Where Will The Coalition Take British Tech?

The Liberal Conservative coalition will be good news for outsourcers, and bad news for spooks

Following a tense few days of negotiation, a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was formed on 11 May, with David Cameron at the helm and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg as his second-in-command.

While the two parties have differed widely in many of their policies, there are substantial areas of overlap in their IT manifestos. What sort of tech policy consensus will evolve within the coalition, and how will the policies compare with those of the outgoing Labour government?

Civil liberties

One of the first actions of the new government was to scrap the Labour party’s controversial ID card scheme. “Both Parties that now form the new government stated in their manifestos that they will cancel Identity Cards and the National Identity Register,” the Home Office said in statement. “We will announce in due course how this will be achieved.”

The prompt decision to end the ID card scheme is significant because it represents the government’s dedication to protecting civil liberties. The coalition agreement between the Tories and the Liberals, published on Wednesday, contains a number of other policies intended to roll back state intrusion (often described as “Britain’s surveillance society”).

These measures include regulating the use of CCTV, limiting the time that DNA records can be retained, and limiting storage of Internet and email records.

The Interception Modernisation Programme – a multi-million pound project Labour plan to intercept and record much of the country’s Internet traffic – is also now on shaky ground. the Tories have said they will review the scheme, claiming that it could be seen as a license for dynamic surveillance of the population. The Lib Dems have also said they would scrap it.

The government’s emphasis on the need to protect civil liberties was welcomed by human rights organisations including Liberty and Amnesty International. “Repairing the UK’s reputation as a champion of justice and fairness, both at home and abroad, must be a priority,” said Amnesty International UK campaigns director Tim Hancock.

Digital Economy Act

However, when the private sector is involved – as in the case of the Digital Economy Act – the question is muddier.

“For all of us campaigning around the Digital Economy Act, we are concerned that the process is likely to proceed and recommend a disconnection regime,” said Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock.  “We sincerely hope the views Nick Clegg espoused during the election will hold, and be put into action.”

Ahead of the election, the Lib Dems vehemently opposed the Digital Economy Act, calling for it to be delayed until the next Parliament for a fuller debate. In particular the party opposed the clause which obliged Internet service providers to cut off persistent illegal file-sharers.

Some members of the Tory party also opposed the bill, including culture secretary Jeremy Hunt who described it as “a massive wasted opportunity to put Britain on the digital map”, but with lobbying from the content industry over lost royalties, the party eventually decided to let it through. However, the Conservatives have said that they will make changes if it proves ineffective and, with added pressure from the Lib Dems, the Act’s days could be numbered.