Article

I love new technology, but we need governments to start regulating it

  • Britain needs a sophisticated, multitrack approach to ensure these new technologies are used for the common good at home and abroad

  • Chuka Umunna MP

The mind boggles at the technology we are now using, which a few years ago we would very much have associated with science fiction and not reality. It is now part of everyday life and developing at such a speed that legislators and governments are struggling to keep up. 

We have just started using a Google Home device in the Umunna household. It’s a smart speaker similar to Amazon Alexa that answers your questions, gets the news, plays songs, and enables you to control other apps, (like Spotify), hands free, using your own voice. We weren’t really following yesterday’s Wimbledon men’s final so during the match I asked Google Home and it told me what the current score was.

According to a report from this January, almost a quarter (21 per cent) of adults in the US now own a smart speaker with the figures rising, and here in the UK we seem to be following the same trend. At the very least, policymakers need to be consistent in their approach to the ever increasing tech usage – but this is not the case at present.

One example is the US authorities. On the one hand, they seem keen to ensure that the enormous tech companies play by the rules and contribute to the common good. So at the end of last week the US Federal Trade Commission (which performs much the same functions as the UK’s Consumer and Markets Authority) reportedly approved a $5bn (£4bn) settlement with Facebook over allegations that the latter had inappropriately shared information belonging to 87 million users with the now defunct Cambridge Analytica political consulting firm.

On the other hand, in a knee-jerk response coloured by economic nationalism, Donald Trump has threatened to hit French goods with extra tariffs in retaliation for the French government announcing last week the imposition of a 3 per cent levy on large, mostly US, digital companies’ local revenues. 

President Emmanuel Macron’s administration in Paris is of the view that the tech companies are paying little or no tax. The French tech tax will apply to tech companies with global sales of over €750m (£673m) which make more than €25m (£22m) in France.

The advent of new technologies, the rise of automation, artificial intelligence and digitisation has brought many benefits, facilitating better and more efficient methods of communication, knowledge acquisition, working, shopping, spending our leisure time, travelling and generally organising our lives. It has the potential to revolutionise public services. 

But the advent of the new super-tech platforms in particular has concentrated power and wealth in the hands of a small number of people, new technologies are being used to facilitate abuse, crime and terrorism and to enable foreign powers to challenge our democratic processes and national security. One need only look at the increasing amount of police time and resources taken up with dealing with cybercrime and online fraud, to see the downside

Vast quantities of our personal data is now held by others, not necessarily within our control, and public policy and legal frameworks are struggling to keep pace. We cannot stand idly by and not intervene in the public interest to address these problems.

Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has talked about Labour’s answer to all of this being “socialism with an iPad”, meaning making Britain a leading power in technology. It’s a good soundbite but the ideological dogma of yesteryear can’t provide a comprehensive route map to the solutions to these very modern of issues.

The old, left-right fulcrum, around which politics revolved in the 20th century, is not an appropriate prism through which to view these very 21st century challenges. We want our data privacy respected as a core property right – a right-wing proposition – but to get the best rewards from the data revolution we need universal access to data, public platforms, and high accountability and transparency – left-wing propositions. It follows that we shouldn’t pretend the answers will exclusively come from either ideological pre-disposition. So what should our approach be in ensuring these new technologies are used for the common good at home and abroad?

Britain needs a sophisticated, multitrack approach. The first track must be about making the most of the opportunities these technologies present in the UK. That means using all the levers of government to encourage the take-up and adoption of them which will help massively increase UK productivity, necessary to facilitate higher wages. 

In addition, this will help ensure we create new jobs in this country to replace those displaced by automation and technological advance. Reindustrialising those areas which have been deindustrialised over time with these new industries must be a priority.

The second track should focus on using the new technologies to improve public service delivery. They can help accelerate and optimise administrative processes and improve citizens’ experience of various services which can often be slow and inefficient. The efficiency gains will also save the Exchequer a lot of money which could be better used in other ways.

The third track must be about setting the right limits on these new technologies. They carry risks which are increasingly a focus of public debate: invasion of privacy, bullying or monopolistic behaviour by digital giants, misuse of personal data, tax evasion by firms with “intangible” profits, reckless testing and commercialisation of new technologies like driverless cars and private drones, the harnessing of such technologies by security threats, like criminals and terrorists, and geopolitical challengers, like China, which is increasingly integrating its AI strategies with its foreign policy.

The final track should address ownership and equality because too many of the rewards of these new technologies accrue to a relatively small number of individuals, exacerbating inequalities. New ownership structures must be developed to ensure greater distribution of the benefits – both to workers and wider society.

Our goal must be a constantly evolving body of democratised and repurposed regulation that tracks the realities of new technologies as they emerge and are applied, and starts from the principle that citizens, not governments or firms, should have the most power. 

President Macron gets this. It is quite clear that Trump with his narrow nationalism does not. If the big tech companies are all made to pay their fair share and abide by the rules, all peoples and their governments – including Trump’s – will benefit.