So you’ve got to read a 1200 page consultation


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
UK policy

I recently enjoyed a beer with an Australian colleague who also works in the digital rights field. “Hold my beer” is, in fact, my running joke with Australians, as we both work through our bemusement on how the UK and Australia are constantly trying to outdo each other with hopelessly bad internet legislation that achieves absolutely nothing. To wit, my colleague observed that the Australian regulatory vision, as exemplified by the eSafety Commissioner, is to fix all the problems on the internet and clean it up by…

drum roll please…

overwhelming people with documents.

Yeah baby, that’s the ticket right there.

I thought of that last week, when Ofcom dropped yet another one of their consultations on their enforcement of the Online Safety Act, with still more coming down the road.

This new consultation, which I am dutifully muddling through, is 1,288 pages long, spread across 15 PDFs.

What a gift! That’s a reduction of 454 pages from their autumn consultation, which was 1,742 pages long, spread across 18 PDFs.

Yes, that’s a total of 3,030 pages of consultation documents

for one law, so far.

For comparison, the English translation of War and Peace totes in around 1,350 pages, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy clocked up 1,888 pages.

The latter, of course, took her eleven years and multiple rounds of time travel to produce.

You have until 17 July to read these 1288 pages, understand how they will impact every aspect of your work, and write your consultation response.

And because you’re not smart enough to hire me to do it for you, you’ve got to do it yourself.

So here’s my advice, sort of, on how to read this or any consultation that lives at the intersection of tech, politics, and regulation.

How to approach a massive consultation

Think of these consultations, whoever issues them, as being made of many layers, all of which you need to be reading for as you prepare your response.

Layer one

The first layer you need to be reading for is the impact that the steps set forth in the consultation will have on you and your work. That may be the company you work for, that may be the business or organisation that you run, or it may be the clients who are smart enough to pay you to tackle the consultation on your behalf. You must read with an understanding of how the consultation would impact the business/organisation side, whatever that may be, as much as it would impact the technical and codebase sides.

Layer two

The second layer you need to be reading for is the impact that the steps set forth in the consultation will have on human rights. In the online context, that means privacy, freedom of expression, and accessibility; other rights, such as freedom from harm, freedom of thought, and children’s rights, follow from those. The consultation’s impact on those rights needs to be considered in terms of the rights of the users, and those impacted by a service, not on you: because some of these consultations aim to increase one or more of those human rights, and some of these consultations aim to threaten them. Some do both, by aiming to restore rights that have been taken away, sometimes by taking them away from others. Sometimes that is the inadvertent consequence of badly drafted legislation. Sometimes that is a deliberate strategy by policymakers who know damn well what they’re doing.

Those human rights then become digital rights. Digital rights are human rights, and it’s important to understand the intersectionality between the two.

It is also important to understand the principles, frameworks, and statutes that define what all of those human and digital rights are and how they are protected. You must ground your concerns about threats to human and digital rights in something substantial, multilateral, and international. You cannot just, as a regrettable client was fond of doing, shout “Free speech!” and “Privacy!” a lot, as your personal catch phrases, defined as whatever you want those words to mean, not anchored to anything but your own ego. That is not how this works. That is not how any of this works.

Layer three

The third layer you need to be reading for is the impact that the steps set forth in the consultation will have on internet integrity. 99% of policymakers and regulators conflate platform regulation (platforms, as in Facebook) with internet regulation (internet, as in the global system). 25% of policymakers actually understand that and, again, know damn well what they’re doing. As a result, many of the plans set forth in consultations to address problems with platforms actually move up the stack, to the whole internet itself.

And let me tell you, half of this Ofcom consultation is a blueprint to do just that. Great British Splinternet, here we come. Told you so, for many, many, many years.

What are the standards that you should use to define and evaluate internet integrity? The Internet Society has a genuinely brilliant framework, and toolkit, to evaluate what you’re looking at. Get to know the five critical properties of the Internet, and the enablers of those properties.

As with layer two, you should cite those standards in any response you submit, at the point where you feel confident enough to retort what’s being proposed.

How to read a massive consultation

I’ve explained how to approach one of these monster consultations, but how do you actually attack it?

As in, how do you break down 1200 pages, or more, into a workplan? How do you turn this stack of bureacracy-speak into a workable and actionable task, inbetween dealing with everything else on your plate?

Well, I honestly can’t help you there, because I struggle with this every time, and I do this for a living.

Fact is, there’s no system, or workflow, or hack that can make this any easier.

And no, you can’t run regulatory consultations through an AI and get it to spit out your response. Don’t do that. Seriously, don’t.

When I was doing conference speaking, my party trick was breaking down tremendously complex pieces of legislation into easily digestible chunks. Hell, I helped people make GDPR feel easy.

This kind of “consultative dialogue” we’re getting from Ofcom? No. Absolutely not. This is farce. It’s farcical for me, as someone who reads this stuff for my work. It’s farcical for everyone I know who also has to read all this stuff for their work, regardless of what sector they work in or what role they play.

So how is your average sole trader, SME, or even non-commercial service, who didn’t spend five years dealing with this law in its political phase, and who most definitely don’t have a Me on their staff, meant to tackle it?

You can’t help but shake your head at the cognitive dissonance by which Ofcom discusses the necessity and proportionality of the rules that will follow as the end result of their consultative proposals, but not the necessity and proportionality of forcing everyone from sole traders on up to read over 3,000 pages of dense and complex consultation documents first, before Ofcom has even made their minds up about what rules to create.

That’s not a problem with you, and it’s not a problem with me.

It’s a problem with that vision – whether Britannic or Antipodean – which holds that you can fix all the problems on the internet, and make it safer, by overwhelming people with documents.

Right, that’s my rant over. Now where was I? In those 1200 pages? Shit. I honestly can’t find it.

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.