Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Nick Stringer: Tech policies in the election spotlight – What the UK vote means for the future of innovation

By Nick Stringer, a global technology, public policy, and regulatory affairs adviser. His extensive experience includes serving as the former Director of Regulatory Affairs at the UK Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB UK).

“I keep telling my Tory colleagues: don’t have any policies. A manifesto that has policies alienates people. In 1979 the manifesto said nothing which was brilliant,” Rt. Hon. The Lord (Michael) Heseltine – British politician and former (Conservative Party) Government minister

If you’re tired of hearing about the UK election, you might want to skip this (although this is the best election article I’ve read – whoever has the best hair wins!). But – in all seriousness – if you’re curious about technology public policy, keep reading. I’m going to explore what has been mostly ignored during the election campaign: policy. If detailed policies exist, what do they really mean?

As British voters prepare to head to the polls on 4 July 2024, what are the implications for technology public policy? What are the major political parties proposing? Is it more of the same, a different approach, can we really know, or is Michael Heseltine right in saying that there’s nothing significant in election manifestos?

This is the latest article in the ‘ByteWise Insights’ series, examining society’s complex ties with technology and proposing public policy solutions. We have previously explored the need for greater global cooperation, a call for more regulation of political advertising, the advertising industry’s role in supporting quality journalism and news, the importance of technology education for the public and the potential for advertisers to play a more significant role in protecting young people in the digital world.

This latest piece does not really follow suit: it seeks to find out what the party election manifestos might tell us – if anything – about future technology public policy in the UK.

A Blueprint for Government?

For those who might not know, in the lead-up to a UK General Election, each political party publishes a manifesto outlining their plans if they come to power. Although I am deeply immersed in politics, I must admit that I’ve never read one in its entirety. I’ve read key excerpts, but never the full details. And here’s why: often, political parties that gain power don’t implement all their proposed ideas, and sometimes they introduce legislation not mentioned in their manifesto.

For instance, a few days after forming a Government in 1997, the Labour Party announced the independence of the Bank of England, which was not explicit in their election manifesto. They had also promised a referendum on electoral reform in this manifesto, but it never happened. And, much of the Conservative Party’s ideas in its 1997 election manifesto ended up as Labour party policy! Additionally, unforeseen circumstances like wars and pandemics necessitate a change of direction. And coalitions – which are relatively rare in British politics – lead to compromise in policies.

So, since manifestos are not legally binding, are they then merely effective campaigning tools rather than realistic roadmaps for governing? The week of 10th June marked the publication of the main the UK General Election 2024 political party manifestos. But what did they say about technology? If Labour wins the election, will there be a change in direction?

Turn and face the strange…

As you would expect, the 2024 election manifestos focused on the more pressing political issues to campaign on, such as the economy, the NHS, and immigration. There is probably also a consensus that the current technology public policy strategy is largely effective, and any change will be nuanced. Unless the opinion polls are significantly off (and they have been in the past), the Labour Party is expected to secure enough seats to form a majority government.

The Labour Party’s “Change” manifesto, published on Thursday 13 June 2024, is merely the ‘starting gun’ and carries no real surprises that might scare off voters. Labour is proposing the idea – originally proposed by a Conservative think tank – of a national data library to centralise existing government research programs, enhancing scientists’ and academics’ access to public sector data.

One other thing did catch my eye: the introduction of a new Regulatory Innovation Office to help existing regulators keep up with new technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI). Might this give existing regulators a roaming remit – a recipe for ‘regulatory creep’ – or will it mean the provision of necessary cross-industry safeguards? We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Conservative Party’s “Clear Plan, Bold Action, Secure Future”

The Conservative Party has been in government since 2005. Since then, there has been significant technological evolution. In 2005, Apple was solidifying its position as the market leader in music downloads with multiple versions of its successful iPod and the dominance of iTunes. It was also the year when podcasts started taking off, and Google Maps and YouTube launched.

Internet speeds were increasing with the deployment of broadband and WiFi was becoming more widespread. Google acquired Android, and Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft all released new gaming consoles. However, all this was before the advent of social media, smartphones, and cloud computing. These developments have introduced some of the most complex technology issues for society, and consequently for policymakers and regulators. As a result, data protection, consumer protection, and online safety measures have risen fast up the UK public policy agenda.

The Conservative Party election manifesto – released on Tuesday, 11 June 2024 – was also a largely policy-free document. However, it did emphasise the importance of children’s online safety, building on the Online Safety Act. Should the party secure a fifth term in office, the manifesto outlines a plan to implement a statutory ban on mobile phones during the school day as well as to engage parents more in discussions about social media, particularly focusing on age verification and other controls.

Additionally, the manifesto pledges significant investments in technology for the NHS, including the NHS app, appointment booking systems, the use of AI in diagnosis, and overall NHS digitization. While some of these promises are ambitious, we’ve seen that implementing technological advancements in the public sector often faces significant challenges.

The Liberal Democrat’s “Fair Deal”

The Liberal Democrats launched their manifesto on Monday, 10 June 2024. This contains a little more detail for tech policy ‘wonks’ like me, although – unless the Liberal Democrats are a coalition partner – their ideas are not likely to be implemented. However, one of the standout pledges is the commitment to digital literacy and the requirement for all new products to provide a short, clear version of their terms and conditions, highlighting key facts about individuals’ data and privacy.

This dedication to UK-wide digital literacy is commendable and is similar to what I’ve previously advocated for. While everyone desires concise and clear privacy notices, achieving this is quite challenging. But let’s not get into the debate about ‘cookie fatigue’! The manifesto also emphasises the importance of collaboration with international partners such as the US and the EU, aiming for the UK to take a leading role in global AI regulation (again something I’ve written about).

Additionally, it includes implementing Leveson-compliant measures to ensure privacy, quality, diversity, and choice in both print and online media, addressing the impact of fake news, and requiring social media companies to outline their actions against online abuse targeting women and girls.

New Social Media Restrictions for Kids?

Concerns about children’s use of social media are widespread, both in the UK and globally. Apart from the Conservative Party manifesto, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties don’t go into too much detail on what might be done. The current Government has considered restrictions, indicating a high likelihood of governmental action on social media.

Reform UK has proposed promoting child-friendly, app-restricted smartphones to mitigate social media harms for children and plans to launch an inquiry into the matter. This could potentially lead to a social media ban for under-16s, based on their own admission. The Labour Party has previously expressed an open-minded stance on banning social media for under-16s, suggesting that a new Government may take steps to implement such restrictions.

New Faces, Same Policies

Current digital issues like privacy, competition, consumer protection, and online safety are never going to top the election agenda. Nevertheless they are being addressed – for example the recently enacted Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers (DMCC) Act, empowering the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to tackle digital market challenges.

This suggests continuity in policy under a new Government. However, with the rapid pace of technological change as well as the dissemination and impact of AI, new public policy, regulatory and legislative initiatives are more than likely. The manifestos are deliberately vague, so we’ll need to keep a careful eye on what the politicians do.