Is the Internet leading us back to 1930s protectionism?

I was struck today by a piece by Eli Noam on how the Internet got Donald Trump elected.  This came on top of recent articles from Social Europe on “Why the Working Class has abandoned the left”  and the case for “a New Deal to save Europe“.  As a member of the Internet Society since 1995. I have long been concerned over the introverted nature of most on-line policy debate: the Internetties in their Cyberghettoes talking to themselves. Meanwhile the progressive digerati , with their obsessions about using big data to analyse traffic over social media, appear to have also systematically misled themselves. They now appear to be collectively helping lead democracy and informed choice into oblivion.

Luckily the accountants and stock market analyists may be about to save us all. They have spotted that spend on using big data to drive personally targeted Internet advertising campaigns  is almost all wasted. It changes few spending decisions and commonly costs more than the revenue (i.e. not just profit)  generated. The consequent collapse in stock market valuations will dwarf that in the share price of BT after the discovery of “over optimistic” accounting in its Italian subsidiary.

The differences between BT’s UK accounting practices and those of its competitors will, however, trigger a re-evaluation by fund managers which could have serious consequences for the UK. A re-rating (including of BT’s debt) is likely to raise Treasury concerns over its exposure to the underwriting of BT’s pension liabilities. This has implications for the UK Government plans to use public funding to encourage the deployment of full fibre networks – the consultation on which closes on the 31st January . I have promised to make public (via this blog) a summary of the reasons for the disparity between the costs quoted by BT and those quoted by competitors deploying modern technology in co-operation with property-owners and local authorities. We must avoid any temptation to route budgets intended to encourage investment in future ready infrastructure into covering pension fund (and other) deficits.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see the economic consequences as US Tech and OTT players begin to repatriate profits to pay reduced “post Trump” corporation taxes.  Will we also see 1930s style protectionist trade wars? If so, will the UK, as piggy-in-the-middle between a protectionist EU and an equally protectionist US, be squeezed. Or will the entrepreneurs of London and Dublin use fully porous (both physical and digital) borders between Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught to lead the British Isles (not just the UK) into a new round of growth and prosperity as entrepot between the US, EU and rest of the world?

In this context my quibble with the Tech UK response to Brexit is its failure to mention that most relevant skills shortages are pan-European and/or Global. We need to give priority to removing the barriers which prevent our youngsters acquiring world class skills not just poaching from our neighbours. As Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece, puts it in his article calling for a New Deal for Europe: “The vast majority of Greeks, Bulgarians and Spaniards do not move to Britain or Germany for the climate; they move because they must.”  We rely on them (and others) because we have failed to give our youngsters the skills needed by their local employers.

That is partly because our main Tech employers have consistently failed to put their lobbying muscle behind the Sector Skills Partnerships (and their predecessors) when they tried to get the well-honed, century old, University dominated UK funding hierarchies to take fostering employability as seriously as grooming and filtering for academic excellence. The Brexit vote was, in no small part, symptomatic of a growing revolt among those labelled as failures while still at school!

There is a body of evidence which shows that this revolt, also mobilised via the Internet (but not picked up by Big data analytics because …) helped win the Brexit vote for Nigel Farage.

We have be serious about supporting training programmes (for all age groups) which develop globally recognised skills. The alternative could well be a 1930s mix of Nationalism and Socialism, led by the “true” masters of social media.

We also need to take a good look at the collapse of trust in the on-line world and its values – as well as in almost everyone else.

We live in interesting times.