How will Digital Policy change under Brexit, Karen Bradley and Matt Hancock?

David Davis was the only politicians ready with plans for when the English and Welsh voted for Brexit. I would have been surprised if he had not. We met at London Business School and ran its Conservative Association for two years (It was pre-facebook and my lips are sealed but there are no scandals to emerge). Our teachers included Charles Handy, in his first year at LBS, taking over from Denis Pym.  A consequence was that, as well as an exhausting introduction to all the normal business disciplines, we learned the need to mix capitalism with compassion, using clear, not wishful, thinking. I suspect I was not the only one who also learned that  concealing careful preparation can be even more useful than concealing the lack of it.

Perhaps David began preparing his plans while he was John Major’s Minister for Europe, nicknamed the charming bastard by one of those he negotiated with. His pieces in Conservative Home on the case for Brexit  and our negotiating strategy should be read at face value. Those wondering what else to expect should read his 1988 IoD book, “How to turn round a Company” as well as looking at his political track record.

I have already blogged on why the effect of Brexit will be what we want it to be . Of itself, it makes little difference to UK Digital or Broadband policy. Most of the relevant Directives and Regulations were drafted by UK lobbyists and regulators working through Brussels to achieve what they wished to impose on the UK. Whether or not they were right, the result should not be blamed on those who wanted “ever closer union”.  Any changes desired by those who voted to leave consequently require them to overcome the desires of the most of the tech establishment, (a couple of dozen dominant players, mostly controlled from the US, plus an army of policy lobbyists, consultants and professional fund seekers), to maintain the status quo they have fought so hard to achieve. And I support most of what they did.

We can, however, expect a few significant changes of priority from the new ministerial team. In particular it is likely to follow public (rather than “expert”) opinion in questioning the current meaning of “net neutrality” and in questioning the honesty and probity of  those promoting a world of privacy-free, big data clouds in which we are the product not the customer.

The first changes likely as the result of the change of Ministers include:

1. Restoration of the Manifesto Commitment to protect children from on-line pornography

Karen Bradley’s responsibilities at the Home Office included child protection and on-line abuse. We can therefore reasonably expect an end to the watering down in the draft Digital Economy Bill to cover only sites whose “main” business is pornography and to ignore the value of mandatory filtering (alias blocking) when sites fail to use effective age checking.  I look forward to  Ministers giving short shrift to the argument of internet service providers and on-line retailers that blocking should not be used for child protection while they use it for copyright protection and to support their commercial business models. We can expect determined rearguard actions by some of those who do not want effective legislation (for a variety of reasons) but the denial of service to those who use ad-blockers and removal of access to content that competes with the providers own services greatly weakens their case.

Those who want realistic age checking (to control access by adults to networks designed for children as well as under-age access to alcohol, knives, tobacco and adult content) should therefore help educate MPs and Peers as to the scale and nature of the existing use of filtering (alias blocking) in support of current on-line business models. They should  encourage their constituency MPs to help ensure the passage of agreed and practical amendments during the passage of the digital economy bill.

2. A Universal Service Obligation based on reliable access to Digital by Default public services

Those who see Matt Hancock as a champion for the digital age should remember he is also MP for a rural constituency with a more than average global outlook: Newmarket, Lakenheath and the would-be new Cambridge International Airport (with science park, housing and rebuilt rail connection!). He bears the scars of both the failed GDS attempt to turn round the rural payments system and the expectations raised by the partially successful “Better Broadband for Suffolk“. I have blogged several times on the need for the Universal Service Obligation to be based on a service that is fit for purpose, including latency, reliability and resilience, not a nominal speed or technology from a single supplier. I have also commented on the need for it to be for an evolving purpose as the expectations for “digital by default” public services evolve from access to information websites and booking services to include active and always-on telecare and telemedicine.

3. Priority for training over immigration

The UK IT industry has a long track record of weeping crocodile tears over skills shortages while failing to take on trainees and exporting jobs or importing contractors. The consequences range from the lack of opportunities for computer science graduates for Britons from ethnic minorities through the difficulties faced by mature staff seeking to refresh their skills to illiterate peasants picked up with documentation describing them as skilled systems analysts when their escorts failed to collect them at Heathrow.

Matt Hancock launched the long overdue extension of apprenticeship programmes to the Civil Service   while serving on David Cameron’s “Earn or Learn” Task Force. Now that the ICT and Creative industries are beginning to set their own house in order with the Tech Partnership and Creative Skillset programmes, they have the credibility, and responsibility to also help him ensure that the new Digital Apprenticeships really do address the needs of employers and students not just the vested interests that dominate our century old hierarchies of funding agencies

There will be other changes but this blog is already long enough.