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Promises, Promises

Summer 2015

I found the recent Conservative Party manifesto in a drawer I was tidying.  It all seems so long ago now, but if memory serves, in the days after their victory the Tories were assuring us they would enact it all.  So I looked up the promises relating to the digital world; a couple they might achieve, one worries me and one is completely hopeless.

A commitment they could actually achieve, even exceed, is their promise to deliver “superfast broadband” to 95% of the UK by the end of 2017”.  This is well within their power; it’s just a matter of buying existing equipment (no inventing needed) and employing people with shovels and screwdrivers.  It is a thoroughly good thing and will provide work at all levels, from digging holes to the highly technical.  Note that the commitment is for 95% “of the UK”, not of “of the population”, which is what has been offered in the past.  It’s a vital distinction which means that thinly populated rural areas are included, too.  Hooray; we should keep prodding them to actually deliver.

They promise something similar on mobile phones, saying that they will force providers to deliver services to “90% of the landmass” by 2017.  Note that weasel word “landmass”; in other words, operators will still have licence to leave plenty of areas unconnected.  It’s not good enough; I hate mobile phones, generally; just like a warm gin and tonic, they are fine in a crisis, but in a crisis you need a connection, however bad the sound quality is (landlines still leave them standing for clarity).

The manifesto also a few rather vague promises to “ensure” that appointments with doctors, and “more of the essential services” are available online.  We’ll see; I doubt it, myself.

Much more significant are their remarks about boosting the ability of the authorities to access our communications and intercept the content if they think we are dodgy.  This means emails, texts, messaging services and more.  This one even made it into the Queen’s Speech in the form of a slightly ominous promise to “modernise the law on communications data.” It’s all done in the name of counter terrorism, but it offers too many opportunities for lazy or incompetent spooks to overstep the mark.  If you give public officials a power, sooner or later, some of them will misuse it.

However, the promise least likely to be kept is a worthy one to find a way of preventing children looking at pornography online.  They will require age verification to these sites.

It’s a noble idea, but ridiculous, unfortunately.  As things stand, it simply can’t be done, however desirable it is.  They might as well promise to discover a way of turning base metals into gold; they are as likely to achieve it.

They’re actually making three impossible promises here.  First to find an age verifying system that works (there isn’t one that any computer savvy child couldn’t bypass) then decide which sites should use it, then make them install it.  All this is currently well beyond the power of Google or Facebook, never mind the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

I shall be interested to see how quickly the newly invented Minister for Internet Safety and Security waters down this pledge.  Given that our new Minister, far from being some Luddite MP, is Baroness Shields, I suspect it will be quite soon.  She is highly ambitious, is not a politician and has a lot of very practical and relevant experience in the online industry; I suspect she will quickly explain the realities to Mr Cameron.

As she herself has said, the solution to this menace is not new laws, but innovative technology, and that’s not usually a government’s strong suit.