On the world-leading failure of the Conservative vision for internet regulation

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
UK policy
Monty Python. Black Knight. You know the rest

This post was lightly rewritten in April 2024 for re-use as a briefing.

I‘ve had two moments in my policy work, in recent months, where I’ve experienced that phenomenon that probably has a German word. It’s the one where you find yourself, just for a few seconds, perfectly sober but tripping: hold on, am I awake or dreaming? what year is this? have I gone back in time? is this real?

The first was being in the exact same room, in Parliament, to discuss the exact same policy issue, which was no further forward, for the third time, in four years. i swear I’ve done this before. oh wait. i actually have. did that pandemic thing actually happen or was that Station Eleven?

The second was seeing myself back in Politico, again, this morning, discussing the exact same permutations of UK digital policy that I have been talking about, including to Politico, since a certain sweaty summer morning in 2016. oh my god. i’m still talking about this. i just looked at the calendar. it says it’s 2024. Dude.

But enough of my niche drivel.

While the very safe-for-work article presents itself as being about adult content and online pornography, because ooh err missus clicks, it’s actually a wider view from much higher up. Really, it’s about the influence that age and identity verification lobbyists have had on digital policy since that summer morning. None of those thoughts, or facts, are new. They’re just in one place, in a current policy context.

After I spoke with the journalist last month, I reflected a bit on the journey we’ve all been on since the referendum. Indeed, as fourteen years of Conservativism squirms towards its gruesome end, and attention begins turning to the scope of Labour policies as opposed to the psychodramas of Tory culture wars, we can, I think, begin to step back and reflect on the whole picture.

What I find myself reflecting on is how much of the Conservative vision for the Great British Internet has actually failed. And if it hasn’t failed outright, it’s hopping around on one leg, exclaiming “I’m invincible!”, in a world-leading manner, while the rest of us just throw our arms up and walk away.

I’m repeating my years and years of blogging on this, and apologies for that; but it’s worth remembering, as I explained to Politico, what we were looking at at the dawn of the post-Brexit experiment in Conservative internet regulation, starting in the summer of 2016, and why it made a lot of us lose a lot of sleep.

Taking Back Control

So what were the social and political foundations for the past eight years of regulatory progress (or, if you prefer, regression)?

As I’ve shared many a time, the taxonomy for the Conservative blueprint for the Great British Internet, the “Doctrine of Mayism”, was neatly defined by Sky’s former tech correspondent Rowland Manthorpe:

  1. Antagonism towards Big Tech, establishing them as the new ideological “other”, meaning the new superstate enemy (succeeding the EU) whom control needed to be “taken back” from;
  2. Technological nationalism, building a British Internet for British People, even if it meant cutting ourselves off (more on that in a tic);
  3. The surveillance state, with technology’s role being to keep people in their assigned place and behaving, as both a growth opportunity for the UK tech sector and as a means to keep government small by outsourcing public order to them; and
  4. Inaction, in which the personal limitations of British policymakers, paired with the technical irrationality of many their proposals, made any meaningful progress impossible, even when that progress was badly needed.

Now, UK readers would have understood something about Rowland’s piece which would have flown straight over the heads of readers outside the country. Mayism, as with Theresa May’s premiership in general, was an outgrowth of her personality and worldview, and by extension, the personalities and worldviews of those who supported her and put her in power.

Which is to say: like Brexit, Mayism was not an outward-looking, optimistic, global view. It was the inward-looking, parochial view of the English upper-middle classes of the Home Counties (e.g. the aristocratically wealthy bucolic areas outside of London which are home to this country’s 1%, the ones who look down on the likes of you, and also the 0.1%, the ones who look down on the likes of the 1%.) They held, and still hold, the kingdom and the power and the glory.

If you made it through Brexit, you understand how lot that seem to view the world’s evolution past, well, the 1950s as some sort of personal betrayal. The internet is very much a focus of that ire. It democratises knowledge, it democratises conversation, it destroys age-old systems and hierarchies, it dilutes power, and it causes people to fail to stay within the societal and class boundaries they were assigned at birth. It’s just not British. (stay with that thought, we’ll come back to it.)

So in practice, for those of us who found ourselves in the same building over and over again, dealing with Mayist regulation, as with Brexit, meant having a lot of conversations with the 1%. You could only do your professional best, knowing that you did not live on the same planet as these people, and knowing that nothing on your own planet could possibly grant them the understanding or empathy they would need to understand the world beyond their own parochial and affluent worldviews, whether online or in the real world.

That’s a fluffy way of saying that some of the people who were the most public and vocal in their support of the various legislative plans were never once seen speaking to people who did not look like them, sound like them, consume media like them, have lives like them, or exist outside their own London bubble. (My own thought experiment was imagining how some of these folks would fare running their whiter-than-white, made-for-Radio-4, platforms, yaah? talking points in front of a South Asian community in Birmingham, or the wonderful Farset Labs crowd in Belfast, or a deprived neighbourhood here in Glasgow. Instant comedy.)

In that light, it was immediately obvious that the legislative programme which grew out of Mayism was, as I noted, an attempt to copy the Brexit strategies and messaging and paste it into the global open Internet. That attempt was accompanied by an increasingly desperate need to point fingers and hiss at Big Tech as the source of all this country’s woes, to distract from the Conservatives’ everyday management of this country kicking it down to a world leader in child poverty.

What resulted was all four of the points Rowland noted above, repeated ad nauseam, every day, for about seven years, presented as a “world-leading” legislative programme. And that’s what I’ve been dealing with for all that time.

So if you understanding nothing else, understand this: the Conservative vision for internet regulation was anchored in concepts of race, class, status, and nationality. It was about power. It was not actually about technology, its benefits, or its problems.

And so that – Mayism – was the cultural foundation for the Great British internet regulatory experiment.

The most world-leading world-leadingness

Those cultural worldviews resulted in a…somewhat creative view of the policy positioning which aimed to bring those goals about, as I wrote:

  1. The regulatory programme saw the deliberate conflation of platform regulation with internet regulation, which are apples and oranges, thus allowing the UK to make broad pronunciations about “Big Tech” which actually impacted everything, everyone, everywhere, no matter what. Roughly 75% of this was policymakers genuinely not understanding the difference, and roughly 25% of it was policymakers who knew damn well what they were doing;
  2. The regulatory programme saw the messaging top line, which is now clearly a running joke for Westminster and a potentially fatal drinking game for wonks, about the UK creating a “world-leading” internet, which is…not how the internet works, at all, unless you’re China or Russia – nevertheless, the phrase “world-leading” was and still is inserted as a rule into absolutely every communication;
  3. The messaging about the UK’s regulatory goals changed every day depending on the news story of the day, in ways that made them appear that they were making things up as they went. Things entered the realm of near-parody where any bad news which involved an individual who happened to own a phone was spun into “…and THAT is why we need the Online Safety Bill!” In other words, the narrative required some amount of spin (at best) and disinformation (at worst).

Happy days.

Because what both those cultural and policy views meant, on a technical level, was a splinternet.

It’s not that they sat down and planned one. It’s that their ideological blinders, matched with a refusal to acknowledge how the internet itself works because they are the 1% and therefore they know so much better than the likes of you, meant that a splinternet was what they ordered.

Because in their vision, the Great British Internet would have three additional technical layers (as I wrote in the summer of 2022, reflecting what was on the table at that time).

The first additional technical layer would have been – and still could be – an identity layer, meaning the mandatory age verification requirement for all sites, all services, all users, and all content, regardless of scope, risk, or proportion, because of rent-seeking by the age verification industry. That included one group who wanted their technosolutions to be legislated into the introduction of nationality checks on top of age and identity verification; now that was a meeting I will never forget sitting in.

The second additional technical layer would/could be the general monitoring obligation, which will require service providers in scope (meaning everyone) to install automated filtering, monitoring, surveillance, and tracking technology, because of rent-seeking by the filtering, monitoring, surveillance, and tracking technology industry. Do understand that the introduction of a general monitoring obligation was seen as a positive outcome of Brexit, freeing the UK from the pesky Brussels bureaucracy which gave us the eCommerce Directive from which the UK’s prohibition on a general monitoring obligation was derived.

The third additional technical layer would/could be the requirement to break the security of end-to-end encrypted communications, a longtime obsession of the UK security services now repackaged as won’t somebody think of the children. As legislative grabs have ebbed and flowed, the prospect of scannable communications, plus the prospect of a general monitoring obligation, has at times covered subjective and legal communications. For a while, with the Online Safety Act’s various iterations, that would have applied to any subject which a political appointee (e.g. the Secretary of State for DCMS) would have determined must fall into scope, for wholly political reasons of their own choice.

I should note that the technical state of play described above, at its dystopian worst, was in the context of Nadine Dorries being put in charge of digital policy, but I’m not prepared to talk about that without a cigarette, and I don’t even smoke. (If you do not know who or what a Nadine Dorries is, we’re both going to need a lot more than a smoke.)

None of these plans went unchallenged at any step. In fact, if you’re reading this, you owe a great deal of debt to the representatives of civil society, in areas ranging from minority rights to internet governance to digital rights, working on poverty salaries (mine was £28k gross, £21k net) for dysfunctional employers (who can barely hold on to staff for twelve full months), who showed up in good faith over these years to countless “stakeholder” meetings with government, for which they all prepared their legal, technical, and policy briefings to the letter, knowing full well that the whole purpose of these meetings was to sit there being ranted, raged, and shouted at for 90 minutes about Meta, and then leave with nothing accomplished; whilst government accomplished its goal of ticking the box of saying that it had held stakeholder consultations with civil society.

I was in many of these meetings. I’m older, smarter, and wiser for all of them; which is more than I can say for some of the absolute numpties that government sent to the table.

The sun will never set on British internet regulation

At this point I have to explain one of the more unhinged aspects of the British internet regulatory experiment. Remember when I said that so many things about the internet are very irritating to the 1% and the 0.1% because those things just aren’t British? Well.

In support of their regulatory programme, the UK, via DCMS, attempted to retroactively nationalise the internet as a British invention, on poor Sir Tim Berners Lee’s back.

Hence, for example, we had a promotional video proclaiming “the World Wide Web was invented by a Brit!” – e.g. Sir Tim being the father of the WWW.

This wasn’t a sloppy stretch of messaging. This was an official ideological justification for the UK putting itself in charge of global internet regulation, via the Online Safety Act, which ultimately lands on Ofcom’s patch.

I even noticed this in my Elizabethan-era, maroon-cover passport, where the WWW was cited as an Iconic British Innovation:

You can tell they were just gagging to stick Sir Tim in there next to Babbage and Lovelace, but they can’t, because unfortunately for their promotional needs, he’s not dead. (This imagery, along with all imagery and anything remotely pretty, has disappeared from the Carolingian-era, blue-cover passports.)

To continue the Holy Grail comparisons, it’s generally never healthy when anyone begins claiming a divine right to rule the land based on magical qualities apparently bestowed at birth, but after all, that’s how we got the royal family.

Needless to say, the world wide web is not British, it is not a British invention because a Brit (…working in Switzerland…) came up with the idea, and the UK does not have a mythical divine right to own and regulate it via birthright.

But that’s what we’ve been up against.

A laughable legacy

So what’s left, now, in the waning months of Mayism?

Well, we have an Online Safety Act in place and in force which absolutely everyone hates; we have a regulator consulting on how to enforce it in a way that makes it clear what they really think of it; and we have another Bill, the Investigatory Powers Amendment Act, which has been hijacked by the last wheezing gasps of Mayism that, as with all Mayist visions, just isn’t going to work technically or politically.

For what’s new, we have an extremely well-coordinated public relations campaign calling for a smartphone ban for the under-16s. That campaign has cynically exploited a bereaved mother, who lost her daughter in a brutal transphobic murder, by recycling her into a slickly media-trained, pitch-perfect spokesperson for the campaign. Equally cynical is the presentation of the campaign and its asks as “hers”, as if she came up with all of it at her kitchen table, when the campaign already existed ready to launch from a central London public affairs agency, which was merely waiting for the right spokesperson to come along and be its sanctimonious public face, which is very much a thing these agencies do when it comes to online regulation.

(Me, I’m so old that I can remember when parents who had suffered an unspeakable tragedy got a media spokesperson so they could grieve and heal in privacy, as opposed to becoming slick media spokespeople for someone else’s crusade.)

She is now a familiar face on our screens, advocating pointless policy solutions that would not have saved her daughter, but would certainly have made her life a lot more difficult. As with all these things, “her” (PR handlers’) messaging blames the internet, phones, and social media for all the evils of this world, with absolutely nothing to say about the offline world which, thanks to fourteen years of Conservative rule, no longer has a functional safety net. (It has been well documented that her daughter’s killers fell through the gaping holes in the nets multiple times, but that’s not the messaging that hits the campaign KPIs or assuages whatever Tory/right donors are dark-funding this campaign. BTW, who the hell is funding this, and could some leaker leak it?)

And so in support of the campaign, we have a fresh crop of 1% wealthy London luvvies screeching about banning this, yaah?, reining in that, and controlling everyone and everything else; for there is nothing new under the sun.

But in the end, the Mayists, and the 1%, didn’t get what they ordered. We don’t have a British Internet for British People. We don’t even have one for wealthy white surveillance profiteers from the Home Counties who thought they’d get even richer off this. We don’t have a techno-nationalist security state to keep people safe online, and in fact, we don’t even have a functioning state to keep people safe offline. We haven’t “reined in the tech giants”. We’ve not created the “safest place in the world to be online” (drink!) or the “best place in the world to start a digital business” (driiiiink!) Real problems with Big Tech haven’t been fixed. Real problems with society haven’t been fixed.

We are all, by every emotion and every measure, far worse off than we were 14 years ago, and far more hopeless. We are all just getting by but we’re really not, we are all just paying bills but we’re really not, and we’re all so very tired and don’t see any light ahead. We really don’t.

But they’re alright Jack, because the ultimate legacy of this regulatory experiment is that we have both a Prime Minister, and a Minister for Digital, who are spending more time auditioning for the eight-figure jobs they’re gunning for in the Silicon Valley sun than doing their actual jobs here. Left with the choice between a techno-nationalist internet run on surveillance, jam, and Jerusalem, or an open internet in an open world, they’ve chosen the latter.

And now we come to the imminent return of Labour, which will be just as dystopian and just as dysfunctional, and whose legislative programme is already shaping up to be a whole new set of headaches. But at least that programme won’t be so bloody, well, posh.

So in the end, it’s not that Mayism, and the Conservative vision for the Great British Internet, has failed. It’s that it was never going to work in the first place. No ideology which views the global open internet – and its users – as naughty little children who need to be put back into their assigned place for their own protection, whilst feeling the smack of firm government, can possibly succeed. Not this late in the game, not in this world we live in, and certainly not in the wider societal context that the Tories have built, or rather destroyed, in their fourteen years in power.

Any plans in play born under the spell of that vision can only ever follow suit.

If you don’t believe that because you don’t want to believe that, keep hopping.

Hey Rowland, if you’re reading this:
Tech in Westminster has never been the same without you around.

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.


  1. i’m a bit confused. do you think the worst part’s of the OSA won’t be enforced? i only ask because labour seem just as interested in making the OSA work.

    • Oh make no mistake, Labour are going to give us a fresh new set of headaches, also grounded in equal amounts of technical illiteracy and policymakers’ personal limitations. The OSA is just one of the things to worry about. But the (say it in Tom Baker’s Little Britain voice) Britain! Britain! Britain! technonationalism, which only served to reveal how small and narrow the Conservatives’ world is as opposed to world-leading, is dead and buried.

      • But again (blame my autism for wanting specifics, that’s right I’m blaming something other than myself for being annoying) do you think the worst part’s of the OSA won’t be enforced? Never mind replacing technonationalism with tech illiteracy I’m just keen to be sure if the worst parts of the OSA will happen or not?

        • Ofcom are consulting on how to enforce as part of their 1700+ page consultation on their administration of the OSA, which is due 10 days from now. See volume 6.

          What they enforce, how, and when, in theory, is their judgement as an independent regulator. What they enforce, how, and when, in practice, will hinge on government and public pressure.

Comments are closed.