Late last month we saw a grand statement of principles by a global coalition of economic powers. The United States, the 27 member states of the EU, the United Kingdom and 32 other countries around the world signed the Declaration for the Future of the Internet, a rather ornately presented summary of the philosophical approach to digital communication.
From the liberal, free-market perspective of the West, it makes encouraging reading.
The declaration talks of “reclaiming the promise of the internet” as an open network of networks allowing communication and “unfettered access to knowledge”.
There are references to the commercial benefits of “better access to customers and fairer competition” and “the invention of new digital products and services”. In short, it could have been written comfortably for post-Brexit “Global Britain”, open for business and trading freely with all.
Naturally it also stresses the protection of rights and privacy. Digital technology should not be used to discriminate, limit freedom or impose onerous surveillance. The conundrum is that while these activities are anathema to the spirit which created the internet, they are also very much assisted and enabled by the spread of technology itself.
The declaration is a welcome development. It speaks in language with which the UK, the US and our economic partners are very comfortable, and it fits into the narrative which the government is trying—and sometimes struggling—to create a modern, dynamic and digitally empowered Britain. It also draws support from a wide coalition, from the powerhouses of Washington, London and Brussels, to smaller nations like Kenya, Georgia and Uruguay.
The most potent criticism of the declaration, however, is that it is non-binding. These are fine words, it can be agreed, but what practical impact will they have on digital economies?
National and supranational legislation is where the rubber meets the road, and it is there we must look for more effective changes. The EU is already on the verge of agreeing its Digital Services Act which will harmonise rules on illegal content, transparent advertising and disinformation.
In the UK, the digital sector has for the past year been prowling carefully around the Online Safety Bill. Similarly to EU legislation, this focuses more on protection and safeguarding than liberalism and freedom of communication, but it touches on several flashpoints of public opinion: the availability of pornography and other adult content, the monitoring of abusive content and hate speech, and issues of privacy and data protection.
The Bill hasn’t had a happy progress so far: introduced in March, it passed its second reading but fell at the prorogation of Parliament, and current rumour suggests it may not be revived in its present form.
This exposes some of the difficulties facing any regulation of the internet. The ambitions we have for it—openness, accessibility, free exchange of ideas, services and goods—are important but hard to encapsulate in legislation. It is easier to proscribe and limit, for example with age verification or data protection and retention. Both the Online Safety Bill and the Digital Services Act have been accused of leaning too far in that direction, while critics of the Declaration for the Future of the Internet have noted that it hardly deals with regulation or protections at all.
Nurturing the digital economy is too important to be consigned to the “too difficult” pile of governmental priorities.
We boast of the success of the UK’s tech sector, which is absolutely dependent on digital freedom and stability. Manufacturing is now a niche sector in the UK, and our strength lies in services. Connectivity must be our secret weapon. Global Britain will only succeed if it is also a safe but accessible digital Britain.