The Internet and the constitution: an historical perspective

Andrew Blick
By: Andrew Blick

The Internet is a subject of sustained public interest. There is intense discussion, in the UK as elsewhere, of its implications, and how we should respond to them. Both optimistic and pessimistic interpretations of the technology are possible, often at the same time. During the pandemic, for instance, it was a means by which basic social functions could be maintained. But it was also a conduit for dangerous dis- and mis-information.

Such tensions are revealed by a consideration of the relationship between the Internet and the UK constitution. On the one hand, networked computers might be seen as supportive of the fulfilment of constitutional functions and values. They enable members of the public to participate in political processes. The Internet allows people more effectively and in new ways to access information, communicate with groups and institutions, to take part in free debate, to organise and to campaign on their own accounts. On the other hand, in keeping with the ideas of commentators such as Shoshana Zuboff, the Internet might be seen as having a destabilising constitutional impact. It is regarded as connected with polarisation, extremism and vicious targeting of individuals and groups to the detriment of democratic political processes. The Internet is regarded as encouraging ‘populist’ tendencies that challenge the concept of representative democracy. It is presented as being used for the habitual dissemination of misleading information, and facilitating the harvesting and misuse of personal data. In some accounts, it has helped compromise the integrity of elections and referendums.

Commentators and policy makers have devoted much effort to addressing the twin challenges of maximising the benefits and avoiding the problems. Over more than two decades, for instance, public institutions have invested (with varying degrees of effectiveness) in developing their online presences; while also introducing measures aimed at preventing the violation of privacy. In May this year, the UK government, after prolonged consideration and discussion, published a draft Online Safety Bill, intended to protect users from harmful content while preserving the potential of the Internet as a vehicle for freedom of expression. The issues addressed by this proposed legislation demonstrate that how to handle the Internet is a matter of exceptional constitutional importance, and one that involves the complex management of risk and opportunity.

When faced with a considerable challenge, it can be useful to seek different perspectives upon it. One such vantage point can come from history. In my book, published by Cambridge University Press this month, Electrified Democracy: the Internet and the United Kingdom Parliament in History, I provide such a context specifically for the Westminster legislature. Though this study centres on one particular institution, it takes a broad approach to the subject matter, and makes observations more widely applicable to the UK constitution as a whole. In what follows, I  highlight some of the book’s key findings.

The Internet is one in a series of communications technologies over time perceived as having important consequences for the operation of the political system. The printing press, radio and television, among others, have been interpreted as disruptive forces. The poet Andrew Marvell captured such a view of the first of the three when exclaiming in 1672: ‘O Printing! How hast thou disturb’d the Peace of Mankind! that Lead, when moulded into Bullets, is not so mortal as when founded into Letters!’ Two-and-a half-centuries later, the Broadcasting Committee report of 1923 found that ‘[t]he outstanding feature of radiotelephony is that it enables a single voice to reach innumerable ears…It may be that broadcasting holds social and political possibilities as great as any technical attainment of our generation’. In 1944, a US commentator, Robert Edwin Lee, was similarly excited about television, describing it as a ‘momentous force’ that might be ‘a force for freedom, or might ‘break faith with humanity; it can lift us toward a working world society, or drag us into worse chaos than before’. It would entail ‘a great deal of stress on certain traditions which have always seemed cozy and comfortable’. In 2015, John Bercow, then Speaker of the House of Commons, described how ‘[o]ver the past 25 years we have lived through a revolution – created by the birth of the world wide web and the rapid development of digital technology. This digital revolution has disrupted old certainties and challenged representative democracy at its very heart.’ The political system of the UK has been called upon to respond such tendencies, perceived or actual, repeatedly. It is likely this pattern will continue. Policy makers should recognise that a position of lasting, complete, stability in this regard may not be possible to achieve.

Conflicting views of the social role of invention have a long history. Differing interpretations of technological change, as a positive or negative influence, can be illustrated by a consideration of speculative literary depictions of future worlds that themselves were influential upon wider perceptions. We can find optimism in works such as Looking Backward: 2000 – 1887, by the US author Edward Bellamy, who portrayed an idealised, scientifically advanced polity. Often communications mechanisms were significant to such accounts. In a 1923 novel, Men Like Gods, H.G. Wells portrayed a paradise the inhabitants of which employ a device enabling the remote transmission and storage of messages. More pessimistic outlooks are contained in other writing, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1818. E. M. Forster, in the 1909 short story The Machine Stops, conveyed a bleak (if now curiously familiar) scenario in which humans live in isolation from one-another, interacting remotely via handheld screens. The ‘Machine’ of the title provides for their material needs, allowing them to order products for delivery to their homes. The work of Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) both portrayed advanced communications technology as a tool employed to facilitate oppression. To perceive technology in extreme terms, either or good or bad, is part of a recurring pattern that has been replicated in the era of the Internet.

There is also a well-established tradition of regarding technology as a solution to the problems it supposedly creates. A number of accounts have depicted inventions as both a source of difficulties, and a means of transcending them. We can find such views in the work of a number of nineteenth century political philosophers of the Left, such as Robert Owen, Karl Marx and Peter Kropotkin. They regarded industrialisation as a source of exploitation and immiseration; but also held that science, in service of humanity, could liberate it. This general outlook also became a strand of the so-called ‘counterculture’ movement of the 1960s. Many early advocates of the Internet – the clearest origin of which lies in the ARPANET system that first became active in 1969 – were associated with this cultural strand. They tended to see the embryonic Internet as a vehicle for freedom, the democratic alternative to the hierarchical structures produced by established electronic media. Such ideas have manifested themselves specifically in a constitutional sense in the UK. For instance, early in this century, advocates of enhanced parliamentary use of the Internet felt that it was a means of engaging with a public that received a distorted, unfavourable view of the institution from the existing broadcast media. In some accounts, networked computers are themselves presented as a source of problems, to which they can – if deployed differently – also be the solution. Proposals for new legislative measures to achieve online regulation, for instance, often call for social media platforms to operate in accordance with new norms, allowing them to function more satisfactorily.

Predictions that electronic communications devices will facilitate the supplanting of representative by direct democracy have a long pedigree. As long ago as 1930, Lord Birkenhead (F. E. Smith), the former Lord Chancellor, wrote a book containing the prediction that – by 2030 – members of the public would watch political debates on screens in their homes, then cast their votes over telephone lines. The practice of decision-making by mass referendum, Birkenhead speculated, would come to displace the old parliamentary and party systems; technology make it ‘feasible once more to revive that form of democracy which flourished in the city states of Ancient Greece’. The US architect and philosopher. R. Buckminster Fuller, advocated a similar mechanism in 1940, calling for a ‘modernized, electrified, direct Democracy’. The idea attracted interest again in the 1960s, with advocates including Tony Benn, then the Labour Minister of Technology, who argued in a 1968 speech that ‘Electronic referenda will be feasible within a generation’. In subsequent decades, various commentators have suggested that networked computers will enable the public directly to make key public policy decisions, bypassing and possibly rendering irrelevant intermediary institutions such as Parliament. Were this outcome the case it would be dramatic.

Yet the representative system has – to date – proved more resilient than such predictions suggest. Voting in referendums, when they take place, still relies on pencils, paper and ballot boxes. If carried out remotely, it principally involves the postal system, not email. The Internet has certainly become critical to the way in which the existing system operates, with online campaigning, meetings, consultations, forums, and so on. While bringing challenges to them, the Internet seems not to have led to a complete displacement of established mechanisms and practices. Indeed, in one notable case it has revived an ancient tradition in a new form, through the introduction of e-petitioning of government and Parliament. But to recognise this technology as interacting with – rather than replacing – representative democracy is not to downplay its significance. It is, rather, to locate it within the world into which it was introduced, which it has changed, and which it continues to alter.

Future developments involving inventions and their constitutional implications are difficult to anticipate. Long before the Internet as we know it today came into being, various commentators speculated about the prospects for a transformational audio-visual communications technology. To return to the genre of speculative or science fiction, an 1898 short story by Mark Twain, for example, centred on a device called ‘the telectroscope’, which was ‘connected with the telephonic systems of the whole world’. Operating over ‘limitless distance’, it made ‘the daily doings of the globe . . .  visible to everybody, and audibly discussable, too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues’. Twain and various other authors were prescient in their generalised speculations. But for policy-makers, anticipating when, how and what precise applications will achieve wide take up is difficult. By the beginning of the 1970s, there was increasing interest in the idea of computers not only as mechanisms for storing and processing information, but also for communication. Various systems for enabling remote access were coming into use. The ARPANET experiment was just one. In 1970, the year after this particular invention first became operational, it came to the attention of members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which was inquiring into computing in the UK. But, understandably, the Committee failed fully to recognise how important and pervasive the network to which ARPANET was a precursor would be by the end of the century. Indeed, evidence it took from one expert witness deliberately downplayed its significance. In April 1971, Herbert R. J. Grosch, Research Fellow at the US National Bureau of Standards described ARPANET as:

‘a university type enterprise…While I think it is a very valuable experiment it seems to me artificial in the sense they have intentionally hooked together such extremely disparate computers, moreover, computers so powerful that they do not really need to ask each other for help. To link an 1108 in one part of the country to an IBM 360/65 in another part seems to be essentially unnecessary, particularly if all you are doing with either party is trivial or academic work. Nevertheless, for what it is worth they have determined what sort of hardware interfaces would be needed to help this compatibility. It turns out they are rather expensive. You might say they are now ready to do something with the bio-medical information network…So they do have some experience ready to go if this is required.’

As we now know, this ‘university type’ project, a ‘valuable experiment’, suited to ‘trivial or academic work’ was in fact an embryo for a global communications device that is now fully embedded within our daily lives and that remains a source of disruption and controversy. What lesson might those concerned with addressing its constitutional implications draw? First, that the technological position is never static, and that new challenges will emerge as old ones fade. Second, that the conditions of tomorrow cannot be known with precision today. Nonetheless, early iterations of the future, though their significance is not yet sufficiently recognised, are probably with us now in some form.

Electrified Democracy: the Internet and the United Kingdom Parliament in History by Andrew Blick, is available now from Cambridge University Press.

Dr Andrew Blick is Head of the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London and Senior Adviser to The Constitution Society.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.