The next government must ensure everyone can benefit from the tech revolution
The next government must set out an ambitious, joined-up strategy to deliver an improved digital infrastructure that guarantees a reliable online connection for everyone - whether they are at home, at work or on the move, says Anabel Hoult, CEO of Which?.
As we head towards another general election, it feels like voting is one of the only things left in our society that remains staunchly offline. With our lives increasingly built around being connected, the tradition of heading down to the local polling station to fill out a ballot paper with a blunt pencil feels rather quaint.
Many of the arguments for and against embracing digital innovation in the voting process - such as access and security - are the same ones that have been aired in industries that have introduced new ways of shopping or banking that are fundamentally changing our everyday lives.
For growing numbers of people, buying products online from a global marketplace, switching energy supplier, booking a holiday on a smartphone, or making payments from a banking app have all become the new normal - opening up opportunities for wider choice, faster deliveries and enhanced personalisation.
However, the rush to adopt these tech innovations risks leaving behind millions of people with poor connections, leaving consumers exposed to the threat of increasingly sophisticated scammers, unable to get a fair deal and placing shoppers at the mercy of rogue businesses inundating online marketplaces with dodgy goods.
As a result, it is crucial that, as new technology continues to take off, the UK’s digital infrastructure is set up so that everyone can benefit and no one is left behind. And that’s not just on an individual basis, but for entire communities in some cases.
For instance, our latest research - published today - has found more than 250 communities across the UK that have poor cashpoint provision or no cashpoints at all, raising fears that too many people are struggling to access cash in the face of the online banking revolution.
Ahead of the election, Which? has launched its consumer agenda for government with these issues at its heart. We’re calling for all political parties to commit to policies that will make the lives of UK consumers simpler, fairer and safer, ensuring they can act with confidence and with high levels of trust in the institutions and businesses that serve us.
Top of our agenda is ensuring that everyone has the ability to benefit from the advantages offered by the tech revolution. In order to achieve this, the next government must set out an ambitious, joined-up strategy to deliver an improved digital infrastructure that guarantees a reliable online connection for everyone - whether they are at home, at work or on the move.
But getting people connected is just the start. While online innovations have made shopping more accessible than ever before, focus on speed and convenience must not be at the expense of basic protections that should keep millions of us safe and secure - and so far the government has failed to step in and address the problems.
Time and again, we have exposed online marketplaces for listing products so dangerous they could threaten lives, and have revealed that some of these sites are responsible for allowing unscrupulous sellers to mislead consumers with fake reviews.
Online platforms more generally have become a breeding ground for new and increasingly sophisticated types of fraud, which can include investment scams advertised via social media, often with fake celebrity endorsements, or holiday accommodation scams where people are tricked into booking residences that simply don’t exist.
It’s clear that current regulation is not designed - and therefore not equipped - to deal with these types of modern issues. Although we have one of the strongest consumer rights frameworks in the world, the enforcement systems that support it are broken, and failing to stop consumers from being harmed as a result.
That is why we want to see a bolstered Competition and Markets Authority that can stand up and impose tough sanctions on businesses that are breaking the law, as well as an independent product safety regulator to tackle the very real threat posed by dangerous products.
As well as shopping online, more people are banking online. However, we’re concerned that online banking’s radical development is rapidly marching us towards a cashless society before the infrastructure is ready. Bank branches and cash machines are vanishing at an alarming rate as part of this push, despite millions of consumers still relying heavily on cash.
If the trend continues, and impacts on the already fragile cash infrastructure before people have the digital skills and capability they need to engage with the changing world, millions of consumers will be left behind. It could also hit hard the local communities with economies that still rely on cash. As a result, the government must work with industry and regulators to guarantee access to cash for as long as it is needed.
So while technology has transformed the way many of us live, and is set to continue to deliver positive, tangible improvements for people across the UK, people must have trust in the industries that provide these new services.
In order to deliver this for consumers - the driving force of the economy, it must be remembered - the winners of the next election have to take robust steps to ensure that everyone is able to participate online with confidence. The next government must reassure people that they will be protected from harm, as part of a broader consumer agenda that stands for high standards, wide choice, strong rights and fair prices.
Read the full report HERE.