The Liberal Democrat culture spokesman Don Foster has outlined his party's policies on strengthening the digital economy, using open source in government IT and protecting consumer data, among other issues.
The interview is part of ZDNet UK's Tech election 2010 series, where we ask the nation's parties to outline their technology policies in the run-up to the May general election.
The Liberal Democrats, who have never formed a government, were the only major party not to vote for the Digital Economy Bill, which became law on 8 April. In this interview — conducted before the bill was passed — Foster explains what his party would do for the technology industry in the UK if it is elected to power for the first time.
Q: What would your party do to promote and strengthen the UK technology industry?
A: I would like to highlight our plans in two key areas: skills and funding.
We need more focus on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. We will improve the teaching of STEM subjects through measures such as expanding the TeachFirst programme to get more top graduates in our classrooms, reforming the existing bursary system for university students so that bursaries are awarded on the basis of studying strategic subjects — such as sciences and mathematics — as well as financial hardship and opening up opportunities for more vocational subjects like engineering.
The UK generates many of the world's most important new ideas. However, all too often, there is a lack of funding needed to commercialise these ideas. We will introduce Local Enterprise Funds, tax efficient investment vehicles to provide seed capital to start-up/early-stage businesses. These will overcome a key barrier in developing new ideas through to commercial products and services.
We will investigate approaches such as cloud computing and open-source software.
What is your long-term strategy for the digital economy?
The Liberal Democrats recognise the need for investment in our digital infrastructure to ensure everyone has access to broadband. We have supported the government's plans for a broadband tax in principle, but believe there are some flaws in the way it has been designed. In particular, we are concerned by reports that some people may be charged more than once, and we have called for exemptions for pensioners and the least well-off members of society.
We also believe investment must be targeted first at the remote and rural areas that are least likely to be provided for by the market to ensure these areas don't get left behind and the digital divide doesn't widen.
As part of any investment in this area, the Liberal Democrats will support initiatives that promote digital inclusion and the organisations — like public libraries — that deliver them. It is vital that everyone is equipped with the skills needed in the digital age and people aren't socially or economically disadvantaged by being digitally excluded.
What role should technology play in government transparency and interaction with the public?
Technology and the internet provide a huge opportunity for the government to be more open and to connect with the public. This government has an extremely poor record on transparency — repeatedly blocking the release of expenses details, for example — and the Liberal Democrats have long argued that more information should be made available to the public. For example, we would extend Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation to private companies delivering monopoly public services like Network Rail.
Liberal Democrats' culture spokesman Don Foster Credit: Jennifer Pack
Allowing people to access government services online can also save time and money. Central and local government have an important role to play in making public services easily accessible online and in encouraging and enabling people to use them.
What role should open-source software play in local and national government use, and what would you do to promote its use over that of proprietary software?
The Labour government spends £16bn a year on IT, but has a very poor record on IT procurement and has regularly been criticised by the National Audit Office. The Liberal Democrats will improve government IT procurement, investigating the potential of different approaches such as cloud computing and open-source software.
Open-source software can be cheaper than proprietary or bespoke software, and we believe government should consider open-source solutions in all IT procurement. The Liberal Democrats will conduct a full review of IT procurement procedures and work with industry to improve cross-government working practices and save money.
How would you balance citizens' online privacy against protecting commercial interests? The cases of Phorm and the Digital Economy Bill's copyright clauses are relevant to this question.
Our goal is to support the creative industries while, at the same time, fully acknowledging the issues of rights and freedoms for the individual that arise as internet technology advances. The Liberal Democrats are unconvinced of the merits of measures such as...
...temporary account suspension or bandwidth throttling and are concerned that not enough safeguards currently exist within the legislation.
We have urged the creative industries to work harder to attract users to legal services and hope that this, combined with measures to educate users about the damage caused by illegal file-sharing, will mean that no further action is required.
The Liberal Democrats have fought very hard to ensure that the technical measures can only be brought into effect after plenty of time has passed, followed by consultation, further scrutiny, and the opportunity for Parliament to debate, amend, or vote against the plans.
What is your e-health policy and will it include contracting patient data out to third parties?
The Liberal Democrats did not answer this question.
Which major government IT projects would you drop or change, and why?
There are a number of large-scale IT projects being planned by the Labour party that we think are intrusive and unnecessary.
In order to safeguard our civil liberties and protect individual privacy, the Liberal Democrats would scrap plans to introduce ID cards and the ContactPoint database — which is intended to hold details of every child in England — and end plans to store everyone's email and internet records without good cause.
What measures would you put in place to ensure that businesses and organisations better protect their customers' data and inform customers of data breaches?
The Liberal Democrats did not answer this question.
Broadband infrastructure investment must be targeted at the remote and rural areas.
What is your policy on new or existing measures to protect the critical national infrastructure?
We have no plans to change the existing government arrangements under which the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) is responsible for providing advice on protection against both physical and electronic measures.
One area where further progress needs to made is increasing the take-up of business continuity plans by the private sector, as many key public services rely on the private sector for at least an aspect of the service. The most recent CMI survey for the Cabinet Office demonstrated that less than half of all organisations have business continuity plans in place, suggesting that there is significantly more to do in terms of actively promoting the importance of business continuity.
Now that your party had adopted, at conference, an internet freedom policy, how does this square with your support for website-blocking as part of the Digital Economy Bill?
A legal process to enable website-blocking was introduced in the House of Lords to provide a means of tackling online piracy not involving peer-to-peer technology, and as an alternative to the government's plans to award itself sweeping powers to change copyright legislation at will.
However, there has been limited time for consultation and very little time before final decisions are made. We therefore do not believe that measures to address site blocking can reasonably be included in the Digital Economy Bill, and we will not support any such measures.
The motion passed at our conference in March sets the framework for a Liberal Democrat approach to these issues, and we are looking forward to setting up a working group after the election to formulate a full set of policies on internet rights, freedoms and regulation.