Socialists and digital liberties

Submitted by Matthew on 12 July, 2017 - 9:10 Author: Adrian Noble

Digital liberties and free use of the internet are facing new threats in Britain, while there are increasing efforts by campaigners to establish a framework of rights that can safeguard online civil liberties.

In response to the London Bridge terror attack, Theresa May called for new measures to regulate and monitor the internet, claiming that social networking was a potential breeding ground for the ideology of “Islamic extremism”. Shortly after, in the general election the Tory manifesto contained a section on “Prosperity and Security in a Digital Age”. It made vague promises to restrict online content in order, they claimed, to protect children, limit hate speech and crack down on the spread of terroristic propaganda.

While it’s hard to distinguish their specific plans, these noises point in the direction of further restricting the freedom of the internet, and increasing the monitoring and surveillance power of the state. And these developments come on the back of the recently implemented Investigatory Powers Act 2016, also known as the “Snoopers Charter” — which radically extends the government and security services’ powers of surveillance by forcing internet providers to maintain users’ browsing data for 12 months, and permits security services to lawfully hack into civilians electronic devices under a warrant. Additionally, in 2016 the Tories pledged 1.9 billion for cyber-security.

In his leadership campaign Corbyn campaigned for his “Digital Democracy Manifesto”, a radical set of policies that included an “open knowledge library” that would be a free-to-access knowledge bank of accumulated knowledge and resources from across the education system, as well as reforms to intellectual property law to protect and enhance user-created content. Corbyn had proposed “co-operatively owned digital platforms”, and the creation of a “Digital Charter of Civil Liberties” to protect individual liberties and the right to privacy, as well as protection from “snooping by security services”.

Unfortunately, some of these stronger policies to enhance users’ rights failed to make it into Labour’s 2017 manifesto, which contained minimal references to protecting online privacy, and focused on growing the “digital economy”.

The notion of a Digital Charter of Civil Liberties is not original to Corbyn’s campaign. In 2014, the Brazilian Parliament ratified the Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet that entrenches a number of constitutional protections for citizens. In 2015, a committee of the Italian Parliament put forward a draft of the Internet Bill of Rights. The Italian framework is not embedded in law but rather a declaration of intent. Both of these attempts to create charters are modelled on a framework of human rights, and attempt to make some significant advances towards addressing the dangers of private and state control over the arena of the Internet.

In late 2016, a campaign called “Digital Liberties” was launched, seeking to establish a British Digital Bill of Rights. Presenting itself as “A group of entrepreneurs, professionals and academics with cross Parliamentary endorsement”, the campaign is pushing for legislation to secure civil rights amongst the complexities of the digital world. How should socialists relate to these questions?

A Digital Bill of Rights seems like a step forward, but it may turn out to be a double-edged sword. For example, among the civil protections the Brazilian version enacted into law, there was also snooping legislation requiring private companies to retain users’ data. The final product is very much subject to the balance of parliamentary powers. Also, the rate of technological development is almost certain to outpace the ability of the state to effectively monitor or enforce any legislation set down, in much the same way that the financial industry is able to innovate outside of regulatory frameworks set down by government.

We need to go beyond the limits of liberal parliamentary reforms and raise the question of class ownership in relation to the sphere of information technology and communications. The internet and digital technology that comes with it provides a community space that offers the potential to radically socialise access to information, and as such it is a political question on which anti-capitalist objectives can be pushed forward.

The libertarian-right tends to dominate the debate on internet freedom, pushing the singular narrative that only state control, and not private ownership over technology, is the central threat to our digital liberties. As the role of information becomes increasingly embedded in daily life, as the potential of technology grows and the economic power of the information industry enhances, we must begin to work out a clearer and more radical programme of digital liberties. We must be for the socialization of information technology and the virtual spaces that it provides.

See the website for the UK Digital Liberties Campaign here

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