Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench 3:37 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I too support the amendment. I thank the noble Lord for his explanation of what an algorithm is. I always found BBC Bitesize’s explanation rather helpful—a set of rules to solve a problem—along with its corresponding explanation of how an algorithm can go wrong: a set of rules designed for getting dressed that insists on your coat going on before your jumper. This would lead to a great many children arriving at school in sartorial disarray. It helpfully indicates that a set of rules is not benign—it has a purpose and a process, both of which are man or woman-made.

It is not possible to exaggerate the importance of an algorithm. I recently read Weapons of Math Destruction, by Cathy O’Neil, a Harvard PhD and Wall Street quantitative analyst. It goes step by step through the ways in which algorithms—apparently neutral and benign—have the capacity to change lives in huge ways and in an ever-increasing list of scenarios. If wrongly attributed or designed, they can have devastating effects on job prospects, education, financial outcomes or the reputation of an individual, with very little possibility of appeal, correction or compensation.

The amount of data gathered is breath-taking. There are an estimated 4,000 data brokers trading information, largely given up unwittingly or unthinkingly, in a $200 billion business that categorises us into list after list of identifiable groups. How they gather that information, what assumptions are inherent in their analysis and the way in which they use that information is designed into algorithms. To have some public oversight and transparency of the use and abuse of those decisions seems to be a minimum.

This is a very modest amendment and a tiny part of what will surely be a global standard, but it lays down a marker. Although Sharon White is on the record as saying she does not believe that Ofcom should play a part in regulating the internet, I wonder whether her position has as much to do with expertise and capacity at Ofcom as a strongly held philosophical position. It might not be a perfect amendment but I say to the noble Lord that it is a perfect idea because it does not overreach but offers the prospect of transparency and correction. The technology we are talking about brings with it a great deal of creativity and social good but it is, as the noble Lord said, disproportionately powerful and opaque. I urge the Minister to consider what the Government might offer to deliver the intention of the amendment, if not in this form then perhaps in another.