POLITICS

If 75% Of MPs Are On Twitter, Why Don't Politicians 'Get' The Internet?

15/04/2015 09:45 BST | Updated 15/04/2015 09:59 BST

Beyond The Ballot is The Huffington Post UK's alternative take on the General Election, taking on the issues too awkward for Westminster. It focuses on the unanswered questions around internet freedom, mental health and housing. Election news, blogs, polls and predictions are combined with in-depth coverage of our three issues including roundtable debates, MP interviews and analysis

beyondtheballot

Forget tabloid newspaper endorsements or TV debates. The real battleground of the 2015 General Election is online with 75% of MPs using Twitter to argue policies, parrot party lines and show photos of smiling volunteers wearing rosettes of differing shades. It might seem that we have a digital-savvy parliament, with issues like internet rights, broadband access and tech investment at the forefront of politicians consciousness. Or not.

It appears to many lobbyists and campaigners working across the digital economy, that even if MPs are using the internet more themselves, they don't necessarily understand how to legislate for it. This parliament, for example, has enacted an opt-in porn filter ban which a child could circumvent, but meant websites like the NSPCC initially found themselves blocked, and where the prime minister once posited banning Snapchat.

Technology companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, as well as internet service providers, increasingly find themselves struggling to explain the implications of new laws to politicians.

politician twitter

Most politicians are now on Twitter - but can they legislate for it?

"A few years ago I had a training course at Google with politicians, where I was explaining the benefits of technology to communicate with constituents," Luc Delaney, a former policy executive with the search giant who now runs his own Delany&Co consultancy.

"One former front bencher, I won't say which party, said 'Why would I want to do that? I've got too much work to do as it is'.

"And I was just floored by the fact that they had even bothered to come. The internet is a massive learning curve for an entire generation of politicians."

For Demos' Jamie Bartlett who, like Delany, is one of the new generation of experts who find themselves in the field of "explaining the internet to politicians", most political parties have not even begun to try to apply their founding philosophies to digital issues.

"What might BitCoin and crypto-currencies mean for society? Have you seen any political party take a position on it?" he said. "I don't know if they know it exists, they certainly have no idea how to apply this to their political philosophy. I want to see the big political parties start thinking about future technologies.

"There were laws being passed in the 1910s about the top speeds a horse could go at, and that's an interesting parallel. The first speed limit for cars was the top speed a horse could gallop at. About two or three years in technological terms, nowadays that feels like a massive lag. A decade ago, a two-or-three year catch up period perhaps wasn't so bad. It's becoming a real problem."

politician twitter uk

David Cameron announcing his cabinet reshuffle on Twitter

The lack of political digital literacy is what Huffington Post has termed the 'Digital Deficit' in the 2015 election debate. Debate and policy is lagging behind technological development. Certain new technologies could, in some cases, be beneficial to a party's founding principles.

"What does the Labour party think about the internet of things, about crypto-currencies, about 3d printing?" Bartlett aasked. "Is there a way of working that into their core beliefs, like labour rights, progressive rights and collectivism?

"Bitcoin could make taxation far harder. 3D printers can radically change who owns the means of production. It's completely transformational, it affects everything from the economy to crime. And there's no political vision for it at all."

Even the faces of what Bartlett termed the "radical protest left" like Guardian columnist Owen Jones or comedian-turned-revolutionary Russell Brand rarely address technology issues. "They still talk about trade unions! It's really frustrating," Bartlett said.

BEYOND THE BALLOT

Web Biscuits' Are Just One Of The Reasons Politicians Aren't Addressing Digital Issues

What Happened When Free Speech Campaigners Joined A Trolling Victim And Anti-Bullying Champion

The Metadata 'Blackmail Machine' At The Heart Of Britain's Digital Policy Deficit

Jimmy Wales: We Must Always Be Sceptical Of Any Call for Digital Regulation

David Davis Doesn't Think Any Of The Leadership Favourites Will Succeed Cameron

Stephen Hull: Introducing Beyond The Ballot

Martha Lane Fox Thinks No One In The House Of Lords Understands The Internet

Why We Need Dot Everyone - A Public Institution for the Digital Age

But digital illiteracy in lawmaking is not only affecting policies on future technologies. One issue that has repeatedly been raised by concerned technologists is Cameron's law enforcing opt-in porn filters. At first, BT users found sex education and counselling websites were blocked, including LGBT helplines and advice sites. Described in most public forums as a ban to prevent young children accidentally viewing explicit content, the filters seem to cover sites about video piracy, as well as ill-defined "extremist" websites, with private internet service providers given the say over the reach of their filters.

"Porn filters in the UK have been an entirely political maneovre," Delany said. "The ISPs are implementing the filter but it is costly and ineffective. If anyone wants to proactively find adult content on the internet, they will. Regardless of whether there is a filter in place. "

But Bartlett said he believed a point would come where internet advocacy groups began to wield far more power, and that the tide was turning toward privacy and free expression. "Up until a few years ago, lawmakers thought that as long as they said 'terrorists' or 'paedophiles' everyone would just pass whatever law they wanted," he said. "That's no longer the case."

politician twitter uk

Gordon Brown's Twitter Q&A during the 2010 election

Bartlett insists that Parliament, and the people who sit in the Chambers, have to evolve to meet the demands that new technologies will put on future making. "Parliament has long had a problem of too few scientists, [Liberal Democrat MP] Julian Huppert is practically the only one.

"It is incredibly difficult to understand internet technology and surveillance technology, the technical solutions to piracy etc. They require some degree of technical know-how to assess the risks to privacy of the Communications Data Bill, for example. You need to understand what data Facebook holds, how their algorithms work."

Delany said he hopes to see a further commitment in the next parliament given to the digital economy, and a new era of trust placed in tech companies to self-regulate. The era of blaming Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google for terrorism has to end, he said. "This government has done a lot to promote the digital economy and Silicon Roundabout.

"But then an atrocity happens and the Prime Minister comes out and says that services in the mainstream need to provide law enforcement with more access.

"Twitter, Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Tumblr are actually putting their best efforts to try and ensure there is a safe environment for users. The definition of safe will vary, but they do co-operate with law enforcement and have teams to deal with it. They don't brag about a lot of their victories with law enforcement because they don't want to be drawing attention to them, but there are many, many instances where terrorists and paedophiles are in prison now thanks to this co-operation. It is very easy for a politician to say 'these guys aren't doing enough' isn't it terrible?'.

"And those guys just aren't the problem. It undermines the confidence of users and of the companies, when political elites turn round to them and say 'you're part of the problem, not the solution'."

As part of The Huffington Post UK's Beyond The Ballot series we want to know what issues you think aren't getting enough attention in the election campaign. Tweet using the hashtag #BeyondTheBallot to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions

beyondtheballot