The Stuff guide to Election 2015

We read the manifestos so you don’t have to, finding out what the parties have in store for technology, web censorship, cars and your telly

Given that newspapers, TV and the web won’t shut up about it, you’re probably well aware there’s a UK General Election tomorrow. Most coverage has (rightly) concentrated on big issues such as the NHS, employment, taxation, and whether Ed Miliband really did complete all 20 levels of Manic Miner in 1983. (If so: kudos. We barely made it to Skylab Landing Bay.)

At Stuff, we’re all about gadgets and technology, though — to which a politician’s traditional response regarding any tough question is “argle wargle bargle fargle” before attempting to conjure up a magic hammer to smash all of the new and scary things.

On that basis, we read from cover to cover the manifestos of the seven main parties with candidates standing in the UK, to see what’s in store for tech if they cling on to the voting salmon and thereby find themselves catapulted directly into the House of Commons.

1. Broadband and mobile

In what will doubtless come as a huge shock, every party’s promising access to super-fast universal broadband for all! Ish.

The Conservatives want to “ensure everyone is part of the digital economy” (p14), especially when on trains (p15), in rural locations (p21) or in libraries, on free connections (p42). They advocate “better mobile phone connections” (p14) — except if you’re in prison (p59), where they instead demand “greater use of mobile phone blocking technology”.

The Greens reckon every public telecommunications operator should be obligated to “provide affordable high-speed broadband-capable infrastructure to every household and small business,” in part to reduce travel by encouraging video-conferencing, even if 10% of the working day will then involve swearing at Skype. Plaid Cymru thinks similarly, wanting improved connections so “people can do business from home” (p49).

The Liberal Democrats agree, at least to the tune of 99.9% (p36). (Presumably, the remaining 0.1 per cent will have dial-up and like it.) They add ISPs should organise a switch for you (p50), if you find a superior deal. Meanwhile, the SNP wants better connectivity across Scotland, with affordable access for disadvantaged communities, and echoes the Greens in demanding a “Universal Service Obligation” for providers, so everyone can “access the communications they need” (p10).

Labour wants the entire UK to benefit from high-speed broadband by 2020, and to “reduce ‘not spots’”, veering dangerously close to a one-time Michael Barrymore catchphrase; the party will also “support community-based campaigns to reduce the proportion of citizens unable to use the internet and help those who need it to get the skills to make the most of digital technology” (p20).

2. Data and surveillance

Parties recognise that juggling data and privacy is tough, but there’s no broad agreement about how to do so. The Conservatives will retain the ability of the police and security services to access metadata but not its content (p63), ignoring the fact the former can be revealing. The party argues its data legislation will “strengthen our ability to disrupt terrorist plots, criminal networks and organised child grooming gangs,” but adds it will “strengthen oversight of the use of these powers”.

Labour largely glosses over the topic, merely saying we must “update our investigative laws to keep up with changing technology, strengthening both the powers available, and the safeguards that protect people’s privacy” (p54). Elsewhere, the manifesto supports open data by default for government services (p62), and the idea of making transactions and services more efficient and simpler to use.

UKIP talks of investing in new technology, “such as communications equipment and personal CCTV,” to combat crime, but warns police forces should “not retain booking photographs, fingerprints, DNA, or biometric data of individuals who have not been convicted” (p54). The Greens are entirely against “disproportionate or unaccountable surveillance or censorship” (p61), and oppose “any case for secret unaccountable mass surveillance of the type exposed by Edward Snowden”.

The party is not unrealistic, accepting that “government law enforcement agencies may occasionally need to intercept communications in specific circumstances,” but is firm that such surveillance should be “necessary, effective and within the rule of law, with independent judicial approval and genuine parliamentary oversight”. The Greens champion internet freedom, support EU proposals to strengthen data protection laws against opposition from large US data-driven companies, and oppose the sale of personal data and the privatisation of data held by the government.

The SNP broadly aligns with the Greens, coming out against the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ and demanding a proportionate response to extremism (p21), while the Liberal Democrats want nothing less than a “complete overhaul of surveillance powers in 2016,” stating privacy should “be the norm for personal data” (p113). The party would protect privacy, internet freedoms and net neutrality via a Digital Bill of Rights, and is steadfastly against data retention and blanket surveillance (p113).