Conservative election manifesto makes chilling reading for online freedom advocates

Following the dreadful events which took place in Manchester yesterday, campaigning in the UK’s upcoming General Election has, quite rightly, been suspended as people grieve for those lives which have been lost.

The political response to the latest terrorist attack on UK shores remains to be seen, but there is little doubt all political sides in the UK will want to be seen as being strong on terrorism in the wake of this atrocity.

For the Conservative Party, which won the most recent election and is the hot favourite to win again this time round, that appears certain to mean an attempt to clamp down still further on online freedoms.

Conservative threat to online freedoms

The Conservatives are already responsible for the Investigatory Powers Act, which is one of the most intrusive pieces of surveillance legislation in the free world and has seen online freedoms and privacy being significantly undermined.

But if their election manifesto is anything to go by, the Conservative’s seem hell-bent on going even further.

“Some people say that it is not for the government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet,” it states. “We disagree.”

This line of text is buried towards the end of the 88-page document and has, predictably been overlooked in the media furore over the so-called ‘dementia tax’, Brexit issues, and now the threat of terrorism.

But its potential implications could be significant. Because what it means is that the Conservative Party believe that as a Government, they should be able to regulate the internet. This might sound like a policy pledge straight from the Communist Party of China, or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but instead, it comes from the party which considers itself to be free-market oriented.

And there were no efforts to play down what the pledge meant when the tech media asked the Conservative’s for comment.

Buzzfeed spoke to senior Conservative aide who suggested that there were plans to try and reign in the ‘power’ of the big internet sites such as Google and Facebook, which have traditionally resisted efforts at being regulated and even withdrawn from markets, such as China, which have required it.

Ominous policy pledges

It is not just this single line of text which has raised concerns. There are various policies spread all over the document which, when put together, do not make good reading for those who believe in online freedom.

There are plans to introduce laws to protect people from ‘abusive and offensive’ online content and also to allow them to remove internet content which was posted before they were 18 years old.

In addition, stricter rules would be introduced on the accessing of pornography and violent content, which would include requiring sites which publish such content to justify it to the Government.

The manifesto also confirms that they would plan to introduce sanctions to penalise online companies which refuse to comply with their new laws. In addition, there are also plans for a levy on tech companies, with the funds being used to “support awareness and preventative activity to counter internet harms”.

It makes for fairly chilling reading and should the tech companies agree to comply is likely to lead to greatly increased online censorship in the UK. “They won’t get it right – they’ll behave in a risk-averse fashion,” explained Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group. “They’ll censor more than they need to. I do not want Mark Zuckerberg to think of himself as judge and jury of what people can say in Britain.”

Do the Conservative’s support China’s Cyber sovereignty idea?

What is perhaps more worrying is that the UK’s likely next Government believes it can regulation the internet through national laws. This is getting closer and closer to the Chinese Communist Party’s terrifying ‘cyber sovereignty’ policies, which we have written about before.

Online freedoms cannot be curtailed by national laws, as users will turn to a VPN to open up sites which are censored by connected via a server based overseas. It is high time that the technically illiterate Conservative Party began to realise this.

And if this article is putting you off voting for the Conservative’s, don’t let it turn you towards Labour either as their manifesto contains much of the same, they have failed to oppose the Investigatory Powers Act throughout its passage through Parliament, and, when last in power, their policies in this area were just as intrusive.

The Manchester terror attack is likely to give more momentum to such policies in the future and, for those who value online privacy, this General Election looks to be a very hard one to vote in at all.

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