The Coalition and Digital Politics

May 11, 2010

It is all uncharted territory from today. At least, if there are charts, they are buried in some ancient pirate chest. But X has not so much marked this spot, the X on the ballot paper has created the spot we are in.

Of course, that is not to assume that the spot we are in is all that bad. But it is not one that was expected and it is worth devoting a few moments of idle speculation to what it might mean for the digital economy. There are some certainties and much uncertainty. Will the arrangement be like that of a married couple making plans for the weekend? ‘What would you like to do?’ ‘Oh whatever you’d like to do – I don’t really mind’ – played out like a rally at the French Open, until one person finally makes a positive suggestion and sees it put away like a misplaced drop shot with ‘No, I certainly don’t want to do that.’ I can envisage Cameron and Clegg in a comparable exchange over the Digital Economy Act’s implementation. (I see them like Morecambe and Wise, in pyjamas and eating breakfast in bed – a very worrying image.)

Some things that have relevance to IT lawyers we can be pretty sure of. The ID cards scheme will not be proceeded with as both parties in the coalition declared themselves to be against it, and it will be harder for the security people and senior civil servants to change two sets of minds. If one places any weight at all on pre-election promises, we should also see the position of the Information Commissioner strengthened and a reduction in the surveillance society.

The focus on cutting the deficit will probably mean that the Conservative Party plans for an immediate moratorium on planned IT procurement projects and to reform the design and procurement process for government IT will be implemented. It also seems certain that we will see the move to greater openness and the publication of more information on contracts carried through – although it doesn’t usually take long for people in government to change their views on openness.

I think it is unlikely that we will see any expenditure on major projects like extended broadband where they require government funding. The deficit is King and those of us hoping for high speed rural broadband will have to go whistle.

There is no doubt that both parties to the coalition will want to support the development of the digital economy as the key to future prosperity – as does every other government in the world (including Stoke on Trent City Council). That’s not going to be easy in a highly competitive world and there is no clear consensus on what it means.

The most intriguing question for SCL members is what happens about the implementation of the more controversial parts of the Digital Economy Act 2010. It is worth remembering that the Liberal Democrats were positively against the provisions that promised more severe ‘penalties’ for illegal file-sharers and the like. The Conservatives supported the Bill in wash-up but expressed concerns. The provisions in question are dependent on an affirmative procedure for the relevant statutory instrument and both the outgoing Labour Government and the Conservatives promised a full opportunity for Parliament to examine the proposals. There must be the possibility that Labour will switch its tack under a new leader – one could, for example, see inveterate tweeter David Milliband siding with the young, progressive and free-thinking group (aka copyright thieves) who opposed the original proposals. If they did and the LibDems stuck to their opposition then it is hard to see anyone risking the implementation of these provisions at all.

Of course, there is a real irony floating above such speculation. Despite the Conservative Party’s opposition to the export of more powers to the EU, the greatest changes affecting IT lawyers (at least if you ignore the possibility of economic collapse) will come from Brussels and they will be many and wide-ranging. And there is nothing that the new politics will change about that.

I personally hope that we do get Milliband as the new Labour leader in July. I can then tell the tale of how I advised the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition on how best to draft an amendment to a Parliamentary Bill. And, like my story about acting on the same stage as Sir Ian McKellen, it will be true – it’s just all in the timing.