Earlier this year, Martha Lane-Fox, Baroness of Soho, stepped down from her role as Digital Champion for the UK government, but pledged she’d still be playing a part in the debate around the ongoing societal transformation that digital technologies can enable.
True to her word, Lane-Fox - one of the co-founders of LastMinute.com - yesterday led a digital society debate in the UK’s upper legislative chamber the House of Lords. (Sorry, not even going to try to explain how the House of Lords works in a 21st century democratic society as even UK citizens find themselves baffled on this front - you can find out more here.)
The reason for the debate was ostensibly to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, but it served to raise some challenging questions about where society is heading in a digital age a quarter of a century on.
Lane-Fox started by noting that World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee has stated that he wants a wider debate on ‘What kind of web do we want?’.
Her response is:
“I would construct my answer by going back to what I imagine were some of his guiding principles in 1989: inclusion, by making sure no one is left behind demographically or geographically; freedom and transparency, by making sure that consumers understand the quid pro quo with the handful of big companies whose services they mainly use without obvious charge; and openness, by making sure no Government can control access and content. This is tested every day. Just this weekend, the Turkish authorities announced a clampdown on websites and a new wave of censorship.
“The web has immense power. I find something magical and remarkable on it every single day, but I agree with Sir Tim. We need to talk about the web we want. We need to pause for breath and perhaps be more conscious of the next 25 years of development.
“At the moment, we are sleepwalking into assuming that the platform underpinning so much of our daily life is not changing.”
“We face hard questions as we grapple with the technology we already know about, let alone that coming up in the future. What should be the regulation of personal drones? How do we regulate driverless cars? How do we protect against increasing cybercrime? What are the privacy implications of wearable technology? What is the IP of a 3D-printed object in your home? How do we teach children about online identity and anonymity? How do we protect the free flow of information around the world and avoid a balkanised web? How do we make sure that we have the understanding and experience to debate these areas effectively?”
For her own government in the Lane-Fox has two specific questions:
“First, what plans do they have to mark this extraordinary global invention that should be a brilliant inspiration for the next wave of British inventors? Secondly, do the Government agree that a fitting tribute to Tim’s vision that this is for everyone would be to review the billions government invests annually in adult skills and employment training to ensure that digital skills are embedded throughout the whole of our society?”
This last point is one close to her own heart as a digital inclusion champion:
“There are 11 million adults who lack the ability to do four basic things online—communicate, transact, search and share information—and to do these things safely. Of these, 50% are over 65 but 50% are of working age in a country where 90% of new jobs require basic online skills and many vacancies are advertised only online. In addition, only 30% of small businesses are able to transact online, meaning that they miss out on both huge sales and savings. Go On UK, the cross-sector charity I chair, estimates that there is £68 billion of value to the economy if we address these adult skills.
“We will need to fill 1 million technology sector jobs by 2020, which is looking nearly impossible from our current workforce. More depressingly, the number of women in the UK tech sector is actually falling as an overall percentage. If current trends are not reversed, only 1% of the sector will be female by 2040.
“We do not have the skills and understanding of the digital world at the top of our corporate, public and political life. This leads to a lack of high quality decisions about our future—a future where so much will inevitably revolve around technology. Only four FTSE 100 businesses have a CTO or digital executive on their plc board and yet all these businesses face huge upheavals.”
With the agenda set for the debate, other peers stepped up to the mark. Liberal Democrat Lord Clement-Jones argued the case that the development of ethical safeguards and standards now needs to evolve at the same pace as the range of applications in the digital age:
Privacy and transparency were matters returned to several times, for instance by Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve who declared:
“The web is not some kind of foreign country where ordinary rules of conduct do not apply. We need an alignment of online and offline rights and protections. Freedom of expression is a vital principle that needs to be upheld both online and offline but it needs to be balanced with rights of privacy.
“One commentator has said that Silicon Valley appears to regard privacy as a “marketable commodity”. The government, through what we now know about their access to the PRISMs programme, appears to have a similar view. It is vital that we have maximum control over our own metadata. The UK’s ranking in the World Wide Web Foundation’s Web Index is reduced by concerns over the UK Government’s attitude to privacy rights.”
“We are probably living in the twilight of the cyber-romantics who think that zero regulation of everything online is the way we should head. We obviously are not in that situation.
“The area of greatest worry to a lot of people is online privacy and surveillance. However, it is odd that they feel it is okay to for the Amazons, Googles and others to have their private data but somehow not okay for Governments to have it. That proposition will need to be tested down the route. Commercial power is not negligible.”
On the question of transparency - currently a much sought-after Holy Grail in political circles - Baroness O’Neill opined:
“I do not believe that transparency is a sufficient, ethical ideal for online communication. It is a remedy for secrecy but is not sufficient for communication, which is surely what matters, online as much as face to face—being able to judge what others are saying and what they are doing in saying it. Are they, for example, promising something or threatening something? We need to be able to judge not just speech content but speech acts.”
Think of the children
With the Church represented in the House of Lords - yes, I know, I told you it was a baffling arrangement for a 21st century democracy - , the Lord Bishop of Derby wanted to bring in a moral dimension to the debate and how society must steer individuals away from unsavoury aspects of the Web:
“I have been involved in debates in the past couple of months in this Chamber about online pornography, the objectification of women and the bullying of young people. There is a dark side to the internet and we should not be surprised at that, given that this is human nature engaging with a wonderful invention with all kinds of dark possibilities.
“The marvel of this world wide web is that you can now hold it in the palm of your hand, and, with one finger—or two thumbs, if you are more dextrous than me—control the web and have the information come to you. That raises huge questions about how we help people interpret all the information, temptation and possibilities.
“My simple question is: what is the role of a Government concerned about human rights and human welfare in trying to give people a hinterland and some tools, with allies—which allies the Government would recognise is another question—so that there is a big picture to help people interpret? People talk about giving parental control. That is a technical solution, but parents and others need a kind of hinterland; a wider vision with which all this information can be processed, evaluated and deployed creatively.”
With the morality genie out of the bottle, the more conservative (both politically and philosophically) elements took centre stage, demanding ‘will nobody think of the children?’.
Baroness Kidron was a case in point, arguing that the way the Web has evolved
“fuels a culture of compulsion, disclosure and distraction that has a particular implication for young people who are not yet fully formed.”
This is a familiar theme for the Baroness, who’s previously caused a stir by listing the ten things she hates about the internet during a TEDxHousesofParliament event.
Yesterday she warmed to the same theme:
“Our young people are growing up with devices that act as their telephone, post box, camera, scrapbook, family album, newspaper and school pigeonhole. In using those devices they routinely relinquish ownership of every interaction, private and public. It is worth reminding ourselves that, in this context, the data we are talking about are actually the intimate details of young people in their period of greatest personal developmental and social change.
"It is as if we are taking their bedrooms and putting them up for sale on eBay. We have allowed a situation to develop in which it is legal for a multibillion dollar industry to own, wholly and in perpetuity, the intimate and personal details of children. We all know that this space is moving so fast that we do not really know what might happen to it in the future.
“In every other part of life, children are children, and we take a view on their level of maturity and accompanying levels of responsibility. We protect them from every other addictive substance. On the net, it seems, we are asking that they take responsibility on their own, even as we denude them of power over, and ownership of, their own histories.”
There were other ‘interesting’ contributions to the debate, such as Lord Puttnam’s idea that a 1p levy should be place on every email sent and the money given over to global aid budgets adding:
“If there were such a levy, it might allow people to pause momentarily before hitting that quite dreadful “Reply to All” button.”
Yes, well, thanks for that Lord P - we’ll get back to you!
A more constructive forward-looking suggestion was made by Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope to the effect that this parliamentary debate should become an annual event:
“We should be having annual debates about the effect of the digital revolution we face…the internet is certainly the most transformative thing that has happened in my lifetime and is something that we cannot ignore.
“The nexus of mobile working together with cloud computing, social media and big data information that is about to happen to us, if it is not happening already, is extraordinary. If we continue to ignore it, we will be leaving the process of engagement and disengagement with Parliament in a much more difficult position over the next few years.”
In the main, an important and intriguing debate from a political chamber most often derided as out of touch with the modern world. As Lane Fox put it:
“It is perhaps one small step for mankind and one bigger leap for the House of Lords.”
True, the platitudes did pile up from some quarters - not everyone is Martha Lane-Fox - but there were some valuable questions raised and points made as well, more in fact than I expected.
In the end, it’s hard to disagree with Lord Knight of Weymouth who concluded his contribution with the words:
“Thanks Tim for your gift to everyone. You gave it for free to keep it universal. As a result, we all have to change how we do things to make the most of it, for everyone.”