Pirate Party London

Applause from the top for Martha Lane Fox’s little reforms

Martha Lane Fox delivered the Dimbleby Lecture this evening. It was an extended pitch for public money to fund a new national instition to make the UK “the most digital nation on the planet”. Lane Fox quotes Aaron Swartz, “It’s not OK not to understand the internet any more”, and then goes on to demonstrate just why that is.

Lane Fox’s analysis is essentially this: There’s an imbalance online between the big tech companies and what she calls the “civic, public, non-commercial side of the equation”. As a result we face three important challenges: improving tech education, especially to get the 10 million Britons that don’t use the internet online; eradicating sexism in the tech industry to ensure that women have equal opportunities; and working out how to navigate the complex new ethical and governance challenges that the internet presents.

The solution to these ills is the aforementioned institution dubbed DOT EVERYONE by Lane Fox and presumably run by her and her elite friends in government, business, charities and the media. To paraphrase: give us your fucking money and we’ll make Britain more internetty. But will they, and will anything really change?

Lane Fox’s analysis is one that naturally leads to liberal reformism. In her view there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the internet or more broadly in the social context in which it works. It’s just that things have got a little bit out of balance and a bit of funding and effort on the other side of the scales will soon even things out again. And yet this big tech vs. the state analysis is itself way off. The fundamental divide online, as with everywhere else, is between major institutions (whether commercial, state or charitable) and individuals.

Internet censorship on home broadband services is a good example that shows all three sectors working in concert to diminish individual freedom: charities concerned about “cybersafety” and online bullying put pressure on politicians who in turn decide not to legislate but rather to threaten to do so unless the big ISPs impose mandatory “family-friendly filters” on their customers. The ISPs comply (albeit with minor protests and foot-dragging) and so we end up with national internet coverage that is partial, variable and opaque. The ISPs won’t publish their block lists or algorithms so customers don’t really know what they’re getting. As a side benefit, the state gets to track everyone who’s supposedly a pervert or a bad parent who’s decided to keep the filters turned off. I think it’s fair to say that DOT EVERYONE and its supporters are far more aligned with this way of thinking than opposed to it. It’s a worldview that holds that freedom is a wonderful thing but some people can’t be trusted with too much of it. This approach shows understanding of the internet, if only to identify the pressure points to maintain the state’s order while still guaranteeing ample private profits.

Digital inclusion works the same way by combining the interests of business, the state and charities for the supposed benefit of individuals but principally for the providers not the recipients. Government gives money to charities such as the Tinder Foundation to provide training (let’s not dignify it by calling it “education”) so that disadvantaged people can use Facebook, Google and Amazon. As a side benefit, those people, like the rest of us online, can be served cheaply by government and become significantly more legible to state and corporate surveillance. DOT EVERYONE wants to see more of this, and while there is great potential benefit to individuals being online it’s hard to see how 10 million more Facebook users and Gmail accounts is going to keep corporate power in check, nor more generally how digital inclusion leads to greater social equality overall in the absence of more fundamental social changes. You might be able to search for jobs online but you’ll still be skint while you do it and if you’ve got few skills or qualifications you’ll still be skint when you get a job. Access to technology in itself doesn’t solve the problem of the inequality that’s a feature not a bug of capitalism.

The same is true of sexism. It’s a great evil and one that should be eradicated from the tech industry as elsewhere. And yet Lane Fox’s analysis is that sexism is a cause of inequality rather than a consequence of it. Getting more women on the ladder doesn’t eliminate the ladder: there’ll always be people at the bottom of it. Getting more women into the senior ranks of the tech industry will be fine for those women but it’ll do nothing to counterbalance corporate power, nor to improve the lot of those who’ll never have a chance at those jobs. This again is a feature of capitalism. Inequality is the name of the game and choosing a new set of winners doesn’t help anyone else. The answer isn’t to smooth off some of the rough edges of the fundamentally dysfunctional tech industry but to start to build something radically different: nonhierarchical workers’ cooperatives charging a fair price for a fair service and distributing the proceeds equally. Your boss might be against some forms of inequality but if they were against all forms they wouldn’t be your boss.

Finally, what can DOT EVERYONE do for internet ethics? Lane Fox writes as if we don’t already have a country full of universities, think tanks, media, bloggers, pressure groups and plain old internet commenters endlessly debating these issues. You’re reading one right now. More importantly, we have actual technologists such as the Ethereum project building real stuff in the post-Snowden era explicitly to address the ethical failings of the very state Lane Fox wants to endorse and fund her venture. Mass surveillance is part of the fundamental business model of many tech companies but also of government. Charities are getting in on the surveillance game too, as projects such as the disastrous Samaritans Radar show. As a state-funded institution with close partnerships across all three institutional sectors it’s very hard to see how DOT EVERYONE would have sufficient distance to rein in the ethical lapses of other people who think exactly how they do. Of course, government would love to have a slightly but not radically critical institution on board just to show that it’s not quite the monolith it might otherwise appear to be. It’d probably be happy to fund DOT EVERYONE on that basis alone. But this is no revolution. It’s not even a film of a revolution.

The apparent delight with which Lane Fox’s proposal has been received by the institutional elites shows just how little radical potential it contains. It’ll probably happen, and it’ll probably do a little good and a fair bit more harm, but nothing very much will change overall. If you’re hearing applause from the top, that’s why.

This post first appeared on Adrian Short’s blog. It is in the public domain.

Photo of Martha Lane Fox by The Cabinet Office – http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/100000-%E2%80%98digital-champions%E2%80%99-get-britain-online. Licensed under OGL via Wikimedia Commons.

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