Current government policy in relation to the Internet can broadly be summarised as occupying three areas:
1. Getting people online (broadband access, and lessons for people who don’t have the skills or interest)
2. Protecting people from bad things done using the Internet (terrorism, child abuse, fraud, hacking, intellectual property infringement)
3. Building websites for departments and agencies.
The government does all these things primarily because it believes that the Internet boosts the economy of the UK, and that IT can reduce the cost of public services whilst increasing their quality. Together, these outweigh the dangers, meaning it doesn’t get banned. Gordon Brown’s recent speech at Google was an exemplar of this mainly economically driven celebration of the Internet’s virtues, telling audience members that your industry is driving the next stage of globalisation”.
The first challenge for the government is to understand that whilst these beliefs are true, they are only a minor part of the picture. Tellingly, Browns’ speech contained almost no language that couldn’t have been used to explain the positive impact of electrification or shipping containers.
The way in which the Internet Is not like Electrification or Shipping Containers
The Internet has been relentlessly undermining previous practices in the running of businesses, dating, parenting, spying, producing art and many other areas. So, however, did electrification and shipping containers. From cheaper raw materials, to cheaper cars to have sex in the back of, economic and social change has always been driven by technological change.
What is different is the way in which the Internet changes social and economic practices – the vector of attack. In the 20th century, advancement of human welfare went hand in hand with the rise of companies that used economies of scale to deliver better goods and services for customers. Technology effectively made it possible and much easier to be a big, highly productive company, to gather expertise and capital together and to target markets for maximum yields.
Now take a look for a moment at Wikipedia, MoneySavingExpert, Blogger or Match.com – all big websites, all doing different things. Each one, however, is in its own way is reducing the ability of large, previously well functioning institutions to function as easily.
These services are reducing traditional institutions ability to charge for information, seize big consumer surpluses, limit speech or fix marriages. It has, in other words, become harder to be a big business, newspaper, repressive institution or religion. Nor is this traditional ‘creative destruction’ going on in a normal capitalist economy: this isn’t about one widget manufacturer replacing another, this is about a newspaper business dying and being replaced by no one single thing, and certainly nothing recognisable as a newspaper business.
This common pattern of more powerful tools for citizens making life harder for traditional institutions is, for me, a cause for celebration. However, I am not celebrating as a libertarian (which I am not) I celebrate it because it marks a historic increase in the freedom of people and groups of people, and a step-change in their ability to determine the direction of their own lives.
How the government can be on the side of the citizen in the midst of the great Internet disruption
Disruption like this is scary for any institution, which will tend to mean that as a public entity which interfaces with other institutions the temptation will be to hold back the sea, not swim with it. Government must swim with the tide, though, not just to help citizens more but to avoid the often ruinous tension of a citizenry going one way and a government going another. There are various things government can do to be on the right side.
1. Accept that any state institution that says “we control all the information about X” is going to look increasingly strange and frustrating to a public that’s used to be able to do whatever they want with information about themselves, or about anything they care about (both private and public). This means accepting that federated identity systems are coming and will probably be more successful than even official ID card systems: ditto citizen-held medical records. It means saying “We understand that letting train companies control who can interface with their ticketing systems means that the UK has awful train ticket websites that don’t work as hard as they should to help citizens buy cheaper tickets more easily. And we will change that, now.”
2. Seize the opportunity to bring people together. Millions of people visit public sector websites every day, often trying to achieve similar or identical ends. It is time to start building systems to allow them to contact people in a similar situation, just as they’d be able to if queuing together in a job centre, but with far more reach and power. This does open the scary possibility that citizens might club together to protest about poor service or bad policies, but given recent news, if you were a minister would you rather know about what was wrong as soon as possible, or really late in the day (cf MPs‘ expenses, festering for years)?
3. Get a new cohort of civil servants who understand both the Internet and public policy, and end the era of signing huge technology contracts when the negotiators on the government’s side have no idea how they systems they are paying for actually work. Coming up with new uses of technology, or perceiving how the Internet might be involved with undermining something in the future is an essential part of a responsible policy expert’s skill-set these days, no matter what policy area they work in. It should be considered just as impossible for a new fast-stream applicant without a reasonably sophisticated view of how the Internet works to get a job as if they were illiterate ( a view more sophisticated than generated simply by using Facebook a lot, a view that is developed through tuition ). Unfashionably, this change almost certainly has to be driven from the center.
4. Resist calls from institutions of all sorts to change laws to give them back the advantages they previously had over citizens, and actively appoint a team to see where legislation is preventing possible Internet-enabled challenges to institutions that could do with shaking up. At the moment, this is mostly seen in the music and video fields, but doubtless it will occur in more fields in the next decade, many of them quite possibly less sexy but more economically and socially significant than a field containing so many celebrities.
5. Spend any money whatsoever on a centrally driven project to cherry pick the best opportunities to ‘be on the side of the citizen’ and drive them through recalcitrant and risk averse departments and agencies. Whilst UK government is spending £12-13bn a year on IT at the moment, almost none of that is being spent on projects which I would describe as fitting any of the objectives described above. And the good news, for a cash strapped era, is that almost anything meaningful that the government can do on the Internet will cost less than even the consulting fees for one large traditional IT project.
There are, obviously, more reasons why the Internet isn’t like electrification or shipping containers. But keeping the narrative simple is always valuable when proposing anything. The idea that a wave is coming that empowers citizens and threatens institutions makes government’s choice stark – who’s side do we take? History will not be kind to those that take the easy option.