The Digital Charter and Brexit

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What is the Digital Charter?

The Digital Charter is the Conservative government’s framework for a domestic digital strategy.

The Charter was first mentioned in the Queen’s Speech of 2017. You may recall that it was formally announced by Theresa May at Davos in January 2018, in a poorly delivered speech which came off as an extraordinary feat of trying to avoid talking about Brexit.

The Digital Charter framework’s inachievable goal, “making the internet work for everyone,” makes no attempt to address the imminent disruption of the UK tech sector’s forcible removal from its largest trading market, or the regulatory gaps already opening in its wake. That is because unlike the Digital Single Market strategy, which focuses on eliminating barriers to commerce and enterprise, the Digital Charter is grounded in issues of morality, conduct, and ultimately state control. It seeks to establish “norms and rules” for human behavior online, ostensibly working together with industry. That relationship, however, is grounded in government’s need to claim both the political and moral high ground first.

Put another way: if the Digital Single Market strategy could be characterised by an Instagram shot of an achingly cool entrepreneur co-working in a Berlin cafe, the Digital Charter could be characterised by Tenniel’s “Alice in Wonderland” cartoon of the elderly Red Queen pointing her finger and bleating. (See this excellent opinion piece by Rowland Manthorpe at Sky News on Theresa May’s tech legacy).

As of summer 2019 there has been very little work done on the Charter in terms of the actual legislation following on from it, largely due to Brexit. That lack of progress has led members of Parliament to lean towards mythologising the Charter as the eventual solution to all their digital grievances.

The charter’s scope, according to government, will be spread across eight areas of focus:

  • Digital economy – building a thriving ecosystem where technology companies can start and grow.
  • Online harms – protecting people from harmful content and behaviour, including building understanding and resilience, and working with industry to encourage the development of technological solutions. This has included the DCMS consultation paper on the Internet Safety Strategy which led to the online harms white paper, as well as the social media code of practice.
  • Liability – looking at the legal liability that online platforms have for the content shared on their sites, including considering how we could get more effective action through better use of the existing legal frameworks and definitions.
  • Data and artificial intelligence (AI) ethics and innovation – ensuring data is used in safe and ethical way, and when decisions are made based on data, these are fair and appropriately transparent. This has included the iOT code of practice.
  • Digital markets – ensuring digital markets are working well, including through supporting data portability and the better use, control and sharing of data. Government has cited the domestic implementation of GDPR (an EU law) as evidence of progress in this area. This work has also included the Furman Review into unlocking digital competition as well as the current consultation on smart data.
  • Disinformation – limiting the spread and impact of disinformation intended to mislead for political, personal and/or financial gain. This has included the DCMS review into disinformation and fake news.
  • Cyber security – supporting businesses and other organisations to take the steps necessary to keep themselves and individuals safe from malicious cyber activity, including by reducing the burden of responsibility on end-users.

Outside the Digital Charter

Other legislative proposals being floated about internet regualation after Europe, but within other silos, include