It is certainly the case that distributed ledger technology can have great applications in promoting openness, and consumer and citizen trust. Again, however, it has to be set out in the right framework with the right principles. We need a progressive ownership framework for data, one that is debated and discussed by everyone, including those not online. The Government must deliver an effective data regulation framework for the digital era. Without that, the digital economy will be hamstrung by peoples’ fears and companies’ confusion.
Unfortunately, that is not the only gaping hole in the Government’s Bill. The Government cannot tell us who will have access to our digital identities. In order to download an app from Google Play, people must have a Google account, which can then be used to identify and control their device. Who owns that identity? The Bill has nothing to say on cyber-security, despite it being one of the critical challenges of the digital economy. The Bill introduces instead bulk sharing of civil registration data, described by one commentator as suspiciously like an ID card through the back door.
The Bill has nothing to say either on work in the digital economy. A new economy brings new types of jobs and a new set of labour relationships. The Uber driver, the Deliveroo rider, the TaskRabbit worker—none of these workers are employed by the companies they work for; they are all managed by algorithms. The Bill does nothing to protect workers from extra-casualised work, compressed wages, few rights and almost no recourse to justice in the new intermediary economy. These firms are the future, but we must protect the workers of the future, too.
It is not only workers who are impacted by algorithms. Uber knows a person is more willing to accept higher or “surge” prices when their phone is about to run out of battery. They say they do not use this information to charge higher prices, but we have no way of verifying that. I am told that one well-known web-dating site has its algorithm optimised for short-term relationships, which maximises its revenue. Do the people paying their fees know that?
These criticisms are not an attack on the digital economy. I am a tech evangelist. I want the UK to see the advantages of a digital Britain, but that means the whole of the UK. Technology brings astounding new opportunities, but millions of people and businesses are left behind because of their lack of digital literacy. In 2014, Santander found that 34% of UK businesses looking to export do not have their own website, and last year ComRes found a quarter of the capital’s firms have little or no online presence.
In addition, the Government are doing little to tackle harassment and threats online. Our lives are increasingly lived on the internet. There would be an outcry if women did not feel safe walking down the street, yet many do not feel safe going online. Now is the time for a Bill to ready the country for the new digital world, but the Government are guilty of another half-hearted attempt to respond to the 21st century.
We shall not oppose the Bill on Second Reading, but the digital economy deserves better. Instead of leaving a positive legacy, the Conservatives will leave us with another missed opportunity—one whose legacy will be with us for decades to come.