A sector that prides itself on disruption cannot and should not complain when it is held to account. As a result of important investigative journalism, we now know more about what happens when the murkier fringe of political consultancy meets big data analytics. And we are all more aware of what can happen to the information we share online.
Is this a watershed moment for tech? My instinct is probably yes. A deeper level of scepticism now feels baked in to the way the media, policy makers and the public feel about the sector. However, if we get the response to this moment right there is an opportunity for tech firms to deepen their trustworthiness and for the UK as a whole to be seen as a leader in responsible innovation.
That may sound like a stretch given recent revelations. But the fact is people and businesses across the tech community are not starting from scratch. Over the last few years there has been intense discussion and real progress on the culture, regulation and ethics of tech.
When it comes to culture, many in tech recognise the need to speak and act with more humility. The public and policy makers want to hear less about how tech is disruptive and more about how it can play a constructive role in society. There needs to be less hype around innovations that nobody asked for and more focus on how tech can deliver things that people really want – like a more productive health service that can spend less on administration and more on providing care. Moreover, as we enter a new age of intelligent machines, there is deep interest across the sector in how we can put the principle of ‘human flourishing’ at the heart of responsible digital innovation.
Tech firms do not operate in a regulatory Wild West and nor do they want to. New European data protection rules agreed two years ago in Brussels will enter into effect in May this year. This new legislation will introduce much stricter rules around the use of personal data bringing data protection law up to date with the way in which data is used in the modern digital economy. The definition of personal data will be significantly expanded and the re-use of data for new purposes will require fresh explicit consent. The bar for what constitutes ‘valid consent’ will be set much higher requiring it to be “specific, informed and unambiguous”. Companies will have to make it as easy to withdraw consent as it is to give it. Failure to comply will risk significant fines – up to 4% of global turnover. These will be enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Their role will be critical to ensuring a level playing field and techUK has called for proper resourcing of the Office and for salaries that can compete with the private sector to ensure they have the very best talent.
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is undoubtedly tough but UK tech firms have not been advocating to dump these rules after Brexit. Quite the opposite, techUK has championed the need for the UK to maintain these high standards of data protection after it leaves the EU. And as technology continues to develop there will be new regulatory challenges ahead. But there is a growing consensus as we look to new technologies like AI that regulation isn’t enough. Companies are increasingly thinking about going beyond regulation and implementing new ethical frameworks and tools to guide their decision making. There is a deep discussion happening right now about the role of ethics in tech and this role is being led by individuals in the sector who want to drive change from the inside.
Only last year techUK organised a Data Ethics Summit bringing together businesses, government and regulators such as the ICO to discuss how practical tools can be developed to support ethical decision making around digital innovation. It was techUK who clapped the loudest when the Government announced the establishment of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation – a development we have long called for.
It is the very existence of the grass roots debate on ethics that marks out why tech won’t be the ‘new tobacco’. Tech has the capacity and the creativity to learn, correct and move forward. So yes, this has been an interesting few weeks but tech has never stood still. Our job is to continue to build with confidence the culture, regulation and ethics we need to ensure technology remains a force for good.
Julian David is CEO of techUK, an association that represents more than 950 companies that employ 700,000 people, about half of all tech sector jobs in the UK. Read more techUK blogs here.