Creating a coherent digital policy that addresses both opportunities and threats is likely to prove a challenge for the new Government, argues Tarlok Teji.
One of the major policy challenges facing the new Government is defining our relationship to the hyper-connected digital world. While that world brings fantastic opportunities, it also creates risks of global proportions.
A balance must be struck between supporting businesses in exploiting online commercial opportunities, with policing the internet to avoid opening-up the UK to internet terrorism. The difficulties of this balancing act were demonstrated by the Conservatives’ previous attempt at strengthening monitoring of electronic communications. The Communications Data Bill – dubbed the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ – was dropped by the last coalition Government because of opposition by the Liberal Democrats. That Bill is back on the agenda, whereas the Digital Bill of Rights proposed by the Lib-Dems may not be.
The challenge for the new Government is to keep citizens safe in this new digital world, without stymieing the wealth creation that the new technology brings.
For the incoming Government, the priority is to extend broadband coverage. This was spelt out in the Conservative manifesto.
“We will secure the delivery of superfast broadband in urban and rural areas to provide coverage to 95 per cent of the UK by the end of 2017, and we will ensure no one is left behind by subsidising the cost of installing superfast capable satellite services in the very hardest to reach areas. We will also release more spectrum from public sector use to allow greater private sector access. And we have set an ambition that ultrafast broadband should be available to nearly all UK premises as soon as practicable.
“We will ensure that Britain seizes the chance to be a world leader in the development of 5G, playing a key role in defining industry standards…. We will provide rural Britain with near universal superfast broadband by the end of the next Parliament.”
But to date the record of UK governments relating to digital infrastructure and policy has been inconsistent, fragmented and reactive. Different parts of government have done different things, often undertaking ad hoc initiatives that do not amount to a holistic strategy. For example, DVLA has sold data records, the NHS has made data available, while initial testing of driverless cars has gone ahead. Nor has the UK made the same steps towards citizen self-servicing through online access to public bodies, in the way achieved by smaller states such as the Finland, and Estonia.
But today the Government’s key digital challenge could be said to be how to deal with the threats presented in a virtual world. These include the use of social media to groom terrorists and anti-government anarchists; cyber bullying; grooming for sexploitation; and the access to the internet by minors for gambling and accessing pornography. In addition, online commerce is being disrupted and undermined by daily spam and phishing attacks and the spiralling incidence of ID theft and fraud.
Policy on these issues has been fragmented, current legislation is disconnected and supply in the digital world is dominated and controlled by the United States. The EU push back against some of the excesses of the big USA technology companies has – wrongly – been characterised by President Obama as being about creating ‘trade barriers’.
Rather, it is a desire to preserve the culture and to respect the difference in the inherent values embedded in the way of life enjoyed in the UK and across the EU. This, it should be noted, is an approach revered by many across the world.
Attitudes differ not just between the EU and the US, but also within the UK. Much of this relates to demographics. The 14 to 24 age group has grown up in the digital age and operates in a world where they say they don’t care who knows their personal information. In contrast, the older age group very much does care about safeguarding their personal information.
This creates a challenge of personalisation versus privacy that must be addressed by both industry and government – and which has yet to be played out. In truth, at present there is a brake on e-commerce which could be lifted if we could tackle this whole issue of people feeling unsafe in an increasing mobile digital world.
But while steps can be taken to deal with the perception of online data insecurity, there is also a reality that has to be addressed. Some of the online payment processes used by card issues and web retailers are not sufficiently secure.
This creates an environment in which we as citizens – and the new Government – have to decide which is more important, personalisation of services or privacy of personal data. As the era of Big Data emerges, this is an issue that cannot be ignored. There is a fine line between ‘bespoke’ products and services and ‘digital intrusion’ that bring the violation of privacy.
The UK’s Government has a special role in demonstrating leadership. The internet was invented by the UK – thank you Sir Tim Berners-Lee – to be free and to democratise global information and create equality amongst global citizens. Yet it has become an exploitation tool for the few against the ordinary person.
The UK may not be able to close the gap with the USA’s technology companies, but it can regulate for a level playing field and ensure respect for the UK’s inherent values. There is a need for some ‘red lines’ in a new set of rules for the ‘digital world’ before the ‘internet of everything’ takes hold.
The appointment of a ‘Minister for Digital’ would have put technology at the heart of Government. That role might have been able to cut-across all the departments and co-ordinate a framework for the UK, enabling it to take a leadership role in the global development of a new rule set.
This could have become a lasting legacy for David Cameron’s final term. It didn’t happen in this appointment of ministers, but perhaps in the next reshuffle we will see that opportunity grasped.