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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn's "Digital Democracy Manifesto" launch

(Disclosure / intro for any politics-type people who don't usually read my stuff: I'm a technology & telecoms analyst & consultant. Much of what I do involves forecasting realities of new tech innovations & deployments, part to how the tech industry commercialises its products/services and part to policy and regulation of the Internet & telcos. 

While I'm "neutral" on tech futures aside from wanting to see the "next big cool thing" as fast as realistically possible, I'm not always neutral on policy; for example, I support Net Neutrality as a broad principle. I'm also not a Labour party supporter, and I'm definitely skeptical of Corbyn's ideology, policies and general competence).

This morning I attended the launch of the "Digital Democracy Manifesto" (link) by Jeremy Corbyn, current leader of the UK Labour Party, and associated team members / advisors including Eva Pascoe, a longstanding member of the UK's web establishment (see link here). Although in theory this event was part of the current Labour Party leadership campaign, given the high probability that Corbyn will remain leader it also gives an indication of future direction - and probably forms the basis of the technology bit of the Labour manifesto for the next UK General Election, which will likely be in 2020.

Amusingly, the event was held at a venue called Newspeak House (a "hub for political technologists") the name of which derives from George Orwell's 1984. I'm sure for general tech-inspired activism that has resonance - but perhaps less than ideal for a Corbyn speech given Wikipedia's note that "any form of thought alternative to the party's construct is classified as 'thoughtcrime'". 

I'm definitely guilty of "thoughtcrime" in this post.... starting by highlighting Corbyn's first name-drop of a tech company as fond memories of Amstrad, purveyor of 1980s/90s PCs. Amstrad stands for Alan M Sugar Trading. Mr Sugar's views on Mr Corbyn are somewhat less than reciprocally positive (link). Corbyn's second reference was to Skype - amusing given Pascoe's later rant about Microsoft during the event. I should also point out that the seating space in the venue was limited & some attendees had to stand - something of an irony given recent concerns about train capacity and seat availability.


There are 8 areas in the manifesto, which were covered in greater or lesser detail in the event, and which fit to varying degrees with my own coverage. I'm not going to talk about the "open knowledge library" of learning materials, and given that the "people's charter of digital liberties" will be driven by public consultation it's mostly too vague at this point anyway. I'm generally pro-privacy so this sounds a good idea in principle.

The main section I have thoughts on is the first, the "Universal Service Network". This goes considerably beyond current UK policies on broadband, and included a pledge for £25bn state investment in a "public sector backbone" to help deliver high speed broadband and mobile connectivity, everywhere in the UK from inner cities to remote Scottish islands. Not only that, but the manifesto commits Labour to ensuring that access is available "at the same low price without any data transfer cap". 

The relevant part of the speech itself was mostly about "equality" of network coverage. But implied in that statement is not just coverage, but also price controls and - essentially - infinite capacity. Leaving aside the competitive niceties of forcing identical pricing from multiple providers, the "no caps" promise is essentially unattainable, especially coupled to another seeming promise for (hard-ish) Net Neutrality. A reference to South Korea and its enviable broadband infrastructure was fair, but didn't attempt to explain why it is different to the UK (eg urban population density and less planning constraints).

I asked a question about whether Corbyn would be willing to relax planning regulations for cell towers, or rights-of-way for fibre installation, in order to fulfill this desire for ubiquity and unlimited capacity. He didn't answer personally, instead allowing Pascoe to address it. She didn't mention the cell-site problem and instead claimed that FTTH was mostly an unattainable goal (don't tell the Koreans) and that Google was developing wireless technology that could help fix things. 

However, FTTH everywhere (although a popular political topic) wasn't really my point. It was more about being able to put cell-sites everywhere (with fibre backhaul, including to small-cell locations) which is a huge practical constraint and cost for mobile operators, and the ability to put fibre elsewhere for trunk connections - and perhaps financial incentives for doing so.

Someone else asked about ownership, and the relationship with telco networks. Corbyn's answer was vague, but certainly didn't discount the possibility of wanting to re-nationise parts of the infrastructure. Given his recent spat with Richard Branson about trains, I wonder if Virgin Media is in his sights too.

Nobody mentioned spectrum, at any point. Or how the new promises compare to existing UK government efforts to push mobile coverage. Or the questionable "success" of other national broadband infrastructure projects (eg Australia's NBN) or the practical limits of "local access cooperatives", especially when it comes to cellular networks.

Overall, I thought that the network part of the manifesto was pretty weak. Yes, rural areas need better networks, as do train lines. But it's hardly as if this hasn't been a focus in the past. But Labour's team doesn't - at first sight - seem to understand that both coverage and capacity incur costs. It is also unclear in explaining how planning rules and competition might fit with any government assistance. The role of state- or metropolitan-owned networks was not detailed, and the costing sounds ambitious/unrealistic when one considers the need for both remote regions and (presumably) in-building networks, plus vast increments to existing network capacities to satisfy a "no caps" pledge. Also, ongoing operations of any network would raise the cost & future commitment to expenditure much further. I suspect throwing fibre under the bus, in the hope of some future wireless tech alternative would have pleased the 5G lobby, had it actually been mentioned instead of some unspecific wireless innovation by Google. I'm assuming they don't expect Loon balloons over the Highlands any time soon.

The other area I asked a question about was open-source. Although social-media and press comment ahead of the event suggested that Corbyn would insist all "publicly funded" software and hardware be open-source, this was considerably toned down at the event. The outcome was that a future Labour government would have a "bias" towards open-source "where possible", and that government contributors to O-S projects would be be rewarded. 

I inquired how all this would fit with the ubiquity of proprietary software in things the government bought (say software in ambulance engines, x-ray machines... or political parties' campaign-management systems). I also noted the government supports/funds proprietary software through R&D programmes, support for the games industry, encouragement of IoT and so forth. The "where possible it should be open-source" seems like generic IT "activism" rather than analysis.

My takeout was that (like the network bit) none of this has been thought through properly. There seemed to be a general dislike of big (mostly US) software companies like Microsoft, but little awareness of how pervasive software is elsewhere. I'll be interested to see if all the software running the promised "public backbone" network is proposed as open-source too.

Perhaps Corbyn's first move should be to guarantee that all of the Labour Party's own software & hardware moves to open-source first. Judging by proprietary software experience required on its current open jobs (link) & previous ones (link) it's got a long way to go.

By contrast to applauding free software (especially when implemented by government), the manifesto very much wants people to pay for music and other creative output. There were promises to re-write copyright law to ensure that cash flows to the right people in the entertainment space. I got the sense that nobody had really recognised the ever-blurring boundaries between software, hardware, cloud, content, networks and the implied inconsistencies in the various manifesto pledges arising from this.

Other elements of the "digital democracy" pledges were:

- Platform Cooperatives, for which read "nationalised versions of Uber & Airbnb & TaskRabbit", plus pledges that anyone earning "most or some" money from "digital platforms" should be able to unionise and have an employment contract". (It was unclear whether the robots & AIs which would inevitably take larger roles would have the same rights as humans).
- Digital Citizen Passport, for which read "ID cards by the back door, but voluntary opt-in only and with lots of controls for privacy & who gets access to what data, honest!". It's unclear how this fits with the existing Gov.UK Verify project too.
- Community Media Freedom, which is a hotchpotch of things aimed mostly at the media industry, including education programmes for "analysing and making media". I look foward to diplomas in advanced trolling, speaking slots on RT & Iranian news TV, and YouTube/SnapChat editing. More bizarrely, this section also says "Ofcom will protect network neutrality from discrimination between data streams and manipulation of software algorithms for private gain". If generalised, the latter half of that sentence pretty much kills most of the businesses on the planet, given that software algorithms are in everything. (And yes, I know that Neutrality in its strictest sense doesn't necessarily "work", but various principles are realistic to implement, as BEREC has shown today - link)
- Massive Multi-Person Online Deliberation - this is actually potentially cool, with more participation from people in politics via web/apps/whatever to help design legislation. However there are lots of forums for this already (notably Twitter and Facebook) and the key problems are around partisan groupings and abuse/trolling. I'm not too sure about the Orwellian overtones of the this newspeak though: "The National Education Service will enlighten the British electorate with the theoretical knowledge and practical skills of digital citizenship". I'd rather get my practical skills about being a citizen from someone other than the people who want me to vote for them, thanks.

Overall, it was mostly standard "digital engagement & inclusion" waffle you'd expect from politicians - some of which makes sense but is largely happening anyway - plus lots of incoherent digs at private businesses "we hate Microsoft - except for Skype" and "we hate Google - unless it does wireless networks" and "we hate Uber - so we'll do it ourselves". 

There was very little on "proper technology" and little awareness of the realities of networks, software development, IoT, Internet architecture or existing initiatives.The pledges for uncapped and ubiquitous broadband look utterly unrealistic - even with a one-off investment of £25bn.

What was also missing from the event was the presence of anyone else in Labour who actually acts as a shadow minister for telecoms, IT and the so-called "digital" economy. Corbyn uses social media but clearly isn't a technologist himself - so is reliant on the people around him to fill in the details, which is OK in principle. But the other speakers at the event: Pascoe, an associate with a dubious history (link), and someone who runs campaigning for Labour's Momentum supporters' fan-club weren't exactly deep techies either, especially on networking issues. It's all very well addressing the "social" side of the Internet - employment by Uber, musicians' rights and "massive on-line deliberation" but unless it's underpinned with proper understanding of how networks and software and hardware and IoT work, it's just fluff.


Jim Bacon said...

An example of a national fibre network done correctly is New Zealand's Ultra Fast Broadband initiative:


The key difference between Australia's NBN and NZ's UFB is that New Zealand forced its incumbent ex state telco to split into a wholesale lines company and separate retail company. I don't believe that the UK has done this with BT yet.

Also a possible solution to the rural Scottish broadband problem:


Jim Bacon said...

Re Uber. There is a bit of a problem with its business model, in that it is a natural monolpoly/oligopoly. Have you got any ridesharing apps on your phone other than Uber and Addison Lee?

As we all know, in this situation a company can extract monopoly prices. Consumers just haven't noticed this yet as previously they were getting ripped off as a small motivated section of society (Black Cab Drivers) successfully lobbied the government for barriers to entry to their business - onerous 3 year accreditation tests a.k.a "The Knowledge".

So the Corbynistas aren't wrong in suggesting that there is something rotten with Uber, but their prescription is silly. If the U.K. creates a nationalized Uber app, the government will probably quickly give in to the lobbying of the small motivated group of professional taxi drivers, and we'll be back to people having to sit The Knowledge before driving for the Uber app in fairly short order.

Perhaps a better solution would be legislated so that any private company can build a ridesharing/tasksharing app, but with a mandate that tasks/jobs posted on one app by a user have to be passed through to all the other ridesharing apps. This would hopefully deal with the "apps are natural monopolies" problem, while preventing the taxi drivers of London from wringing concessions out of the government in close election years.

Anonymous said...

Remind me again how much Gordon Brown extracted from the Telco industry in the early 2000s? Just shy of £25 billion? Oh, the irony...

InfoStack said...

Here's the problem with spending on a backbone. That's where competition can actually occur. Competition doesn't happen at the edge.

Network effects dictate that value is concentrated at the core and top of the informational stack, while costs are mostly distributed to the edge and bottom of the stack.