While the mainstream press has been in a flap over the Conservative Party’s plans for social care and sourcing payments from post-death sales of people’s homes, the likely future government’s plans for the Internet have come in for less scrutiny.
When they have, some of the coverage has been pretty alarmist. Suggestions that pornography and hate literature should be more difficult to come across, even accidentally, have the Independent claiming that Theresa May is going to create a “new Internet” (she has never said this, nor has she claimed access to the sort of skills that would enable her to do it).
But something’s likely to change.
Illegal content will be illegal
You might think it would go without saying that illegal content should be taken down under current legislation, but this doesn’t always happen. An incoming Conservative government would, the manifesto suggests, establish a new body to ensure there’s somewhere external to go when such content appears. This will be funded voluntarily, the party hopes, in the same way that gambling organisations fund help for addicts.
Other parties have acknowledged that something needs to be done (note the use of the passive – they’re not saying “we need to do something”, it’s almost as if they were expecting something to happen externally). So it’s not a question of “whether” but “exactly what”.
And the momentum is building. In today’s Guardian there is an investigation into Facebook including suggestions that it finds streaming self-harm acceptable for educational purposes alongside other acts of violence; topless sunbathing for women remains taboo.
Some sort of external adjudication could well be in order. The difficulty is that so much of the Internet is “external” as it is.
We can’t legislate in the US
In the US, a lot of the conversation around the Internet isn’t about whether it should be regulated (although there’s no doubt president Trump has made declarations on that subject before) but whether it’s right to ensure all companies have access to equal speeds. This is called Net neutrality, enshrined in legislation during the Obama years and it looks as though it may be overturned shortly.
This isn’t directly related to any idea of regulating or censoring the Internet or any companies that publish on it. It does illustrate, however, that a lot of the decisions about the Web’s infrastructure, how quickly it works and what’s actually on it will continue to happen outside the UK.
And that’s where we have no jurisdiction. Reports of Theresa May wanting to start a new Internet appear to have been exaggerated a great deal. She may, however, want to regulate the existing one a bit more; given the amount of it that’s outside the UK’s purview you have to ask how realistic that aim is.