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Darren Jones

Labour Member of Parliament for Bristol North West

Darren Jones: We need to have a chat about tech ethics

This week has been a wakeup call to many. Billions of people across the world happily use Facebook to connect with friends. But very few of them really understand the profiling that goes on about them in the background. We all know that profiling is valuable – Facebook’s annual profits are testament to that – but we’re only really beginning to understand how valuable that information is for purposes we don’t yet really understand. 

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shone a light onto a quickly developing and powerful marketplace: a wild west with no property ownership, and a lack of regulated boundaries. It’s remarkable that our personal data is so valuable, yet we have no legal ownership of it. And because technology innovates at such a speed, regulators and legislators can’t keep up. 

Our new data laws in the UK – in the Data Protection Bill and the General Data Protection Regulation – don’t anticipate, for example, the inability of most humans to really understand what’s happening in a machine learning algorithm in order to explain it to another human. Nor does it carry across the principles that, for example, the right to privacy and the protection of personal data is a fundamental human right.

However, as legislators we mustn’t overreact. If we over regulate we will prevent innovation, and we’ll lose the massive benefits that come from technological transformation. But in this infant industry entering its difficult teenage years, we must also recognise that “cool tech” – when at the scale we see it today – needs rules and boundaries set by the grown-up institutions whose job it is to protect the people.

But for that to be done properly, our institutions, our legislators and the public need to understand what the hell is going on, and how it all works.

As one of those legislators it’s my job to be the voice of my constituents in Parliament. But the truth is that I and my fellow MPs don’t really know what the British people think is and isn’t acceptable. Because if most people don’t really understand what’s going on in Silicon Valley with their data in the first place, how can they have a view about whether it’s right or wrong?

That’s why I’m tabling amendments to the Data Protection Bill today which requires the Government to monitor the latest developments in this space, and to have a debate with the public about the ethics of it.

I applaud the Government in agreeing (after some delay…) to fund the new Data and Artificial Intelligence Ethics Unit in the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sports. But that unit must have a legal basis and not be at the whim of a Minister or the Treasury in the future. And it must have real clout across Government departments in helping to set public policy.

In my cross examination of the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, on the Science and Technology Select Committee she was clear: it can’t be the job of the Information Commissioner to educate and have a debate with the public about the big technology ethical issues of the day. But she was also clear that that debate must happen now.

Sadly, the Government has entirely failed to engage with reasonable amendments to the Data Protection Bill, merely telling us all that the Bill is fine as it is. So, I fully expect the Government to vote down my amendments on technology ethics tomorrow, even though I’ll probably get support from every other political party on the committee.

In anticipation of that, therefore, I’m also kicking off a Parliamentary Commission on Technology Ethics. I’m thrilled that Conservative MP Lee Rowley has agreed to be my co-chair, to make it clear that this is a cross party apolitical process. And I’m thrilled that Oxford University’s Professor Luciano Floridi and the British Computer Society have agreed to help direct our work. 

We’ll be hosting our initial meeting in Parliament after the Easter Recess in partnership with the All Party Parliamentary Groups for Information, Technology and Communications (PICTFor) and Data Analytics (APPGDA). We’ll be inviting stakeholders from across industry, consumer groups and the trade unions to tell us what the main tech ethic issues of the day are. And we’ll then be looking to get to work over the next year to have that debate, to develop credible public policy recommendations and to ultimately help influence Government policy in the future. 

Whether by law or by commission, it’s vital that we now get into this debate properly and that we bring the public, our institutions, our fellow legislators and the tech industry with us. 

I’m confident that, together, we can transform the ways in which we live our lives and modernise our public services in ways never previously possible. But before we do that, we have to set the rules. And for as long as I’m a Member of Parliament, I look forward to being at the centre of that debate. 

Darren Jones is the Labour Member of Parliament for Bristol North West, a Member of the Science & Technology and EU Scrutiny Select Committees and a member of the Data Protection Bill public bill committee. He tweets at @darrenpjones.