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.

As of December 2018 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 included the DCMS consultation paper on the Internet Safety Strategy.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Disinformation – limiting the spread and impact of disinformation intended to mislead for political, personal and/or financial gain.
  • 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.

This page will track developments in the Charter as it shifts into focus throughout 2019.

Author's plea
I have a note which I jotted during a Lords Communications Committee hearing in mid-2018 where one of the witnesses said “What is happening with the Digital Charter? Even experts don’t know what is going on – how legitmate can the process be?” I cannot find the citation in the enquiry PDFs. If this was you – Myles, maybe? – get in touch to confirm.