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Britain should be leading the global conversation on tech

4 min read

We need to roll out world-class digital infrastructure nationwide and level up digital prosperity across the UK.

It's been clear during the pandemic that we're increasingly dependent on digital technology and online solutions. The Culture Secretary recently set out 10 tech priorities. Some of these reflected in the Queen's Speech, but how do they measure up and are they the right ones?

First, we need to roll out world-class digital infrastructure nationwide and level up digital prosperity across the UK.

We were originally promised spending of £5bn by 2025 yet only a fraction of this - £1.2 billion - will have been spent by then. Digital exclusion and data poverty has become acute during the pandemic. It's estimated that some 1.8 million children have not had adequate digital access. It's not just about broadband being available, it's about affordability too and that devices are available.

Unlocking the power of data is another priority, as well as championing free and fair digital trade.  

We recently had the government’s response to the consultation on the National Data Strategy. There is some understanding of the need to maintain public trust in the sharing and use of their data and a welcome commitment to continue with the work started by the Open Data Institute in creating trustworthy mechanisms such as data institutions and trusts to do so. But recent events involving GP held data demonstrate that we must also ensure public data is valued and used for public benefit and not simply traded away. We should establish a Sovereign Health Data Fund as suggested by Future Care Capital.

The pace, scale and ambition of government action does not match the upskilling challenge facing many people working in the UK

We must keep the UK safe and secure online.  

We need the “secure by design” consumer protection provisions now promised. But the draft Online Safety Bill now published is not yet fit for purpose. The problem is what's excluded. In particular, commercial pornography where there is no user generated content; societal harms caused for instance by fake news/disinformation so clearly described in the Report of Lord Puttnam’s Democracy and Digital Technologies Select Committee; all educational and news platforms.

Additionally, no group actions can be brought. There's no focus on the issues surrounding anonymity/know your user, or any reference to economic harms. Most tellingly, there is no focus on enhanced PHSE or the promised media literacy strategy - both of which must go hand-in-hand with this legislation. There's also little clarity on the issue of algorithmic pushing of content. 

It’s vital that we build a tech-savvy nation. This is partly about digital skills for the future and I welcome greater focus on further education in the new Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. But the pace, scale and ambition of government action does not match the upskilling challenge facing many people working in the UK, as Jo Johnson recently said.

The need for a funding system that helps people to reskill is critical. Non-STEM creative courses should be valued. Careers' advice and adult education needs a total revamp. Apprentice levy reform is overdue. The work of Local Digital Skills Partnerships is welcome, but they are massively under-resourced. Broader digital literacy is crucial too, as the AI Council in their AI Roadmap pointed out.  As is greater diversity and inclusion in the tech workforce.

We must fuel a new era of start-ups and scaleups and unleash the transformational power of tech and AI.

The government needs to honour their pledge to the Lords' Science and Technology Committee to support catapults to be more effective institutions as a critical part of innovation strategy. I welcome the commitment to produce a National AI Strategy, which we should all contribute to when the consultation takes place later this year.

We should be leading the global conversation on tech, the recent G7 Digital Communique and plans to host the Future Tech Forum, but we need to go beyond principles in establishing international AI governance standards and solutions. G7 agreement on a global minimum corporation tax rate bodes well for OECD digital tax discussions.

At the end of the day there are numerous notable omissions. Where is the commitment to a Bill to set up the new Digital Markets Unit, or tackling the gig economy in the many services run through digital applications?  The latter should be a major priority.


Lord Clement-Jones is a Liberal Democrat peer. 

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