace regulation. Essentially, it would force terrorists to become more sophisticated, while the rest of us – our financial transactions, online commerce and personal data – grow only less secure.

The internet was meant to be a place of liberty; a space free of the stranglehold of government, its life-blood the ability to connect human beings, its purpose the free flow of information and ideas.

What May is proposing destroys any semblance of that which remains.

Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

Related articles