In the run-up to the general election, ZDNet UK approached the Green Party, the Pirate Party, UKIP and the BNP to get an outline of their policies on issues related to the technology and the IT industry.
One of these smaller parties — the Pirates — has a very technology-focused manifesto. The others do not, but all three represent the UK in the European Parliament.
All the special-interest parties have provided answers that should be an aid in voters' decisions on 6 May. The interviews were all conducted before the passage of the Digital Economy Act into law.
THE GREEN PARTY Q: What would your party do to promote and strengthen the UK technology industry? A: One of the key policies of the Green Party is massive investment in renewable energy generation and other green technologies and infrastructure. This would not only reduce the UK's carbon output but also turn the UK's renewable energy industry into a world leader.
More generally, the Green Party believes science and technological research are part of people's natural curiosity about the world and so supports them. We also seek to end our economy's ever-increasing dependence on the financial services sector, and increasing our high-tech manufacturing base would be one way of doing this.
What is your long-term strategy for the digital economy? A potential divide between the digital haves and have-nots is an issue which concerns the Green Party. Our key policy in this area would be ensuring all have digital access by obliging BT to provide affordable high-speed broadband-capable infrastructure to every household. We would seek to increase people's understanding of and participation in the digital world through more integrated science and technology education.
The Green Party believes science and technological research are part of people's natural curiosity about the world and so supports them.
The Green Party supports SMBs as part of our emphasis on a more localised, decentralised economy. Our planned network of local community banks would be able to provide affordable finance for small businesses wishing to establish an online presence.
What role should technology play in government transparency and interaction with the public? Information on policy formulation, the conduct of public affairs, the environment and health and safety should all be freely available. Clearly, technology like the internet would have a large role to play in this.
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 Green Party has a policy to promote the voluntary use of the open-source model not just in government, and not just in software. Free and open-source software should always be used where it can be procured without significant extra costs or other detriments. The assessment should account for future upgrade and migration costs, and the risks associated with proprietary format and software lock-in.
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. The Green Party believes that citizens' rights and freedoms as consumers and producers of content have been harmed in recent years as policy has lent an imbalanced favour to narrow commercial interests. We would fight any proposals...
...that tip the balance further in the interests of, for example, monolithic distributors who are unable to adapt their business model to the internet. Privacy and anonymity should be guaranteed unless there is a clear reason relating to national security to breach it.
What is your e-health policy and will it include contracting patient data out to third parties? The Green Party would support the use of e-health to improve access by patients to their own clinical records. We support the use of telemedicine to enable clinical care to be delivered at a distance, reducing the need to travel and making best use of clinician's time. We are keen to see the ability of patients and carer to access good online advice on health issues improved further, making better use of NHS Direct.
However, we are very aware that the elderly and more vulnerable members of society often have less access to online services and we need to ensure that any improvements in access to care through e-health do not disadvantage this important group.
We are opposed to the contracting out of data management to third parties. Even with the best information-governance arrangements, there are clear and unnecessary risks associated with doing this. We would want patient's clinical data to be held and managed by the organisations delivering their care.
Which major government IT projects would you drop or change, and why? Where feasible, we would seek to move from monolithic procurement of proprietary systems towards a more modular, release-early-and-often open-source approach. This would reduce risk, potentially save money and reduce the need for further centralisation of the state.
Privacy and anonymity should be guaranteed unless there is a clear reason relating to national security to breach it.
What measures would you put in place to ensure that businesses and organisations better protect their customers' data and inform customers of data breaches? We would first reduce the pressures from public agencies to retain and release the extraordinary levels of personal information they process by amending the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, and by cracking down on the practice of public and private third parties intercepting or monitoring our communications.
We would secondly strengthen data protection laws to support subject access requests, introduce tougher penalties for companies who don't fully comply and who fail to notify customers of breaches and their implications, and give the Information Commissioner more teeth to bear down on excessive and abusive use of personal data.
What is your policy on new or existing measures to protect the critical national infrastructure? The Green Party's emphasis is on decentralisation, security and data protection, facilitated by an open source approach, would reduce the risks associated with particular parts of the infrastructure failing or being damaged.
We believe that projects such as the highly centralised computerisation of the NHS create unnecessary risks, and that approaches such as moving to a further decentralised, 'smart' grid will reduce risks.
THE PIRATE PARTY UK (PPUK) Spokesman: Party head Andrew Robinson
What would your party do to promote and strengthen the UK technology industry? The British technology industry is amongst the best in the world, and the Pirate Party UK wants to further strengthen it. We believe the opportunities provided by a relaxation of overzealous copyright and patent laws will encourage greater competition and reduce costs, providing a host of new opportunities for business and industry.
We pledge to ban software patents, which will ensure that the pace of change in software is kept appropriately high. Raising the level of innovation required before hardware patents are awarded will continue to reward truly innovative work while reducing the problem of overly-broad patents being used to discourage competition. Our plan to require a working model before a patent is granted will remove the danger of so-called submarine patents.
What is your long-term strategy for the digital economy? Broadband has quickly become an essential part of modern life in Britain and a service that no individual should ever be deprived of. We believe that broadband access in the UK should be covered by a universal service obligation similar to that already imposed on telephone companies that provide analogue lines. We plan to encourage competition between ISPs and also enforce honesty in connection speeds. We plan to give customers the right to pay for the speed they actually receive, rather than the unobtainable theoretical maximum usually advertised by ISPs. This would encourage ISPs to improve actual performance rather than just the headline speed.
We pledge to ban software patents, which will ensure that the pace of change in software is kept appropriately high.
The Pirate Party UK strongly believes that net neutrality is vital to ensure the freedom and development of the internet. Only by enforcing a system of net neutrality can we really ensure that customers have an acceptable level of service and that businesses can operate freely. Enforced net neutrality also ensures that future fledgling internet-based businesses can compete on a level playing field with the incumbents and get off the ground without undue hindrance. This will ensure the long-term future of competition in this sector.
We believe that legislation such as the Digital Economy Bill will do nothing but harm the UK's digital economy and could in fact lead to an increase in piracy. The Digital Economy Bill will be the first step towards massive consumer and voter disenfranchisement as voters become aware that the bill was drafted for — and by — faltering sectors of the content distribution industry.
The Party is currently discussing methods to better the teaching of ICT in schools, including an increased focus on practical internet safety, as well as encouraging the teaching of general purpose computing skills rather than how to operate particular software packages. Such program-specific teaching leads to problems — for example, if that version of a particular software product is not used, or no longer available. An English class doesn't require that only a single brand of pen is used to write with, so why should it be seen as acceptable in ICT lessons?
What role should technology play in government transparency and interaction with the public? The internet allows us to share information and data on an unprecedented level. Much like Tim Berners-Lee, we believe that all government data that could be made public, should be. This would achieve greater accountability as well as affording the opportunity for businesses and individuals alike to take the data and apply it in brilliantly novel ways. Data.gov.uk is a great first step, and we'd like to see that project extended.
We also applaud private initiatives such as WriteToThem.com, TheyWorkForYou.com, WhatDoTheyKnow.com and Wikileaks.org, and we plan to introduce new rights to protect whistleblowers to encourage the criticism of those in power. At the same time...
...government-based initiatives for transparency need to grow, but it needs to be done properly, not in the wasteful and cash-hungry methods currently used by recent British governments that provide a poor, often unusable end-product at a vastly inflated price.
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 Pirate Party UK believes that open-source software can play an important role in government and the public sector, although there is certainly still a place for proprietary software — it is simply a matter of the best tool for the job.
We pledge to implement the [current] government's own Open Source Action Plan, which is currently being ignored. In many cases, open-source software can not only reduce costs, but can also offer improvements on proprietary equivalents, in addition to enabling greater transparency by making the workings of the machinery of government departments available for inspection by all via the source code. At the same time, open-source software should not be seen as a panacea; decisions should be made on this, like all topics, based on all the facts and an honest, open analysis of the situation.
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. Citizens' right to online privacy is as important as their right to offline privacy. ISPs should not be able to monitor an individual's connection in the same way that it is unacceptable for Royal Mail to open their post — something that the government is currently trying to change. No exception should be made simply because the internet is involved.
It is never acceptable for internet connections to be surveilled without a warrant, as it is unacceptable for all other forms of communication. Excluding means such as well-declared private CCTV to protect private property, all secretive surveillance should be classed as a criminal offence.
What is your e-health policy and will it include contracting patient data out to third parties? The use of a medical database that has been tested and proved to be both reliable and secure will help both patients and doctors in all areas of medical care. The current paper-based system has many systemic issues — for example, files have to be physically moved between locations — and electronic records easily overcome these problems.
The problem arises when the data is not kept secure; something the government has become notorious for. We hope to solve this by requiring that private data be strongly encrypted and allowing people to claim compensation if their data has been 'misplaced'. There is very easy to use encryption software available for this purpose, and there is no excuse for a government data breach such as those this country has seen recently. An NHS database can be a huge benefit if implemented properly.
Only by enforcing a system of net neutrality can we really ensure that customers have an acceptable level of service and that businesses can operate freely.
Issues relating to the contracting-out of data are best left to the hospitals concerned. If it can truly help patients and the data can be handled securely, and if it can be done with the knowledge and permission of patients, then there is little reason to restrict it.
Which major government IT projects would you drop or change, and why? Whoever wins the next election will need to find cuts in order to balance the budget. The Pirate Party UK believes that some of these cuts should fall on costly, over-budget and possibly unnecessary government databases.
Of particular concern is the National Identity Register (NIR) and the insidious ID card scheme that accompanies it. While the current government has already recognised that the scheme is unpopular and has made minor concessions, we would severely limit the NIR's scope and abolish the national ID card project. While this might ostensibly seem like lagging behind some of the other parties, which have promised to abolish the NIR, it is extremely likely that while the NIR itself will be axed by those parties, they will initiate another project with the same aims and methods, just with a different name.
Of equal concern to us is the DNA database. The government has already lost cases in the European Court of Human Rights and...
...is required to limit its scope. This would be a priority for us, and we would ensure that DNA samples of those acquitted or not charged will be destroyed rather than left on the database indefinitely, as is currently the case.
Furthermore, where possible, we will seek to use off-the-shelf software in any future procurement rather than relying on expensive contractors to program bespoke software.
What measures would you put in place to ensure that businesses and organisations better protect their customers' data and inform customers of data breaches? We see the Data Protection Act as woefully inadequate and certainly lesser than similar laws in most other countries. A basic improvement would be to require that all personal data held should meet a minimum requirement for security, including encryption.
We plan to introduce new rights to compensation for data loss and to move data protection rules from the civil arena to criminal law, where breaches can be punished by the courts rather than at the whim of the information commissioner. Also, we recognise the value of whistle-blowers and will seek to enhance protections for them when exposing illegal practices in the workplace and elsewhere. Measures like these should provide a strong incentive for companies to improve the quality of their data protection.
What is your policy on new or existing measures to protect the critical national infrastructure? This is a core policy for the Pirate Party, as we believe that the internet is crucial to our freedom of speech and to our cultural development and a weak critical national infrastructure (CNI) threatens this. While the UK's CNI is relatively secure, there is always more to be done, and we would advocate the allocation of greater funds to GCHQ and Security Services (or at the very least protect the funds they already receive) to ensure that our network remains one of the most secure in the world.
The Party also hopes to see a gradual move towards a more decentralised and reliably structured national network as it grows, and this topology becomes more feasible. However we understand that a giant overhaul is not currently the most pressing concern and that there are more important issues that need to be addressed.
One major issue is the security of the CNI of other countries: the internet is a global system, and the UK alone cannot protect it. Where possible, the UK should assist and collaborate with other nations in protecting their own CNI, something that can be achieved with the UK's extensive diplomatic connections and the European Union. As a party, we can assist this through Pirate Parties International, which has links to over 40 other countries.
What would your party do to promote and strengthen the UK technology industry? UKIP did not answer this question.
What is your long-term strategy for the digital economy? Digital infrastructure is now as important a component in an economy's growth and flexibility as traditional infrastructure — it is the 'fourth utility'. We believe Britain should have a world-class broadband infrastructure to remain competitive, and, importantly, that citizens are not excluded from the benefits of broadband, especially as government services move online.
We recognise the long-term goal for next-generation access is universal fibre-to-the-home, but we recognise the practical technical and economic challenges of achieving this and believe a patchwork of technologies including fibre, DSL, fixed and mobile wireless and satellite will be required as intermediate solutions to extend improved quality broadband access to all citizens.
Philosophically, we lean against state intervention. We believe much of the UK market, predominantly urban areas, can be served through private investment. However, we do recognise the significant economic barriers to entry which exist in the 'final third'. We believe there are many ways the government can assist the market: in particular, resolving continuing uncertainty over business rates on fibre and wireless, creating a regulatory framework which supports open-access passive infrastructure (ducts, poles, towers, etc), and establishing clarity and support within the planning system for NGA infrastructure deployment.
We lean against state intervention, and we believe much of the market, predominantly urban areas, can be served through private investment.
We oppose the 50p landline levy as a bizarre and self-defeating policy, and while the Conservative proposals for a 3.5 percent levy on the BBC licence fee beyond digital switchover is more rational, our proposals to empower local councils with more control over local taxation and powers to issue municipal bonds may be a suitable mechanism for local communities to intervene in the market if necessary, rather than central government. This would allow local communities to decide for themselves and pay for it themselves. This bottom-up, demand-driven approach to financing NGA is preferable, in our view, to the top-down approach outlined by the government via the Next Generation Fund/BDUK. In particular, we reject the notion this fund should exclude alternate technologies to fibre.
What role should technology play in government transparency and interaction with the public? UKIP are firm believers that technology, particularly the internet, has enabled a shift away from pure representative democracy to participative democracy. The essence of democracy is government of, by and for the people, and harnessing technology to enable citizens to better become involved is an opportunity to be embraced.
For example, our policies for national and local referenda build on the Number 10 online petitions service to give teeth to public sentiment. UKIP is a strong supporter of using technology to empower citizens to engage in the democratic process outside of elections and to make government more accountable.
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? UKIP supports efficiency in the public sector on behalf of taxpayers and supports using tools which deliver best value for the job. Open-source software has rapidly proven its competitive credentials against proprietary software, and we would welcome a shift away from more costly and inflexible proprietary contracts.
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. We oppose the DEB, particularly in the light of the mad rush to get it passed and the lack of proper parliamentary scrutiny.
What is your e-health policy and will it include contracting patient data out to third parties? We oppose the NHS Spine, and the way in which it is being implemented. Patient privacy is important and the creation of this database is in our mind deeply disturbing.
We oppose the NHS Spine, and the way in which it is being implemented. Patient privacy is important and the creation of this database is in our mind deeply disturbing.
Which major government IT projects would you drop or change, and why? UKIP did not answer this question.
What measures would you put in place to ensure that businesses and organisations better protect their customers' data and inform customers of data breaches? UKIP did not answer this question.
What is your policy on new or existing measures to protect the critical national infrastructure? UKIP did not answer this question.
THE BRITISH NATIONAL PARTY (BNP) Spokesman: IT spokesman Simon Bennett
What would your party do to promote and strengthen the UK technology industry? The IT service sector — like all UK industries — has suffered greatly through years of neglect caused by the de-industrialisation policies followed by successive governments. The gutting of the British manufacturing sector, which includes IT, will be reversed by a BNP government through a two-handed approach.
[The first policy is] inward investment and protectionism of UK industries to rebuild our industrial and technological base. The funds for this investment will be taken from the funding currently set aside for foreign aid (£9bn per year), immigration (£13bn per year), asylum (£4bn per year), EU membership (£60bn per year), illegal and immoral wars (£49bn spent in Iraq and £3bn per year in Afghanistan), among other non-essential current budget allocations.
[The second policy is] the erection of technology universities specifically designed to teach IT, train up our own people and serve as centres of learning and excellence to train the next generation of IT software and hardware experts. The latter step will obviate the current regime's policies of importing foreigners to do jobs that British people should be doing, a situation that is particularly prevalent in the IT sector and has been identified by the Association of Personnel Service Organisation (APSO) as a cause of unemployment in the UK IT industry.
What is your long-term strategy for the digital economy? The BNP's long-term strategy for the communication sector is closely tied in to the party's policy of restoring national infrastructure to state ownership, as it always was and which is still the case in most of Europe.
BNP's IT spokesman Simon Bennett Credit: Simon Bennett
Once this process is completed, the state-owned telecoms infrastructure will be under the same universal service obligation (USO) applied to the Post Office. The Royal Mail is legally obliged to deliver mail across the country at a standard price and at set service levels. There is no reason why the telecoms infrastructure should not be obliged to deliver similar service objectives on a non-profit basis, which will then boost the entire economy by solving the problems of a lack of digital and rural broadband availability.
It is not the state's obligation to pay for SMBs to develop their own online presence. The state should provide the infrastructure to make such a presence possible — the service, skills, training and IT colleges — but it is far fetched to expect the state to also shoulder the burden of setting up online presences for all private companies.
What role should technology play in government transparency and interaction with the public? The BNP is completely opposed to secrecy in government dealings with the public, and all personal data should be freely available to the persons concerned. All citizens should have the right to challenge the accuracy of all personal data held by the state.
In addition, a BNP government would ensure that all personal data held by private agencies such as credit bureaus should be available to the persons concerned at no cost, and that such agencies should not be allowed to 'blacklist' any person without recourse to a court of law where a specific misdemeanour could be proven.
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 need for security of all government data should be paramount. As a result, all software selection should be based on that which is most secure. That qualification aside, the BNP is completely in favour of encouraging open-source software on the grounds of cost and because it stimulates education, builds a skills base and ultimately encourages entrepreneurship — which will ultimately benefit the UK technology industry and the economy.
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. The BNP fully supports copyright laws and understands that they are vital to the continued growth and funding of IT software and the entertainment industry in particular.
However, the current approach to punish downloaders is inverted and guaranteed to generate mass resentment while also being doomed to failure. Instead of focusing on downloaders...
...who are merely taking advantage of the availability of free material, law enforcement efforts should focus on the uploaders as the source of the problem.
Furthermore, the obligation to protect data should primarily be the concern of the private companies with whom that data originates. A person who leaves his front door unlocked and who is then burgled has the right to expect the state to catch and prosecute the thief, but not to make sure that the door was locked in the first place.
What is your e-health policy and will it include contracting patient data out to third parties? The BNP believes strongly that all data held by the government must be kept securely in-house and under no circumstances be given out to third parties. This will open up a potentially dangerous can of worms and precedents.
The BNP fully supports the Department of Health's National Programme for IT, but the obvious problems in its rollout are a great source of concern. This project, like all other government IT projects which have stalled for assorted reasons, needs to be the subject of a major review and put under stricter guidelines.
Which major government IT projects would you drop or change, and why? In 2007, it was reported that only 30 percent of government IT projects and programmes were successful. This is a shocking statistic that needs to be reversed.
[Technology universities will] obviate the current regime's policies of importing foreigners to do jobs British people should be doing.
A BNP government would halt the following projects: the National Identity Scheme — there is no need for this project at all; the Rural Payments Agency — this is part of the EU Common Agricultural Policy infrastructure, and it is BNP policy to withdraw from the EU; parts of the Becta Home Access programme, which effectively forces taxpayers to buy computers for private individuals — this is an incredibly dangerous precedent to set. What will the next demand be? Digital flat-screen TVs for all?
What measures would you put in place to ensure that businesses and organisations better protect their customers' data and inform customers of data breaches? A BNP government would amend the Data Protection Act (DPA) to ensure that it was more easily enforceable and that the penalties for breaches of the act would be severe. The BNP has seen its own membership list leaked with the responsible person being given a derisory £200 fine. This slap-on-the-wrist type of punishment makes a mockery of the intention of the law, and the BNP would seek the severest penalties possible with a minimum term of imprisonment to serve as a deterrent to this sort of crime and online identity theft.
What is your policy on new or existing measures to protect the critical national infrastructure? It is the BNP's policy to ensure that the telecoms network is returned to state ownership. This is the only way in which the state can ensure its security and the only manner in which the massive capital investment needed to upgrade the systems to provide the universal service obligation of 100Mbps broadband service can be met.