Let’s prove tech companies wrong on regulation

Martha Lane Fox, Chi Onwurah MP, Stefan Hunt, Azeem Azhar and Damian Collins MP spoke at Doteveryone’s event

Government was urged to show clear leadership on regulating digital technologies at an event in Parliament to discuss Doteveryone’s proposals for an Office for Responsible Technology.

“Tech companies are not expecting government to do the job of regulating them effectively,” said Doteveryone founder Martha Lane Fox, who chaired the event, bringing together parliamentarians, regulators, industry and campaigners.

“So let’s prove them wrong”.

“We need to go beyond asking do you do more about fake news, do you want to do more about illegal content, do you want to be transparent about data usage? and ask, are you behaving in an ethical and responsible way? And I believe we do require regulators to do that.”
Damian Collins, Chair of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee

Damian Collins, Chair of the Select Committee on Digital Culture Media and Sport came fresh from an unprecedented international inquiry into disinformation and fake news and described the frustration of trying to get straight answers from Facebook, leading to the use of Parliament’s Serjeant-at-Arms to secure documents with insight into practices at the platform.

He identified problems with content, data and business practices — all of which should be addressed by regulation. He added: “while we can deal with problems we can see and understand, I think robust regulation has to look forward and anticipate problems in the future as well”.

“We need to go beyond asking do you do more about fake news, do you want to do more about illegal content, do you want to be transparent about data usage? and ask, are you behaving in an ethical and responsible way? And I believe we do require regulators to do that”.

He said he was open to whether this would require a new regulator of whether Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office could address this work.

Protecting citizens

Chi Onwurah, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation praised Doteveryone’s recommendations but said it was work that should have come from government, not an independent think tank, and was long overdue.

“Everything now entering the market has been around for some time under development. A forward looking framework could have addressed some of the harms we’re seeing now.”
Chi Onwurah, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation

“We need a coherent framework for regulation — it’s still what we don’t have. The last eight years have been wasted. We should have been looking to develop a forward-looking framework for data particularly but also for AI.

“Everything now entering the market has been around for some time under development. A forward-looking framework could have addressed some of the harms we’re seeing now.”

“The purpose of government is to protect the citizen and that involves regulation.”

Agile regulation

Azeem Azhar, entrepreneur and publisher of Exponential View, agreed it had been possible to anticipate issues such as network dominance which had been widely discussed within industry many years ago.

But he stressed the importance of regulators being able to pivot when technologies take unexpected turns.

“Technology firms themselves don’t know where their companies are going. If you look at Uber’s initial business plan, it wanted Uber to become the dominant black limousine high-end transportation company in about seven American cities. If the entrepreneur doesn’t know where he’s going, how can the regulator intervene in meaningful ways?”

He argued that regulators need to learn from a key characteristic of technology firms — agility.

“Agile regulation should have defined outcomes and if it’s not working you can wind it back.”

Stefan Hunt of the Competition and Markets Authority spoke of the need for regulation to switch from focusing on the supply to the demand side of the technology market — to think about the impacts on consumers. This, he said, would require a focus on ex-ante, principles-based regulation, dedicated industry experts to build capacity and ongoing relationships with the firms in question.

“You do need some form of digital regulatory focus that is only about tech. But also every regulator has got to get with the programme and change. Every part of our society has got to understand the consequences that technology is bringing and we’re being way too slow to do that.”
Dido Harding, former Chief Executive of Talk Talk and Doteveryone trustee

Speaking from the floor, Tim Clement-Jones, Lib Dem spokesman on the digital economy in the Lords and former chair of the Lords Committee on AI welcomed Doteveryone’s recommendations, arguing that regulation must get to grips with issues such as algorithmic bias, and the lack of explainability and intelligibility of technologies.

Stephen Gilbert who is chairing the Lords Communications Committee inquiry into internet regulation stressed the need to join up government and the various regulators to make their work cohesive. He highlighted that principles-based regulation could put too much power into the hands of regulators and would require systems of accountability so that parliament can assert societal values and priorities.

Dido Harding, former Chief Executive of Talk Talk and trustee of Doteveryone, spoke from experience of the dilemma of leading digital transformation — whether to put all digital activity in one place or to spread it across the organisation in recognition of the impact technologies are having in every sphere.

“I think we’ve been having that debate about regulation. And the answer is that you need both. You do need some form of digital regulatory focus that is only about tech. But also every regulator has got to get with the programme and change. Every part of our society has got to understand the consequences that technology is bringing and we’re being way too slow to do that.”

“This has to come top down from government. Until our government decides this is a real priority we’ll keep on having this discussion and very little will change.”