World-leading internet diplomacy, or perhaps not

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes
UK policy
Image of a woman holding her finger to her mouth to indicate: be quiet

I‘m a fan of the Lawfare podcast’s “Arbiters of Truth” series. The latest episode  was on the Russian government’s recent moves against foreign social media providers. These moves have included forcing app stores to remove apps run by the political opposition, threatening to block social media sites which permit political dissent at ISP level, threatening to fine sites which do not take down politically contentious speech fast enough, and demanding that foreign companies designate an in-country representative to be arrested in the event of noncompliance.

Obviously that should sound familiar to you, because all of that and more is on the table here in the UK in our own approach to internet regulation.

In the podcast, the question was put to the experts about why western governments aren’t showing leadership and speaking out against these moves, as they should be doing, in the defense of freedom of expression and democratic values. The answer given was that the debate around social media is so polarised that doing anything which might be seen as siding with ‘big tech’ is seen as a capitulation, or backing the wrong side, even when the other side is an authoritarian government which is quite openly looking to censor public debate and stifle freedom of expression.

In other words, Russia may be steamrollering over democracy, civil society, and freedom of expression, but in doing so, they’re sticking it to those big bad platforms, so that’s okay.

Is it?

We have to ask that question, and we have to think about it, and we have to feel very uncomfortable about it. We need do to that because that choice has to be held up in the light of the UK’s intentions to create a “world leading” internet regulation regime, become a post-EU rule-setter, and set a pattern for other nations to follow.

Call me an old-fashioned idealist, but it strikes me that if the UK was truly committed to this strategic goal, they would be showing leadership by speaking out in support of democracy and free speech, and exercising the independent diplomatic role they claim to have so craved, when governments seek to erode democratic values under the guise of bringing ‘big tech’ to heel. Doing so would not be a capitulation to ‘big tech’, nor would it be taking their side. In fact, it would be taking the high road.

Yet instead of doing that, the UK is seeking to emulate the Russian regulatory model, and in their blinding obsession with cracking down on big tech platforms, is saying nothing. (Well, there’s that and the Conservative Party’s reliance on donations from Russian property magnates, but let’s not even go there.)

All of that that begs another question. If that’s how our “world-leading” government reacts when another country erodes the right to freedom of expression – anything goes, if it sticks two fingers up to big tech – should we really trust them to behave differently when those same rules are rolled out here?

Image credit: Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

(Author’s note: canny readers will note this is my third blog post in as many days. I’m going to start blogging a lot more, possibly daily, to break my unemployment boredom.)

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.