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.

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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.