THE BLOG

The Politics of a Trusted Internet

05/05/2015 11:17 BST | Updated 01/05/2016 10:12 BST

In the lead up to the general election on 7 May, political parties have had plenty to say about technology and the internet. It's not in itself a hot-button issue like the NHS, immigration or education. But most polls place the UK economy high up on the list of election issues, and the digital dimension is at the heart of the economy.

In their election manifestos, all of the parties, with the exception of UKIP, call for further investment in broadband infrastructure so that all parts of the country can benefit from high quality internet access. We have consensus among the major parties around using digital technology to improve government services and cut delivery costs. The need to up-skill the UK education system and workforce is also recognised - all the main parties highlight the importance of improving our STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) teaching.

Across the political spectrum, there is common ground on the benefits of the internet. The digital economy is growing at a rate of 10% year, compared to 2.6% for the economy as a whole in 2014. But with growing importance, there is growing concern - and this is where the manifestos get interesting.

The parties differ in what they highlight about two key internet debates. The first is between privacy and security. This has sparked heated discussion since the Snowden revelations in June 2013. As the European Data Protection Supervisor has recently stated, privacy and security don't need to be mutually exclusive. But the emphasis can differ. The Conservatives stress security: "Our new communications data legislation will strengthen our ability to disrupt terrorist plots, criminal networks and organised child grooming gangs, even as technology develops." Labour also want to strengthen the powers of the security services, but balance this with "safeguards that protect peoples' privacy." The Liberal Democrats, who in government opposed the introduction of the "Snoopers Charter", focus on data protection and privacy in relation to both state surveillance and data collected by internet companies. Their manifesto includes a pledge to introduce a "Digital Bill of Rights" with measures to limit state surveillance powers and enhance data protection rules.

The second debate is relates to openness and control. The open, accessible publication of content underwrites the growth and popularity of the internet. Yet there is also a strong case for having filters on content that is inappropriate, vicious, or criminal. One does not need to come at the cost of the other, and no mainstream party suggests this. But there's significant variation in their focus.

The Conservative manifesto emphasises measures to protect children online, which has been a major strand of their approach to the internet while in government. While they have steered away from regulating directly, internet service providers and multinational internet companies have come under significant political pressure from Downing Street on issues like the introduction of parental control filters and the removal of illegal content from search results.

While the Liberal Democrats also supported these initiatives as part of the coalition government, their manifesto emphasises the need to keep the internet an open environment. They state they will support "a free and open Internet around the world, championing the free flow of information". Perhaps most people now see this as a given, but as the leader of a company at the heart of the UK internet infrastructure and actively involved in global internet governance, I think it's a key issue - especially when that system of governance may change in the next year.

An open, accessible internet is fundamental in creating the innovation that has so quickly transformed many aspects of our lives - and, as most agree, largely for the better. But issues like children accessing inappropriate content, Twitter trolls making violent threats toward women, or online scams stealing money from vulnerable people need to be taken seriously. They are not only harmful in themselves: they also undermine people's trust in their ability to interact online safely, which is crucial to a successful internet.

Political consensus on the positive issues is welcome. The varying areas of focus around the trickier ones mean it will be interesting to see how different priorities are balanced, particularly as the polls are pointing toward a hung parliament. But it's important that those in power take care to ensure a sensible balance. For the internet to thrive, it needs to be both open and trusted.