Why Labour needs control over free universal broadband access by 2030

At the turn of the century who could have imagined, two decades on, the impact the Internet would have on media access and political discourse. Twenty years from now the BBC, Daily Mail and the rest of mainstream media, which are so hostile to the Labour party, will only be accessible online. So while it may be technically impractical and economically unrealistic to have a state owned provider of universal fibre broadband, for the Labour party it will be a political necessity.

Should he become prime minister after December’s election Jeremy Corbyn intends nationalising Openreach, the division of British Telecom responsible building and maintaining telecommunication infrastructure, and make full-fibre broadband access ubiquitous and free at the point of click. This, according to Corbyn, will energise Britain, providing the country’s economy with a much-needed post Brexit boost. It might do, but there are other reasons Labour wants a state-controlled Internet.

In the early 1990s the EU commission poured millions of Euros into a program aimed at improving communications in rural areas, some of which was spent on pilot projects in the highlands and islands of Scotland. It quickly became apparent that someone connected to the nearest town by thirty kilometres of single-track road faced a multitude of problems that access to broadband alone would not fix. Broadband, in those days, was ISDN with connection speeds marginally higher than a dial up modem. The cost, over £300,000 to lay the cable, outweighed benefits, especially if there was only one house at the end of that road.

During this period the numerous hi-tech companies sprang up in the Cambridgeshire countryside and faced similar communications problems to those experienced by Scotland’s crofters. Even if they were lucky enough to be close to one of British Telecom’s new digital exchanges their telephones were still connected to it by forty-year-old copper wires Call quality degraded as villages expanded and the number of subscribers increased. Once past the start-up phase companies would migrate to a business park nearer Cambridge, leaving behind multiply telephone lines installed in back bedrooms or garages. In some instances, British Telecom had upgraded these lines so they could be used to transmit an error document. So, it wasn’t always the fourteen-mile round trip to a fax bureau that forced companies to relocate.

While running a business in small village sounds idyllic its remoteness saw two hours added to a visit to a potential client. Employees would end up stuck behind slow moving farm machinery and arrive late for work, and not turn up at all if it snowed. Companies were also isolated from suppliers, services and couldn’t attract potential employees away from the university. So, businesses coalesced into clusters, without which Cambridgeshire primary exports would still be root vegetables and philosophers rather than hi-tech and bio-tech products and expertise.

The tendency of similar companies to become concentrated in one graphical area dictated the topology broadband networks. The EU saw the creation of ‘broadband islands’ as the most cost-effective way to build a network in a rural area. These islands would be connected to each other using a high bandwidth technology called Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM). Here was an alternative to spending hundreds of thousands of Euros on long runs of fibre cable which went dark when a business expanded and moved on. Corbyn’s plan flies in the face of convention. It could see companies enduring a 1970s Trabant style wait for a broadband upgrade, on hold until child in the country has enough bandwidth to play video games; and do their homework.

A Gigabit Internet connection would certainly enhance distant learning. This, according to Corbyn, is another reason to bring Openreach under state control. Children will no longer be able to blame a lack of broadband access when failing to hand in homework; falling back, instead, on the dog with an appetite for exercise books. But other factors impact on a child’s ability to study at home; sharing a computer with a sibling who would rather use it to play games, a cramped bedroom which is too cold to work in, the lack of public transport to take them to and from a library – if there still is a library. Most of these shortcomings could be remedied for less than it will cost to spread a cobweb of unused fibre optic cable across Britain. However transcending economic stimulus and social impact is political necessity.

While the Openreach announcement took many by surprise some sharp-eyed commentators who saw this coming. Inspired by part social media played in fighting off a challenge to his leadership Corbyn announced a plan to ‘democratise the Internet.’ At the press conference a journalist asked if Labour intended to nationalise British Telecom. At the time the idea as dismissed out of hand. A nationalised BT would have been problematic for Corbyn led government as the company manages the high bandwidth link transmitting data to drones hovering over the Middle East. This would have created a dilemma for the new leader and distraction for the party; a battle for another day. As well, Momentum’s army of keyboard warriors were riding high with a Barak Obama style grassroots campaign. Initially they used third party online software called NationBuilder until discovering they shared it with Donald Trump. This prompted Momentum to produce their own set of campaign apps. These in-house campaign tools were so successful Corbyn’s campaign team gained the impression the Internet was theirs for the taking; the infosphere had been transformed into a political sphere. However, their belief in the Internet as exclusively the domain of the Left was misplaced.

Momentum activists were exposed as ‘Net newbies,’ seemingly not realising the Internet had inherited traits from its parents, ARPANET, a resilient command and control network, and the US Department of Defence. The EU had clung to the idea of using ATM because it wanted an alternative to the IP protocol, on which the Internet was based. They were concerned Europe would become dependent on a network over which it had no control. Fears which proved well founded as the Internet, when it arrived, became a Trojan horse for US tech giants and media companies. The thin veneer of the World Wide Web stretched over what was, in effect, military technology had been enough to fool Momentum into thinking here was an ideal platform for protest and political disruption. But following Jeremy Corbyn election as leader the Internet became less Tim Berners-Lee and more Carl Von Clausewitz; politics by other means.

Instead of outmanoeuvring elderly Tory activists armed with clipboards, Momentum’s campaigners found themselves battling well-funded, military trained cyber warriors. Rather than being persuaded by software such as Momentum’s M.app, the electorate was being manipulated by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. Momentum’s activists have found themselves corralled in the increasingly irrelevant echo chambers such as Twitter while a reinvigorated right use Big Data and algorithms to bypass and subvert the democratic process. Britain is not alone in falling victim to Internet activism, the Brexit referendum campaign was not unique and other countries have experienced varying degrees of online inspired political disruption. Western democracies have come to realise, and China has demonstrated, that a state-controlled Internet is pre-requisite for stable government. Corbyn may have failed to take this on board in 2017 when he talked of democratising the Internet but the Labour Party's Executive Director of Strategy and Communications, Seumas Milne, was fully aware of the interplay between politics and networks

Milne’s father, Alistair, when head of the BBC, battled long and hard to prevent Margaret Thatcher using the state broadcaster as an outlet for Conservative Party propaganda. Bruni de la Motte who grew up a member of what passed for the middle class in East Germany has also influenced Seumas’s thinking on misappropriation of the media. De la Motte still regards the former Soviet satellite as a worker’s paradise, but one where the corrosive effect West German TV eroded the morale of citizens of the DDR. The East Germany government may have been able to control all forms of internal communication, even the use of photocopiers, but they were unable to stop the constant stream of information broadcast by the capitalist west. Here then is a parallel with the Internet which has become a weapon the right-wing press use to attack Corbyn. Milne realises Labour has a rapidly closing window of opportunity to take control of the Internet, hence the deadline of 2030 for ubiquitous access to a state-owned broadband network.

In eleven years, there will be no print version of the Daily Mail, nor of other newspapers which are vehemently anti Corbyn, these, like broadcast media, will only be accessible on-line. If Openreach offers users access to broadband for free the business model of its competitors, and Sky Broadcast, will collapse. Openreach will become a monopoly broadband provider with the government that controls it the censor of last resort, filtering out fake news and blocking fake web sites. Labour may claim they are merely interested in guaranteeing connectivity, not controlling content, but Internet companies have blurred the distinction between the two, the medium has become the message.

Guardian.com readers monitored Facebook’s server

Carole Cadwalladr’s exposé of Cambridge Analytica was published in the Guardian’s print edition of the Guardian, even so most people now read it online. The printed version does not covertly connect the reader to plethora of third-party servers containing tracking software; the online version does. Ironically, given the content of the article, one of these servers collecting the reader’s browsing data belongs to Facebook. The Guardian facilitates this intrusion because it is wedded to a business model forced on it by Internet companies. There are implications here for freedom of expression, privacy and political discourse. These can either be controlled by anyone who can tweak an algorithm in a data centre, or by the state. This argument never made it into Labour’s plan to nationalise Openreach; quite an omission. Without state control of the Internet the rest of the Labour Party’s manifesto is merely aspirations of a party destined to spend the next decade pointing at Twitter and Facebook and shouting ‘Fake News.’