The Future of the Internet

Minister for Digital Matt Hancock's keynote address to the UK Internet Governance Forum

This was published under the 2016 to 2019 May Conservative government
The Rt Hon Matt Hancock

It’s 50 years ago, almost to the day, that the Internet’s heart began to beat. At first it was a barely detectable flutter, registering – of all places – in Teddington.

In 1967 the UK’s National Physical Laboratory in Teddington conducted a revolutionary experiment in packet switching - the transmission and re-transmission of data around the nodes of an embyronic computer network.

That network became fully operational in 1969, the same year that Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Then, in 1973, it began to grow, reaching out across the Atlantic and linking up with a network developed by the US Department of Defence.

Interconnections multiplied exponentially as more networks merged. Knowledge was shared, pooled then hyperlinked. The first protocols were laid down.

In 1982 the science fiction novelist William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace”, referring to a distant future made real, just seven years later, with Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the world wide web.

Then, in the early 90s, in one of the most far-sighted and far-reaching decisions of the 20th century, the backbone of the Internet – hitherto used exclusively by government and universities – was opened up to commercial traffic.

At this point we can say the internet as we know it was born.

It was ten years ago that we first developed the concept of a national Internet forum, modelled on the global Internet Governance Forum - the UN IGF which was created by the World Summit on the Information Society in 2005 - and we have since seen the UK Internet Governance Forum become a model for over a hundred similar national and regional Internet fora worldwide.

Today I want to talk about the future of the internet. About the extraordinary impact it’s had, and about what we need to do to harness its exponential power, while preventing harm and abuse, so that it serves humanity, spreads human ingenuity and enhances human freedom.

This happens because the internet is open and free. And in the battle to keep it open and free, even the most ardent supporter of new technology like me needs to acknowledge that untrammelled and in the wrong hands, the power of the internet and big data pose serious risks that even digital enthusiasts like us must be alive to. The question and the challenge of our age is how to reduce those risks and yet embrace the opportunities.

The debate is moving fast, and we must be in the driving seat, globally, of that debate.

The development of the internet is like the growth of a child.

At first, it was small, and its true potential unknown.

The internet then grew into its youthful adolescence. The potential was clear, and that potential was exciting. The freedom it brought was liberating. It challenged everyone who came before, asked them to justify why they do things the way they do, and why not differently. Like a teenager, it bridled against constraints, and took risks. This was vibrant and bracing. The energy, the change.

And it developed in ways we could never have imagined. The extraordinary benefits and innovation that the big platforms brought were hard to foresee, and hugely beneficial to people across the globe. Google helping inform the world. Amazon cutting your shopping bill. Uber getting you there faster and cheaper. Apple building amazing products and helping save the music industry. Facebook connecting us and Twitter helping people communicate.

This period of tech utopia was built on a libertarian attitude that the online world was different, and the old rules could be cast aside.

As we all learn when we move from adolescence to maturity, coming of age means taking more responsibility for our actions. And so too must the internet, and the big players on it.

In many ways, the platforms already recognise they must take a measure of responsibility for what’s on their sites and that they are not simply conduits for the content there.

For several years, excellent collaboration has been in place to take down terrorist and extremist material online, although much work remains to be done.

Britain led the global collaboration to remove indecent images of children from much of the web, and the platforms played an important part.

Sometimes we do need regulation, like with the age verification laws to prevent children viewing porn easily online, just as they do offline.

In the economic space, the agreement signed earlier this year to remove pirate music from search returns has been very successful, as platforms have taken more responsibility for their content.

In other words, we must build an internet based on liberal and not libertarian values, where we cherish freedom yet prevent harm to others.

We seek an internet that is free, open and safe, that fosters innovation, where standards are driven by experts, in which all stakeholders have a say in how the internet is run, and where the major players act to prevent harm.

We want Britain to lead the way, as the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business.

To achieve this we must create the world’s most dynamic digital economy, giving digital businesses access to the investment, skills and infrastructure they need to succeed. Our digital skills partnership, the introduction of coding in the curriculum for every child, our £1.7bn broadband rollout, and £1.1bn next generation full fibre and 5G strategy. Our support for enterprise and for start ups which make the UK the leading tech hub in Europe. Our work to promote open data. These are all vital to getting this right. We are focussed on ensuring Britain is one of the leading places to develop the new technologies being invented as a result of the web from autonomous vehicles to artificial intelligence, and indeed autonomous vehicles with artificial intelligence and beyond.

We want the UK to be the world leader in innovation-friendly, agile regulation, like our fintech regulatory sandbox, now being copied by other regulators at home and abroad.

The UK is already the undisputed tech hub of Europe, growing faster than the economy as a whole, and growing fastest outside London and the South East.

Our goal is to attract, support and galvanise the brightest and best talent, the most innovative companies, and the cutting edge ideas. Over the last year, major investments from Google, IBM, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and others have continued to add to the momentum behind UK tech, and as the first ever dedicated Minister for Digital my team and I will not rest in this work.

As well as this effort, our new Digital Charter, announced by Her Majesty the Queen in the spring, is our framework for how businesses, individuals and our wider society should act in the digital world, based on an agreed set of principles.

We will develop the Charter with input from businesses, academics, charities and the wider public – for this is a task that we can only do together.

Our starting point is that the delicate and careful limits we have honed over generations to govern life off-line should apply online too.

When it comes to online safety, the Crown Prosecution Service have made clear that abuse online is just as serious as offline.

As part of the digital Charter, our Internet Safety Strategy is looking at how we can tackle such online abuse, so that everyone can safely access the benefits of the internet, and we will set out a new code of practice on what social media providers must do in relation to conduct on their platforms. The extent of abuse online is totally unacceptable in a civilised society and we have a duty to stop it. All those involved in perpetrating abuse online – whether those posting vile materials or the platforms on which the vile material resides – have a social, and moral duty to act. No more turning a blind eye to abuse online.

There is growing evidence about the correlation between high-intensity social media use and poor mental health amongst young people. In 2015 the ONS concluded that children who spend more than three hours each school day on social media sites are more than twice as likely as average users to suffer poor mental health.

Children report that cyberbullying - and the ability of social media to amplify dramatically what was previously confined to the playground - is an increasing concern. For example, ChildLine recently reported an 87% increase, between 2013 and 2014 alone, in the number of counselling sessions it provided that were related to cyberbullying.

We are very much in the foothills of our understanding on this, but the evidence is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

Part of protecting people online is protecting their data online. I can confirm that tomorrow we will publish the Data Protection Bill, which will bring our data protection regime into the twenty first century, giving citizens more sovereignty over their data, and greater penalties for those who break the rules.

Alongside strong data protection, we have a multi billion pound National Cyber Security Strategy, being spearheaded by our excellent new National Cyber Security Centre, a model now being emulated around the world.

With AI and machine learning, data use is moving fast. Good use of data isn’t just about complying with the regulations, it’s about the ethical use of data too.

So good governance of data isn’t just about legislation - as important as that is - it’s also about establishing ethical norms and boundaries, as a society. And this is something our Digital Charter will address too.

These are all just part of what it takes to make the internet safer. As the internet comes of age, it needs to acknowledge its responsibilities. There is much to do.

As well as facing up to the realities of these social challenges online, the second part of the Digital Charter is about ensuring there is a fair economic landscape online.

For starters we have equalled the penalty for copyright infringement to be the same online as offline.

We are supporting further copyright reform, to support rights holders and help close the value gap. Where value is created online, it must be appropriately rewarded.

As the UK leaves the EU we will ensure we have one of the most robust systems for protection of intellectual property anywhere in the world, for all civilised societies are based on the fair and equal protection of property rights.

The impact of the digital disruption is far reaching. Our world beating music industry has, over a long and painful time, discovered in streaming a new business model that appears to be sustainable and bearing fruit.

Yet the news media, and the high quality journalism that provides such a vital public service, has yet to find such a sustainable business model, and we must work together to get there.

These issues are only the beginning, and more will emerge over time. We must anticipate them.

Get all this right, and we can create a world-leading framework for understanding online conduct. We know lots of likeminded countries, all around the world, are facing the same issues and there’s a real benefit to standing at the very forefront of this debate. Our task is to strike the right balance between freedoms and responsibilities online, such that the solutions can be applied globally, and the whole free world can emulate our approach. That is our plan.

So we have a broad canvass on which we must paint. The defence of freedom requires the protection of others from harm. Let us cherish that freedom, have the confidence to lead the way, and bring people with us.

The history of the Internet that I outlined at the start is fairly well known. What’s less well-known is that behind the Iron Curtain the Soviets were working on their very own red Internet. But despite a promising start, it was a dismal failure.

The Politburo couldn’t see the point and the funding was pulled in the 70s.

The finance minister said there was no need for a computer network in the Soviet Union because they already had machines that could turn the lights on and off in hen houses.

It shows the huge opportunity cost that can befall a country when it fails to engage with this technology.

Conversely, there is a great prize for the country that gets this right. No one has yet worked out the balance between freedom and responsibility online, so the country that sets the rules in a way that is good for society and good for technological progress will gain a massive advantage.

Liberal democracy is a British invention. As one of its founders, John Locke, said “Where there is no law there is no freedom; for liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others”. That is as true of the Internet as it was of civil governance in the 17th Century.

Just his morning on the Today programme you may have heard Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter make the same point, “You can be an ardent believer in free speech and also realise that someone’s speech can limit someone else’s willingness to speak.”

The internet too is a British invention. And so once again Britain must lead the way in bringing the two together and applying liberal values to the culture of the digital world.

You play a crucial part in this global leadership.

From the common law to the standard railway track gauge, Britain has often played this role in ages past. Let us do so once again in today’s new digital world.

Updates to this page

Published 13 September 2017