Arguing that internet governance is not just about policies, but also about the daily decisions we make as users, Victoria Nash of the Oxford Internet Institute warns that we should be more aware of the political actors and processes shaping those decisions.
A quick scan of recent UK tabloid headlines would suggest that the Internet’s main impact on children’s lives has been the corruption and abuse of vulnerable young minds and bodies, with little evidence of the myriad ways in which Internet access can support education, interaction and personal development. Were this just a matter of media coverage, it might not merit too much attention. But when the concerns expressed in such headlines also reflect the dominant policy position of the current UK government, they remind us that political values necessarily play a role in the evolution of Internet governance.
In the relatively short history of Internet policy and regulation we’ve seen a variety of positive policy goals relating to children pursued, from those aimed at achieving equality of opportunity through ensuring school provision or expanding home access, those supporting educational achievement , those encouraging digital literacy or safe personal use. But in many cases, it’s not digital opportunities but digital threats which are the focus of policy-makers. What Sonia Livingstone and Peter Lunt have termed the ‘protectionist’ policy agenda has done rather better than the ‘emancipatory’ one in recent years, and this is particularly evident in the UK, where a period of significant investment in home and school access, as well as supporting skills development, has ended with the election of the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition.
Avoiding risk or expanding access
There are perhaps two very simple explanations as to why we might see a greater policy focus on avoiding risk rather than expanding access or improving digital participation. The first is simply that this is what the public cares about, and as such, a receptive government will listen and implement policy accordingly; or perhaps, the current government was elected precisely because of its morally conservative agenda. The second is that strategies to expand access to information are likely to be expensive, which is an important consideration amidst a long-lasting economic recession. This is what Stephen Lukes would term one-dimensional power: what we’re observing would simply be democracy in action, achieved by a governing party or coalition through the processes of official political debate and elections.
But the emergence of policies may be better explained by looking to processes of ‘non-decision-making’. In this scenario, the focus on protectionist policies prioritizing filtering over access may emerge not from explicit political debate, but via more subtle mechanisms in which government shapes public discourse and moulds individual preferences and values. This is all too rarely acknowledged in debates about Internet governance that often focus more on the inclusion or exclusion of certain actors in international fora than the evolution of public norms and values.
A morally conservative agenda? Appointments, media and political discourse
So how might morally conservative political values be shaping UK Internet governance? This is difficult to answer conclusively because although we can observe a conflict of interests played out in a political debating chamber or election contest and identify ‘which side won’, it’s much harder to observe the shaping of values or goals through processes of ‘non-decision-making’. Certainly we can find examples of this in UK policy-making on children’s Internet use, but further research would be needed to ascertain how significant each of these processes might be.
We could, for example, consider the role of political appointments as an important means of setting and shaping policy agendas. Claire Perry’s appointment as Adviser to the Prime Minister on Preventing Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood in 2012, is a good case in point, with her background and the title of her post highlighting the moral agenda to which this government is committed. Whilst obviously a noble cause that bears little criticism, the focus on sexualisation is notable against a research backdrop which shows that even a protectionist approach should rather focus on a wide range of online risks, including peer-generated risks such as cyber-bullying and the dangers of self-harm or eating disorder forums.
Second, we might look at the role played by mass media in the construction and communication of Internet policies. Clearly all governments rely on the media to disseminate their political messages, but in relation to policies relating to children’s use of the Internet, the level of media engagement by the UK government with a particular media outlet is very interesting. When Claire Perry’s appointment was announced by the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, it was the Daily Mail, a tabloid newspaper which has run a campaign against Internet pornography since 2011 rather than a traditional broadsheet that was used to deliver his personal statement. By itself, such a choice might not be significant, but it adds weight to the argument that the current government is pursuing an essentially conservative moral agenda, and that it’s doing so via efforts to mould public opinion in a classic expression of Lukes’ ‘third-dimension’ power.
A third possibility would be to analyse government political discourse around children’s Internet policy as a means by which political values shape societal norms and expectations. For example, in addition to the focus on sexualisation, Claire Perry’s title is relevant for its reference to ‘Childhood’ as if this were some objectively existing, essentialist state, whilst David Cameron’s speeches and statements on the topic of protecting children from Internet risks stress their innocence and inviolability. Clearly neither is responsible for single-handedly shaping public discourse, but their contribution is important nonetheless.
What these examples should remind us is that Internet governance doesn’t consist solely of overt power struggles and policy negotiations between major international stakeholders. It occurs in the daily decisions we face in using the Internet, choosing certain tools or packages, valuing particular opportunities or dealing with certain risks. Insofar as political parties, governments or businesses can shape our preferences and values to match their own, there will be no need for debate or discussion. Thus if we focus solely on the international political arenas where the loudest debates rage, we risk ignoring the quiet manipulation of societal values which may just shape the future of the Internet without us even noticing.
This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.