With the Conservatives and Labour in a bruising battle over economic policy, the Liberal Democrats have turned to technology policy as a General Election vote winner by proposing a tough ‘Digital Bill of Rights’ it believes will empower ordinary citizens against the predations of big business, criminals and government.

Punishments  suggested include a beefed-up Information Commissioner, prison sentences for organisations abusing or selling personal data, and a mechanism under which consumers would be compensated if they sign away data under misleading terms and conditions.

Image: iStock
Image: iStock

Some of this might have been prompted by a clutch of recent incidents, including revelations last month that UK pension data was being sold and had ended up in the hands of criminals. In 2014 there was also controversy over the potential marketing of anonymised NHS health data.

The draft discussion document, co-authored with input from the iRights coalition, WebWeWant, and the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, overlaps to some extent with a major piece of EU law, General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), due to be finalised by the end of this year.

The problem with the GDPR is that few other than professionals working for large organisations pay much attention to its provisions let alone consider how they might empower ordinary citizens, who could take years to grasp the implications as cases eventually come to court.

By contrast, the Lib Dem Bill of Rights is couched through 13 ‘big ideas’ which it believes will appeal to voters in ways that are intelligible and easy to understand in the short term.

These set out a raft of basic principles, including that citizens should be in control of all data including being able to edit its contents, the importance of consent, and the need for privacy from institutional intrusion.

There is provision for larger and more complex issues such as the way people interact with the Internet, how far government can go in controlling what they say and do through laws limiting free speech, imposing surveillance and the need to preserve the privacy afforded by technologies such as encryption.

There is also room for more subtle ideas such as giving people access to publically-funded research and data, introducing digital literacy into the national curriculum, and adopting the principle of net neutrality.

Given that the document is the work of Liberal Democrat thinking, it is noticeable that some of its aspirations contradict the policy directions of the party’s political opponents not to mention its current Conservative Coalition partner. Is this a bit awkward?

“Some in the other parties do get it, and would be very much onside with this,” commented Liberal Democrat Digital Rights Spokesman and Cambridge candidate Julian Huppert in a Twitter Q&A exchange with Techworld.

“The other parties definitely don't take this seriously, e.g. Labour's ID cards, Tories pushing for the Snooper's Charter,” he added.

As for the need to replicate protections that might be in the GDPR, Huppert believed that something closer to home was still needed.

“To be honest, I think it [the GDPR] may fall apart, because it tries to do too many things that aim in different directions.”

One obvious area of difference is encryption, which David Cameron has dropped vague hints that he’d like to control in unspecified ways, something that is anathema to the LibDem proposals.  On the other side, the document accepts that encrypted data can be unscrambled but says “no request should be made to decrypt content unless it is necessary and proportionate to do so for purpose of protecting the public.

“Decryption should only take place on a case-by-case basis, and companies should not be expected to hand over to Government the encryption master-keys,” states the document.

Strip away some of the feelgood language and this is pretty similar to the current system.  What matters is that people understand the law and their rights when using the technology.

“Our Digital Bill of Rights will finally enshrine into law our rights as citizens of this country to privacy, to stop information about our lives being misused, and to protect our right to freedom of speech,” said Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg.

“The way in which we work, socialise, buy products and use services has changed at lightning speed since the digital revolution.

“However, government and politicians have responded at snail’s pace, with a poor understanding of new technology and the impact it is having on our lives. We need to ensure that consumers, businesses, journalists and our children are protected in the online world.

Feedback and contributions from the public are welcomed by emailing [email protected], the Party said.