Make sure you can speak freely

Online groups should try to maintain their own sites rather than piggy-backing off other sites like

Many of the strategies, techniques and tools that have been developed in the last ten years of mainstream web use are struggling to make the transition to the Web 2.0 world.

Media sites have had to turn from being one-way publishers of information into conversational spaces while more and more of us are using social network sites to manage aspects of our online and offline lives. We seize on new services (like Twitter and Seesmic), new sites (like Dopplr) and new platforms (especially the mobile web), caring little for the privacy implications, learning curves or complexity of the relationships we are now able to build.

This is a real challenge for services built by volunteer groups and local sites that seek to reflect their community, because they may have neither the expertise nor the desire to embrace the Web 2.0 world, but at the same time they want to offer something useful and engaging to their users.

And not everyone is as lucky as MySociety, with some of the world’s best programmers and database experts working on their projects.

One possibility is just to piggy-back on the sites that are already out there, and many groups already use YouTube to host their video content, run a blog on Blogger or Typepad, manage mailing lists through Google Groups, and work within the limitations of their chosen platform. Many political campaigns now have Facebook pages to carry the message, and some seem to be entirely Facebook-based.

Doing this is an attractive and low-cost option, but it carries several risks. The first, and most obvious, is that uploading content onto one of these services puts it into someone else’s hands, and the terms of the license you agree to when you hand over your pictures, videos, documents or memberships list may not be very balanced. Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Bebo and the rest all reserve the right to use your work for their own marketing and promotional purposes, for example.

You’re also stuck with the terms and conditions imposed by these commercial services, with no real redress if they decide to close down your group, censor your video or remove your carefully crafted campaign material. By and large these sites are less interested in free speech than in building their user base, selling advertisements and making money. If your group’s desire for self-expression conflicts with that then you will not be welcome.

A better model is to have your own site and your own service, but to use the various free offerings, social network sites and the rest as amplifiers and backups. If you have your own blog then putting videos on YouTube means you never have to worry about hitting bandwidth limits, but if you make sure that people watch them through your site by embedding them in posts then if YouTube gets nasty you can move to another service without losing your audience.

It may require more programming expertise, but even here some rather sophisticated software is freely available to download. It’s fairly straightforward to install Wordpress on a rented server, giving you an easily-tailored blog with widgets, embedded content, trackbacks and comments, all under your control. And if you run your own mailing list, however basic, then you can decide when and how to send messages instead of relying on Facebook’s clumsy facilities.

It may not be necessary to seize the means of digital production in order to change the online world, but these days it’s wise to have your own small factory – or rather, server - in case you come up against the limits imposed by the commercial providers.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.