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Theresa May's plans to regulate the internet are late, unworkable and wrong

The Prime Minister is offering homeopathy to cure a bullet wound, says Chi Onwurah.

As an MP with a techie background, I’ve been among the most vocal on internet matters since I came into parliament in 2010.

I’ve called for more digital inclusion, better cyber security, citizen ownership of data, standards for the internet of things and accountability for our tech giants. I consider myself a tech evangelist – I believe tech and politics are the twin drivers of progress. But I also know tech businesses don’t necessarily put the interests of people first, that the power of tech is concentrated and needs to be democratised, and that tech is hardly representative of the diversity of Britain or the world.

Having watched the internet grow in power and influence over the last seven years, I was particularly concerned that 2017 should be the year we got the internet right.

Coincidentally, it was also seven years ago that a woman called Theresa May became home secretary – responsible for our security online and off.

To say she doesn't take much interest in the internet would be to put it mildly. While she was active in promoting the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill (RIPA), she did not place it in the context of any debate on internet regulation but simply a continuation of ‘business as usual’ – “a modern legal framework which brings together current powers in a clear and comprehensible way”.

And she emphasised that “it will not ban encryption or do anything to undermine the security of people’s data”. She appointed David Cameron’s friend in the Lords and former vice-president at Facebook, Joanna Shields, to be in charge of online safety, and in the Commons sent her protégée and junior minister Karen Bradley out to bat for her on internet issues.

But while I called for a debate on ethics and social media in the wake of the terrible Lee Rigby murder, Theresa May seemed content to leave it to existing legislation.

When she was elevated to the premiership, she appointed Amber Rudd as Home Secretary, whose lack of interest in the internet seems only exceeded by her ignorance of it whenever I asked a question – as was embarrassingly clear in the ‘necessary hashtags’ debacle following the Westminster attack.

And then four days before a general election, in the wake of two horrendous terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, the Prime Minister decides to blame the tech companies – because, she says, “enough is enough”?  Just exactly when, during her seven years in charge, was enough not enough?  As I’ve said, I want the tech companies to be more accountable and their power more distributed, but to scapegoat them for the rise in terrorism is in itself an attack on our democracy. 

Businesses, even big, mega effective-monopolies such as Google and Facebook, operate in a legal framework set by the government of the day, and in this case by Theresa May as former home secretary. If she felt there was more to be done, she could have done it. If she did not know what to do she could have confessed her ignorance and started a public debate, as I called for. Saying companies should do more suggests she needs to give herself a stern talking to for not doing enough when she was in charge.

Unless of course, what she actually means, is she is going to undermine internet encryption – which was what Amber Rudd was hinting at. I am sure the Prime Minister has excellent advisers who can explain to her that breaking internet encryption will not solve terrorism. But equally, I’m sure she has excellent advisers who have explained to her that an arbitrary immigration figure will not resolve our economic problems, or that keeping EU citizens in a state of uncertainty as to their UK rights does not reduce our Brexit challenges, or that condemning individual dementia sufferers to the loss of everything they own apart from an arbitrary amount of capital will not answer our social care questions.

But it is becoming alarmingly clear that Mrs May does not bother with excellent advisers, or evidence based policy, when it comes to doing whatever she thinks it takes to optimise her route to power. The tech giants and all the other hostages to fortune, including our economic future, are nothing to the demands of short term expediency.

I do think the tech companies can do more, but they need the ethical and regulatory framework which empowers and requires them to do more. Theresa May is not even proposing a sticking plaster for a wound, she is slashing and burning – then offering a homeopathic memory of the answer to a different question.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy. 

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Theresa May missed an easy opportunity on EU citizens' rights

If the UK had made a big, open and generous offer, the diplomatic picture would be very different.

It's been seven hours and 365 days...and nothing compares to EU, at least as far as negotiations go.

First David Davis abandoned "the row of the summer" by agreeing to the EU's preferred negotiating timetable. Has Theresa May done the same in guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens living here indefinitely?

Well, sort of. Although the PM has said that there have to be reciprocal arrangements for British citizens abroad, the difficulty is that because we don't have ID cards and most of our public services are paid for not out of an insurance system but out of general taxation, the issues around guaranteeing access to health, education, social security and residence are easier.

Our ability to enforce a "cut-off date" for new migrants from the European Union is also illusory, unless the government thinks it has the support in parliament and the logistical ability to roll out an ID card system by March 2019. (It doesn't.)

If you want to understand how badly the PM has managed Britain's Brexit negotiations, then the rights of the three million EU nationals living in Britain is the best place to start. The overwhelming support in the country at large for guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens, coupled with the deep unease among Conservative MPs about not doing so, meant that it was never a plausible bargaining chip. (That's before you remember that the bulk of the British diaspora in Europe lives in countries with small numbers of EU citizens living in the UK. You can't secure a good deal from Spain by upsetting the Polish government.) It just made three million people, their friends and their families nervous for a year and irritated our European partners, that's all.

If the United Kingdom had made a big, open and generous offer on citizens' rights a year ago, as Vote Leave recommended in the referendum, the diplomatic picture would be very different. (It would be better still if, again, as Vote Leave argued, we hadn't triggered Article 50, an exit mechanism designed to punish an emergent dictatorship that puts all the leverage on the EU27's side.)

As it happens, May's unforced errors in negotiations, the worsening economic picture and the tricky balancing act in the House of Commons means that Remainers can hope both for a softer exit and that they might yet convince voters that nothing compares to EU after all. (That a YouGov poll shows the number of people willing to accept EU rules in order to keep the economy going stretching to 58 per cent will only further embolden the soft Brexiteers.)

For Brexiteers, that means that if Brexit doesn't go well, they have a readymade scapegoat in the government. It means Remainers can credibly hope for a soft Brexit – or no Brexit at all. 

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.

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