UK’s Digital Secretary - ‘Technology needs to be about the common good, not just the balance sheet’

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez May 17, 2019
Jeremy Wright was giving a speech at the Viva Tech conference in Paris this week, where he also said the UK is open to talent that wants to join the ‘tech for good movement’.

Image of Jeremy Wright, Digital Secretary

The Secretary of State for Digital, Jeremy Wright, has this week urged those working in technology to focus on the benefits it can deliver for the ‘common good’, not just improving the numbers on the balance sheet. Giving a speech at the Viva Tech conference in Paris, Wright also looked to appease any Brexit concerns - despite the current deadlock in Parliament - and said that the UK is open to accepting tech talent and skills.

Wright said:

I know that many of the headlines emerging from the UK recently have been about Brexit. But although we have seen a passionate debate in the UK about how we leave the EU, this does not mean we are turning inwards.

We are still committed to being open, outward looking and optimistic about the world beyond us and opportunities provided by new technologies.

And we still care about the positive development of these technologies, and making them work for the benefit of humankind.

On the talent and skills point, the Secretary of State said that the UK has opened two new visa routes for tech specialists. Firstly, the start-up route for those starting a business for the first time and the Innovator route for more experienced business people with funds to invest in their firm.

He said that the British government wants an “immigration system that welcomes the world’s top tech talent”, adding that it has also doubled the number of Tier1 Exceptional Talent visas.

The Minister, however, did fail to mention the ongoing row over the Tier 2 Visa cap, which has been consistently reaching its limit since the Brexit vote and has traditionally been used as a mechanism to attract tech talent from Europe.

Wright added:

We are open to those with the skills and the determination to join this tech for good movement.

Tech for good

As noted above, the Secretary of State declared to delegates that “when we look back on this remarkable era of technological change, we won’t just judge it by the numbers on balance sheets”.

He said that it will be judged on the impact it has had on “humanity as a whole” and where it has made us “safer, happier and more fulfilled”.

Wright gave an example of how the British government is following through on this, by backing the UK’s leading dedicated supporter in social tech ventures - the Social Tech Trust - to set up a new investment, which will provide ventures with the access to capital that they need at the right time.

The aim is to raise up to £30 million to help ventures focused in three key areas of social transformation - health, wealth and communities.

However, the Minister noted that Britain also needs to play a role in the “big debates” surrounding the development of new technologies, citing issues such as content moderation, online disinformation and data ethics.

Wright said:

If we do not provide coherent answers to these questions, there is a real risk that the optimism and enthusiasm that greeted the digital revolution will evaporate.

I believe we find ourselves at a crossroads here, particularly around online harms. We cannot allow this behaviour to undermine the very real benefits that the digital revolution can bring.

If we surrender our online spaces to those who spread hate, abuse, fear and vitriolic content, then we all lose.

He highlighted how the government will be creating a new ‘duty of care’, establishing that companies have a responsibility for the safety of their users, and must take reasonable steps to tackle harmful content and activity.

Compliance will be overseen and enforced by a new independent regulator, which will have the power to issue “significant penalties”.

However, technology must play a role too, Wright said. He added:

I have seen some groundbreaking work already; software that identifies terrorist content and apps to help young people monitor the time they spend online.

To encourage this, the new regulator will also have broader responsibilities to promote the development and adoption of technology to tackle online harms.

The Government will also work with industry and civil society to develop a framework for safety by design - setting out clear principles on how to include online safety features in new applications.

And we also need to look further ahead, to see how we can address the ethical issues that lie even further down the road.