At a time when politics is dominated by Britain leaving the EU, Brexit divides opinion on all sides. As October 31st looms, unsurprisingly both the Labour Party in Brighton and the Conservative Party in Manchester spent much of their conferences focused on the question of Europe.
However, at the party conference fringe events where policy issues are debated, discussions around technology, data and privacy offered a rare moment of consensus across the political spectrum. Deep concerns were voiced about online harms and data ethics by both Labour and Conservatives alike.
At the Labour fringe event ‘Making Data Work for the Many’, the panel talked about the link between personal privacy and autonomy. The role of advertising has changed what it means to have autonomy in the digital age. There is a clear balance between the advantages and downsides of the internet.
A week later at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, MPs, party members and commentators expressed similar views. Damian Collins MP, Chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, warned about about games companies collecting data on their users’ behaviour, identifying risk-takers, and selling their data to insurance companies.
Data ethics is now a hot topic, but it’s important that the concerns which are (rightly) being raised do not deter people from accessing the internet and the benefits it can offer. Of the 4.1 million people who have never been online, 58% cite data and privacy concerns as the reason they do not use the internet. These fears need to be addressed, because moving online and data can be a force for good.
Healthcare is one area where shared data can radically improve people’s lives - but it is yet to really benefit patients in the UK. In 2013, care.data was launched, and if all had gone to plan, we would now have one centralised database, the ability to access health records wherever we may be treated, and a wealth of anonymised personal data for use in healthcare research. Instead, a lack of patient awareness of the scheme and little clarity around options for opting out meant that the programme was abandoned, and we still haven’t reaped the rewards it promised.
If there’s anything we can learn from care.data, it’s that the Government needs to be transparent. If we don’t want the public to turn their backs on technology that can save lives, we need to engage people in conversations about the issues that concern them. The Spending Round 2019 pledged £250 million of investment in artificial intelligence - but the efficacy of this kind of technology relies on patients being happy to share their personal data. People need to be supported to understand what this means.
Despite the issues with care.data, the UK is leading the way in tech ethics. At both Labour and Conservative Party conference, there was widespread endorsement for the Online Harms White Paper.
Published in July earlier this year, the White Paper sets out the government’s plan for a package of online safety measures. By forcing companies to take more responsibility for their users’ safety, these measures will help tackle some of the barriers people face to moving online. It calls for the establishment of an independent regulator, alongside a welcome commitment to digital literacy.
This commitment is what we really care about. One of the main reasons we went to party conferences was to convince MPs and policymakers to go one step further and back our call for a 100% digitally included nation.
Whilst the Chancellor has pledged £5bn to reach the Government’s target of giving every home in the UK full-fibre broadband by 2025, this isn’t yet matched with a pledge to provide every community with the digital skills and motivation they need to prosper in the 21st century.
We know that it’s not enough to simply pump money into infrastructure, important though this is. It’s no use offering full-fibre to people who don’t have the skills or confidence to benefit from digital. We have to democratise access - especially as government services increasingly move online - and we have to do it now. If nothing changes then by 2028 there will be 6.8 million people offline.
When the audience at a Conservative fringe event was asked to raise their hand if they used internet banking, nearly every hand shot up (perhaps unsurprising, given that the event was on ‘A Digital Britain’). Yet throughout the rest of the UK, three in 10 people do not bank online. As high street banks and cash machines close fastest in the poorest areas, the gap is widening between those who can benefit from the digital transformation and those who can’t.
Digital inclusion is not just about skills; becoming part of a digital society brings with it a new set of choices and new opportunities. When 75% of people who do not use the internet say that they have ‘no interest’ in moving online, it falls on us to convince them otherwise. We need collaboration across all sectors to ensure that concerns over data and privacy are listened to, and that people have the ability to keep themselves safe on the internet and avoid online harms.
It was reassuring to hear that there is policy beyond Brexit. It’s certainly the case that the negative aspects of the internet have become increasingly visible, and they demand a response. However, as our CEO Helen Milner argued on the panel of ‘Making Data Work for the Many’, we have to choose to be optimistic. We have to face these dangers with positivity - by supporting people to gain the confidence, skills and the resilience they need to thrive in the digital world.