​Image: cunaplus/Shutterstock

Where the UK's Political Parties Stand on Tech Issues

Ahead of the election next week, here are some of the tech policies at play.

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Apr 28 2015, 4:45pm

​Image: cunaplus/Shutterstock

Tech isn't a huge talking point in the upcoming UK general election: the National Health Service, economy, and immigration are, unsurprisingly, the three ​biggest swing issues.

Still, the parties have given tech themes some attention in their manifestos: Labour, for example, has cleverly noticed that "scientific discovery and technological innovation will drive economic advancement this century." As indeed it has the last one.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, still want security services to be able to read more of your communications data, while the Lib Dems and Greens still want to stop them. Then there's UKIP calling for tuition fees to be waived for students taking science degrees.

In other words, there are key differences between the parties that may help any tech-minded undecided voters make a decision before polling day on May 7. If you care about broadband, encryption, online censorship or surveillance, here's what to keep in mind when you cast your ballot.

Conservative leader David Cameron with an industrial robot. Image: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills/Flickr

Privacy and Surveillance

It'll come as no surprise that the Tories are continuing to favour security over privacy in their rhetoric—after all, we've been hearing it for years now, with Prime Minister David Cameron suggesting he may try to ban enc​rypted messaging and pushing for legislation that would make it ea​sier for security services to access people's communications.

The Conservative man​ifesto shows no change in heart. It reads, "We will keep up to date the ability of the police and security services to access communications data—the 'who, where, when and how' of a communication, but not its content," and adds, "We must always ensure our outstanding intelligence and security agencies have the powers they need to keep us safe. At the same time, we continue to reject any suggestions of sweeping, authoritarian measures that would threaten our hard-won freedoms." The party at least promises "oversight."

If you're looking to Labour and Ed Miliband for a radical change, don't hold your breath. The last Labour government supported the so-called "Snooper's Charter", more officially known as the Communications Data​ Bill, which would require service providers to keep a year's worth of messaging metadata to make it easier for police and security services to gain access. In its manife​sto, Labour said it would try to seek a balance, updating investigative laws to give police the ability to target crime but introducing safeguards to protect privacy.

Surveillance is one area where the Lib Dems actually did push back against their current Tory coalition pals

The Liberal Democrats seem more promising if you're looking for a privacy watchdog. Not only have they outlined plans for a Digital Bill of Ri​ghts, they swear they'll actually introduce it in their first few months in Number 10. They've promised a "complete overhaul of surveillance," and said that, "Online, people will no longer be worried that government is monitoring their every keystroke."

If it sounds like a big promise considering they won't get a majority, this is one area where the Lib Dems actually did push back against their current Tory coalition pals, with leader and deputy PM Nick Clegg actually re​fusing to let changes to the Snooper's Charter through. The Lib Dems did approve an update to some surveillance legislation, but forced it to include a sunset clause meaning it must be reassessed after the election.

Image: Petar Paunchev/Shutterstock

The Scottish National Party (SNP) also doesn't support the Snooper's Charter, which could make it easier to block if it's reintroduced.

The Greens, meanwhile, completely oppose mass surveillance, and would look to the EU to strengthen laws around surveillance and data. "We do accept that government law enforcement agencies may occasionally need to intercept communications in specific circumstances," the party's manifest​o says. "Such specific surveillance should be proportionate, necessary, effective and within the rule of law, with independent judicial approval and genuine parliamentary oversight."

Online censorship

Want to watch porn? You'll need to prove your age first. That's if the Conservatives win, at least, with the party looking to not only force British pornographers to run an age check—possibly via credit card—but to ask ISPs to block foreign smut makers if they don't also verify viewers are of age. They can do this with the same "Cleanfeed" network-level system that was designed to block child abuse images, but which has since been used to (attempt to) prevent access to pirac​y sites. Slippery slope, let's keep sliding.

On the contrary, the Greens want to "limit the censoring or takedown of content or activity to exceptional circumstances, clearly set out within a comprehensive legal framework." Labour and the Lib Dems didn't have much to say on the subject in their manifestoes, but the latter's proposed Digital Bill of Rights would come into play on internet freedom.

Piracy and copyright

The Green Party wants to "prevent patents applying to software."

When it comes to piracy, the Tories have said they will continue to block piracy sites and their proxies, show notifications to web users when they breach copyright, and work with search engines to stop them linking to "the worst-offending sites."

Labour had little to say, while the Lib Dems called generally for an open internet, and said they "support modern and flexible patent, copyright, and licensing rules."

The Green Party wants to "prevent patents applying to software"—a controversial move that won't be cheered by many in the industry—and dramatically shorten copyright terms. The Green Party Twitte​r feed suggested it could be cut from the existing 70 years after death to only 14 years in total, but promised to talk to creative industries first.

Broadband

No politician is foolish enough to chuck away votes by suggesting broadband access is ever good enough. Over the coalition years, the government has continued Labour's original plans to roll out superfast broadband (which is at least 24 megabytes a second) to most of the UK, but the Conservatives have shifted the goalposts back two years after delays held back the project. Now, they're promising superfast coverage of 95 percent of the UK by the end of 2017, and "will ensure no one is left behind by subsidising the cost of installing superfast capable satellite services in the very hardest to reach areas."

The Lib Dems aren't satisfied with 95 percent; they want to target 99.9 percent of the UK with high-speed broadband.

And Labour wants to ensure broadband is not only high speed but affordable (the UK's high competition between ISPs will likely take care of that), and promises to target mobile "notspots" and close the digital divide.

If you're in Wales, Plaid ​Cymru is seeking speeds of at least 30 Mbps and better mobile services, while in Scotland the SNP wants more in​vestment for broadband and a "universal service obligation" to force providers to ensure everyone can get access.

Tech in general

The Conservatives continue to promise loans and funding for startups, and the party has already laid out plans to draw investment by supporting trials of space tourism, drones, driverless cars, nanotechnology, and robots.

Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg at an East London tech startup. Image: ​Cabinet Office/Flickr

The coalition shifted programming into primary education, and the Tories pledge to continue to push science, engineering, and maths, saying they'll train 17,500 more teachers in those areas within the next five years. They also promise a smart meter in every home (good luck with my storage heater, guys) and to shift more government services online. They want to give citizens full access to their electronic health records, but allow an opt out—which would be a welcome change from how the NHS data ​project was developing last year.

Labour pledges to also shift toward digital services, and to back "open data by default" wherever possible. It also wants to set up a cybersecurity charter to tackle online attacks and protect national infrastructure, particularly noting the potential risk of hackers "using small suppliers to break into the systems of major defence companies or the department itself."

The Lib Dems want to make sure the shift to digital services "does not leave people behind," and promises to protect net neutrality as part of its wider commitment to digital rights. The Greens called for open standards in tech and a ban on the sale of private data.

What of UKIP? It cal​led for children to be taught about online safety, pointed to the internet as an increasing source of crime, and called for free tuition for students taking science, engineering, and maths subjects. So maybe there's one thing you might agree with UKIP on, regardless your take on their more headline-grabbing opinions.