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Liam Byrne

Shadow minister for digital

Liam Byrne: Zuckerberg’s testimony proves we need to establish strong digital rights

The markets may have liked Mr Zuckerberg’s performance – but for the public, the alarm bells should be ringing louder than ever. The revelations that Facebook is locked in an arms race with Russia, as Kremlin-backed operatives seek to harness its technology to harm us, should be the final nail in the coffin for the permissive environment we’ve allowed for the world’s great tech giants. When Mr Zuckerberg admits, that “it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm” then it’s time for governments to step in.

That’s why Labour is proposing a comprehensive Bill of Digital Rights for the 21st century to give us a new framework for regulating what are now the world’s biggest firms – the Fearsome Five which boast a combined value of around $2.5 trillion.

Ever since the days of the Magna Carta, we have sought to protect what matters most by making declarations of rights. After perfecting The Bill of Rights itself in 1689; Brits went on to help craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention; the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, and here at home, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010.

Rights ensure that progress is democratised, but they also provide important new protections against new imbalances of power that arise.

For all of the good it has done – and will do in future – the digital realm risks generating power imbalances which threaten our democracy and fairness at work. We now need a digital bill of rights to provide new protections in new times. Three key ideas will be important.

First, we have to safeguard democracy itself. Russia has been waging hybrid war against its neighbours for years, using what I call a ‘dark social playbook’. We’ve seen hackers such as Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear attack the Democratic National Committee during the American elections. They partner with useful idiots such as WikiLeaks, and sites such as Westmonster or indeed Russia Today or Breitbart. They brew up a row on Twitter, amplified by troll farms such as the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg. This is then injected into private Facebook groups where it can reach millions. That was standard practice in the German and French elections. There is a risk – of of unknown magnitude, because the Government will not launch an inquiry – that it played a part in the Brexit campaign.

As things stand, we are not equipped to protect ourselves from this clear and present danger. Our election law is now hopelessly out of date. We have an Advertising Standards Authority that does not regulate political advertising; Ofcom doesn’t regulate video when it is online; the Electoral Commission lacks the power to investigate digital campaigning; and the Information Commissioner can’t get a search warrant when she needs one to investigate compelling evidence of bad behaviour.

We must rebuild our defences, for instance, by giving the Electoral Commission the power to issue targeted disclosure notices forcing those who seek to influence a political campaign to tell us who’s being targeted with what and—crucially—who is paying for it. We should also update our national security strategy to include an explicit objective to defend the integrity of our democracy, a telling omission that must not stand.

Second, there’s a new urgency for what some call ‘algorithmic fairness’. Today, as the excellent Future of Work commission reported, unaccountable and highly sophisticated automated or semi-automated systems are now making decisions affecting fundamental elements of people’s work, including recruitment, pay and discipline. For example, workers at Amazon’s Dundee warehouse are being tracked as they work, with that data being used to help determine whether their four-hour shifts are extended or not. This risks a return to the days of the ‘butty man’: the individual who decided who got to work on the docks or on the construction site on a given day, and who, at the end of the week, divvied up the earnings and decided who got to work the week after. But it also affects the job market. When jobs are advertised in a targeted way, lots of people just will not see them. A third of company executives say that they have discriminated against those who are over 50, and a quarter admit to discriminating in that way against women. Nearly two thirds of executives with access to a profiling tool have said that they use it to actively seek out people based on criteria as diverse as age, gender and race. This has to stop.

Third, the way we regulate the E-Commerce platforms has to change. Today, they’re exempt from the kind of regulation that bites on newspapers and broadcasters because they’re governed by an EU directive written back in 2000: long, long before the acquired the power they enjoy today. This is mad. Yet when we tried to force the government to set a deadline for bringing the laws into the 21st century, they voted us down.

Getting rights right is not something that can simply be done in a committee room in Westminster. It needs public debate. We’ve presented draft ideas to Parliament – and now we plan to launch over the weeks to come. Using a mixture of a new ‘civic tech’ platform – the People’s Plan – to open the debate and good old fashioned meetings. We’d love to know what you think.

The full Bill of Data Rights Schedule presented in the Data Protection Bill committee can be found on the People’s Plan here.