Don't write off Jeremy Corbyn's Digital Democracy Manifesto - here's why it's a lofty bill of ideas

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn this week unveiled a ‘Digital Democracy Manifesto’ that was widely derided in the British media – but there are some ideas within it that, though unfortunately dressed in clunky jargon, are more radical and far-reaching than they are being given credit for.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's eight-point blueprint [PDF] for digital strategy does rehash some familiar calls, for instance, country-wide connectivity. But there are also inklings of ambitious proposals that could have profound effects for the role of the state as mediator in bridging the gap between the citizen and technology. And whether that sounds positive or not is largely a matter for personal political opinion.

The eight ideas are: the ‘universal service network’, the ‘open knowledge library’, ‘community media freedom’, ‘platform cooperatives’, the ‘digital citizen passport’, ‘programming for everyone’, the ‘people’s charter of digital liberties’ and ‘massive multi-person online deliberation’. We’ll focus on the most interesting of the eight first.

Jeremy Corbyn’s call for platform cooperatives is an idea that has also been put forward by British Computer Society fellow, Microsoft UK CTO, and former NHS IT director Jerry Fishenden on our sister site CIO. Simply put, the ‘platform cooperative’ is the idea of turning sharing economy apps on their head as the basis for a software platform of mutual aid and cooperation but outside of private profit.

Fishenden argues that the new juggernauts of the gig economy – Uber et al – are little more than “pyramid-shaped organisations” – and their platforms could be better suited to cooperative models akin to John Lewis. These platforms are low-cost and low on assets: Fishenden says these could be used by government to level the playing field against private industry and at least partially reverse the commoditisation of platform ecosystems. Fishenden also argues that it is about time that government catches up to the power of these platforms – so it’s refreshing to see an opposition leader taking a model that’s currently the darling of the private sector seriously enough to be included in a policy document. The i has a good rundown on the nature of platform cooperatives and how these could be applied outside of the realm of private capital.

See also: GDS Verify director expects online IDs for everyone in a small number of years

At first glance, the ‘Massive Multi-Person On-Line Deliberation’ proposal appears as if it could be summed up as ‘online voting’ – but it goes a step further. It’s not much of a reach to imagine actual citizen engagement through a clean and easy to use platform (like the much-lauded website) as a natural progression from the online petitions platform, launched several years ago.

The idea is ultimately a commitment to inclusion in the democratic process through the use of technology: despite its clunky name, Corbyn appears to be taking the internet seriously as a tool for democratic participation, something that really is more of a political question than one of technical implentation.

‘Programming for Everyone’ outlines a commitment to both the creation of publicly funded open source projects and their use within government. It also promises to train children and adults in how to learn to code software and build hardware: an idea that actually chimes across party lines, public and private sectors: it’s uncontroversial that there is a ‘skills gap’ for technology in this country.

Some of the ideas have rightfully been met with criticism: the digital passport, for example, could be interpreted either as a misguided platform to try to place control on the internet, or (more likely) a mutation of an already-existing project by GDS, GOV.UK Verify, which is already being rolled out. And the commitment to a public consultation towards building a ‘people’s charter of digital liberties’ could be argued as at odds with the Labour party’s own history in trying to introduce schemes such as the ID card and mass surveillance, plus a recent apparent reluctance to fully challenge Theresa May’s Snoopers Charter in Parliament.

The ‘Universal Service Network’ is at essence a plan to bring internet access to all of the UK using a public infrastructure kitty, and it’s something governments have struggled with so far. But there will be a private sector contribution too, from existing telecoms companies, and the Digital Manifesto says this will be coordinated (and presumably regulated) by Ofcom – an organisation that is sometimes mocked for lacking teeth as it is.

There are serious questions to be asked about the implementation of any of these ideas: who’s going to build them? What’s the future of GDS – will it be expanded or folded into a new department for digital?

Alex Blandford, meanwhile, writes that at least parts of the proposals are underway – and unpicks some of the difficulties in implementation. For example, digital platforms that count on using the real identities of people to make concrete, real-world decisions with real-world impacts would need to be rigorously safeguarded against fraud, whether for vote-fixing, identity theft, or other problems of security.

And government’s track record of delivering IT, with its failed, cancelled or bloated projects, contracts to outsourcing firms, and a worrying tendency towards an authoritarian view on civil liberties, have often characterised UK policy in the information age, no matter what the stated intentions.

But some of the principles outlined in Corbyn’s document are pioneering enough that they shouldn’t be cynically dismissed as futuregazing or utopianism. This is a fairly dramatic break from the run of the mill, and it’s wise to take a sceptical and cautionary point of view. The manifesto is more a bill of interesting ideas than policy at this point, but nevertheless it is an engaging collection of proposals that could be carried towards reshaping citizen participation in both politics and economy.


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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