Chi Onwurah: The Government is replacing an infatuation with the money-makers with an infatuation with the code-makers

Posted On: 
12th March 2018

Whoever started the myth that tech is above the law is wrong – as legislators we are failing in our duty if we believe it, writes Chi Onwurah

"Whoever started the myth that tech is above the law was both wrong and not doing tech any favours – and as legislators we are failing in our duty if we believe it"
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At the beginning of last year, I predicted that 2017 would be the year we realised we had been doing the internet wrong and the year we started putting tech power in the hands of (non-techie) people.

And there are some signs that is what happened. The European Commission’s €2.4 billion fine of Google signalled a determination to hold the tech giants accountable and Germany’s recent ruling that Facebook’s collection of data is anti-competitive showed at least one regulatory authority was waking up to the role of data in markets. Under Sadiq Khan’s leadership, Transport for London’s insistence that Uber needed to improve their safety practices recognised that it is a taxi firm under its tech cloak, and whilst Twitter and Facebook are still far from inclusive spaces their senior leadership at least acknowledges some responsibility. More and more commentators and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are waking up to the challenges of tech omniscience, algorithmic rule, market consolidation and regulatory incapacity.

And while here in Westminster much of our attention has been occupied by Brexit, that hasn’t stopped select committee chairs holding the tech giants to account on their working practices.

There has been a glaring lack of activity from one quarter though – Government.

Yes, it’s true that the much-delayed industrial strategy finally launched last year with AI as one of its ‘grand challenges’. But throughout the industrial strategy when regulation is mentioned it is always about reducing it, simplifying it, cutting it. There is no recognition that the right kind of regulation can empower consumers and increase competition by protecting small business from abusive practices, promoting technical standards and enlarging the digital skills base.

As I write, the Data Protection Bill is returning to the Commons for its second reading and so far, the Tories have resisted every attempt by Labour to put power back into the hands of people or small businesses.

And as for the long-awaited Taylor Review into modern working practices – not only did it not go far enough, falling short of Labour’s 2017 manifesto commitments, the Government has failed to take forward even the most basic of its recommendations.

For this government tech is going to change everything, make everything better: it will enable people to live longer, healthier lives at home, it will make the trains run on time and raise the skills of the workforce, increase the effectiveness of local government, all without any meaningful regulation or financial investment. Tech is going to make the earth turn more slowly so the day is longer and British productivity can finally improve.

It is this naïve, simplistic view of tech that led to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport launching an app which was fatally undermined by privacy flaws, and led to the Prime Minister giving a keynote speech at Davos that used tech as a fig leaf to cover her Government’s absence of vision for Brexit or indeed any sort of domestic policy agenda.

This contrasts with Labour’s approach - for us technology is to be embraced and turned to the use of people in a way which ensures that people and businesses both win. In his speech to the Co-operative Party late last year Jeremy Corbyn argued that technology “should be empowering workers, enabling us to co-operate on a scale not possible before”.

I am a tech evangelist. I spent 20 years building out the Internet before entering Parliament and I still believe that – alongside politics – it is the most important driver of progress we have. But whoever started the myth that tech is above the law was both wrong and not doing tech any favours – and as legislators we are failing in our duty if we believe it.

In the 80s, 90s and 00s successive Governments failed to challenge the power of finance, blinded by the complexity of derivatives, hedge funds and Black-Scholes. Now this Government is replacing an infatuation with the money-makers with an infatuation with the code-makers and the consequences for our economy may be just as dire.

 

Chi Onwurah is Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy