Monday, 13 February 2017

The internet in the age of illiberalism

It will not have escaped your notice that the age of liberal globalisation, which began some time in the mid- to late-1970s, is now under attack from every angle. What seems to be happening is akin to Europe's shift away from popular and liberal nation-building, and towards nativist populism and protectionism, duringthe 1860s and 1870s. The phenomenon was a little delayed in the United States - but even the US got there in the end. Those developments were generally thought to be in retreat by the outbreak of the First World War, but at the time they created a whole new wave of customs barriers, bureaucracy, statism, spying, officiousness and national 'competition' at every level, from the scramble for colonies in Africa to the scrabble for state-led 'competitiveness' in terms of health and education: national health insurance, of course, proved alluring to governments worried about the vigour of their so-called racial 'stock' just as much as it appealed to socialists worrying about equality.

Economic globalisation has stalled or slowed, rather than gone backwards - so far. But what is really noticeable is the return of the state, not in the optimistic, expansive, join-the-dots, one-stop-shop guise of the 1990s, but in the paternalistic, meddling, micro-managing format imagined as a key part of Theresa May's premiership. Third Way approaches in the Blair-Jospin-Schroeder era were optimistic, and they possessed to some extent an eschatology - that sense of an ending that posited that governments were going somewhere and had an end point in mind. As befits Mrs May's Conservative (and Tory) roots, and to a lesser extent Angela Merkel's Christian Democracy, what we are looking at today is a less rosy (though still historically very recognisable) creed, a day-by-day, get-through-the-challenges pragmatism of intervention that would push meddling forward without end: a new sheltering of the mind, perhaps, but also, and more seriously, a creeping protectionism of the soul.

That's where western states' increasing authoritarianism and moral monitoring - emphasising especially electronic and online policing - come in. The internet, in its 1990s guise a ceaseless, restless and above all inevitable progenitor of worldwide progress, has become something to fear or circumscribe, perhaps to all our detriment and danger.

The UK Government's recent Investigatory Powers Act - and its Digital Economy Bill, currently coming to the end of its Parliamentary passage - are good cases in point. There's no doubt that law enforcement agencies have a tricky job balancing citizens' right to privacy with the state's duty of care. Nor that new social media technologies are emerging all the time, and that Britain's legislative superstructure had failed to keep up.

But consider the drawbacks of such legislation, of which there are many - disturbing in practice, as well as in principle. Bulk interception of your private data is now permissible whether or not you are suspected of anything at all. Bulk collection of your browsing data is mandated for twelve months - not in itself perhaps a catastrophic element of these laws, but a standing danger to personal security if hackers (especially foreign governments) take a keen interest in any individual or group. It won't just be the security services and the police having a good old root around your emails, by the way: the Department of Health, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and the Home Office can request access as well. Trust them to keep it all under lock and key? No, neither do we. The Government, and Internet Service Providers, are by the way deeply uncertain about how to do all this safely: given these concerns at the highest levels in Whitehall and industry, some alarm is probably warranted. It's hard to see, in the new intelligence landscape, how any of this is particularly wise from a national security point of view either. If you're reading this in the UK, other powers within the UK's long-established security network might well now have access to your data - including the USA. That is not, shall we say, an entirely encouraging thought in the present political environment.

The whole basis of bulk data interception and retention is also deeply contested: not only is the Investigatory Powers Act as finally enacted a bit of a mess, but the UK government's similar recent practice in this sphere has recently been ruled illegal anyway by the European Court of Justice. Now, yes, Britain is heading out of the European Union, but a new Great Repeal Bill is going to incorporate all that European statute in British law, so governments will find no escapes or short cuts that way for some years to come. Invasive, unwise, potentially unsafe, a potential threat to individual and national security: this is the character of a top-heavy state in the new age of conservative intervention.

The Digital Economy Bill that's currently before the House of Lords has the same inherent flaws, and the bureaucratic nightmare you might create if you pushed it to its logical conclusions is if anything even worse. There seems to be no limit to the state's ambition in this particularly baggy and poorly-drafted legislation: data can be thrown around Whitehall for the purposes of looking at citizens' 'contribution to society', or their 'health and wellbeing', whatever that all means. There's an apparently absurd and unworkable ambition in there to classify and censor every single video on the internet: yes, every single one. All very laudable on the surface of course, but as instructive as everything else that's going on at the moment about the nature of the stern and judgemental state we're in: proposals for 'migrant lists' assembled by employers, region-by-region immigration rules that would see migrants having to show their papers in different parts of the kingdom, global threats to web neutrality and non-proprietary systems that would see the whole online world slow down to a crawl.

As the liberal-global era appears to recede, and the contest between populist and conservative globalisation begins to remove its potential as a potential category of choice at all (while social democracy struggles even to gain a hearing), this sort of format might be one we just have to get used to. So the questions before public policy might no longer all be about economic intervention and resource redistribution, less about equality of outcome or opportunity, and more about the efficacy or otherwise of security versus liberty; state morality versus secularism; borders, policing, regulation and control against that fissiparous, ragged yet energetic spirit with which we've all lived since the late 1960s. It is a doleful prospect, displayed via different histories in - for instance - Hungarian and Polish politics revolving around just those axes. But that's where we've been before, and it might well be where we're heading now.