A Digital Bill of Rights would be a step in the right direction

30 Jan 2018


I’m currently in the middle of reading Tim Ross and Tom McTague’s excellent Betting the House: The inside story of the 2017 election. One of the interesting nuggets contained within is that on the night of the Manchester Arena bomb attack on May 22, some of the senior staff in the Conservative campaign office were desperate for the Prime Minister to make a “short, strong statement on Twitter, setting out what she was doing to get a grip on the crisis.” She refused, and it took until four hours after the attack for the first statement from Downing Street. Apparently, this was because that tweeting was one of the things that “David Cameron did” and therefore, Theresa May and Chiefs of Staff Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy decided, one of the things they would not do. “We’re not going to tweet, we’re not going to put anything up on Facebook. We do things differently, this is serious”, Hill and Timothy told CCHQ.


I use this anecdote for two reasons. Firstly, May’s reticence to use social media shouldn’t be at all surprising for anyone who has watched her since she became involved in frontline British politics. I can only imagine her attempts to use Twitter are like when I have to explain to my mum whilst I am at university how to change the HDMI input on the TV from the computer to the Sky Box.


Secondly, is it not therefore incredibly ironic that that same Prime Minister, who refused to govern by Twitter because it was what David Cameron did, was the one who proposed in her manifesto a new Digital Bill of Rights? It was something at the time I thought was laudable, especially the section that would require social media companies to delete information about young people as they turn eighteen.


This is something that is once again topical after the online history of the new Conservative Party Vice Chair for Youth, Mansfield MP Ben Bradley, landed him in trouble. Bradley wrote a blog post in 2011 where he suggested vasectomies for benefit claimants and that Britain might soon be drowning “in a vast sea of unemployed wasters”.


Bradley did apologise last week and, in a video posted on his Facebook page, called for a “discussion about how we deal with this kind of stuff”.


He added that: "I'm from a generation that has grown up online and clearly has made mistakes online.”


"They don't go away, they can't really be deleted. The truth is normal people make mistakes - and more and more, as my generation and younger get involved in politics I think you'll see this more and more.”


It is interesting because Bradley makes some very good points that I agree with, and yet also makes points that I don’t think really apply in his case. Bradley described himself as a twenty-one year-old student with no real responsibilities. Perhaps the climate has changed in seven years, but he was just a month older than I am now, and I can’t imagine myself being able to defend myself for crass remarks online at this age.


Nonetheless, his wider point is something I can sympathise with, and I do have my own personal story to tell when it comes to making mistakes online. I’d been on Twitter for just over a year as a fifteen year-old when I made some inappropriate comments about my secondary school’s headmaster in response to the fact our school didn’t shut when many others in the area did because of snow. I won’t go into the specific details, but let’s say some of the language I used wasn’t pleasant. I got hauled in for it and was essentially told not to do it again. It was a learning curve at a time when I was young and stupid. I made a mistake online.


My case stands as just one minor infraction among many as part of a generation who grow up with social media and grow up online. In David Fincher’s The Social Network, Napster co-founder Sean Parker tells a group at a party that “we lived on farms, we lived in cities and now we’re going to live on the internet.”


He was right, and we increasingly do so. The problem of course is highlighted elsewhere in the same film, when Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend Erica Albright tells him that “the internet isn’t written in pencil, it’s written in ink”. As Bradley and I found out, the semi-permanence of it can get you into trouble.


As children and young adults, we all make mistakes and we all have growing pains as part of becoming adults, and those growing pains increasingly take place online. And as social media becomes ever more ubiquitous and at an increasingly younger age, those mistakes are increasingly available for all to see, mistakes often from times that do not reflect who we are now. The issue of course is that now our online history can be as pored over by potential employers as our CVs, even if that history dates back to your teenage years. I thought Theresa May’s Digital Bill of Rights, and that particular point about deleting your online information when you turn eighteen, were a step in the right direction in recognising that our online presence is as important to judgments of our character as our offline one. In a networked age, to simply unplug oneself is increasingly unpractical.


While Bradley’s comments ironically do not exonerate himself, his call for discussion is welcomed and he makes some very valid points. If he wants to make good on that, perhaps the new Conservative Vice Chair for Youth could work with the Prime Minister who doesn’t do government by Twitter and enact some of these policy proposals for the benefit of those of us whose lives are increasingly governed by it.

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