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Tom Watson

MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

Tom Watson: we cannot be held hostage by data monopolists

This is an edited version of a speech Tom Watson delivered at an event organised by Progressive Centre UK on Wednesday 6 February. 

The BBC recently revealed that I was the first person to use the phrase “social media” in the House of Commons. That was back in 2008, when the world looked very different. It was the year Android was launched, the year a new music streaming app called Spotify was released, and the year Myspace was overtaken by Facebook.

I was among those that saw the internet as a great democratising force in our politics. In 2008, like many people, I looked forward to a tech utopia. But more than a decade on, we find ourselves in a digital dystopia.

Parts of the internet have become havens for harmful content and hate speech. Competition has been replaced by corporate power. Google has bought more than 200 business since 2000. Facebook has bought at least 69 businesses since 2007.

And those who understand how to use the power of the internet to mine data, manipulate political views, and even undermine democracies seem to be on the rise, as seen in the case of Cambridge Analytica.

It’s easy to look back and think ourselves naive. But things did not have to end up this way. And they do not have to stay this way.

Technology responds to the desires of its users, the structure of its market, and to the limits of the law. These things can all be changed – if we have the will to change them.

So – what can be done?

I see three phases to this process:

One – Deal with harms, hate and fake news with an enforceable Duty of Care.

Two –  Fix a distorted online market caused by data monopolists and tech acquisitions. This requires a regulator to stop the lobbyists and lawyers jumping through the cracks in law and the gaps in our knowledge.

Three – Encourage and shape a digital public sphere where citizens can absorb credible news and information safe in the knowledge they will not be surveilled when they do.

Underpinning all three is a Duty of Care for technology companies that have a broad social impact. The harms caused online need to be seen and treated as a public health concern. They must be transparent about risks and take reasonable measures to address them, according to rules laid down by a regulator and monitored by regular audits.

This is how we handle other industries that offer great public benefit but also carry risks if left without oversight, from broadcasting to healthcare.

Technology markets cannot be exempt.

Firstly, I’ll address those immediate concerns about harms caused to our citizens and our democracy by the abuse of digital platforms. The rise in disinformation shows that the technologies underpinning the digital economy are too easily turned against us.

That’s why we will introduce a set of Digital Democracy Guarantees: Tech companies must confirm that all online political advertisers targeting UK citizens are physically located in our country. 

All automated accounts on digital platforms should be clearly labelled.

Political advertising will be made more transparent, so consumers can know who placed the advert they are seeing, and understand the broad demographic criteria by which they were targeted.

And we need to establish improved online and media awareness across our education system. Labour would also establish a new legal duty to remove illegal content, like hate speech, with a judge-led system of checks and balances. This will include fast-track appeals.

New regulation must also put the protection of children at the forefront. Labour will ensure that companies have a legal duty of care in the services they provide to children.

Under the GDPR companies, can be fined 4% of global turnover, or 20 million Euros, for data breaches. For the duty of care to be effective we need penalties that seriously affect companies’ bottom lines.

By now the whole country knows the tragic story of Molly Russell. And very sadly, Molly’s family is not alone. Their tragedy is a consequence of an industry that too often chooses to profit from children, rather than protect them.

It seems to me that the whole of the tech industry has forgotten that children are still children, online or off. Beyond these immediate changes, achieving long term progress means addressing the structural issues of the digital market.

At the centre of this crisis is an imbalance of power created by data monopolies and a distorted market. Each year, businesses make billions by extracting and monetising personal data from each and every one of us. And yes, they offer us a service in return, but only worth a fraction of the fortune they gain.

This is Surveillance Capitalism. Empowering people to challenge these unethical powerful interests goes to the very heart of a Labour movement born from our trades unions. We will use the tools of Government to shape the digital market and a new social contract fit for the digital age. Users need more control over their personal data through a Digital Bill of Rights.

Industry must reduce the barriers for moving between platforms. Customers should benefit from the value of the data they provide. As well as knowing when our data is traded, we should know when and how our data is subject to automated decisions; and when it’s used to affect the price they are being offered for goods or services.

Of equal importance is the power dynamic between the companies themselves. Competition restrictions and oversight should be modernised to match the digital market. Future competition reviews should consider whether companies are acquiring data and patents that enable monopolisation.

The scale of the largest companies is rightly the subject of scrutiny. We should take seriously the calls to break them up if it is in the public interest. I don’t subscribe to the argument that they’re global companies that can’t be touched.

It’s certainly true that we have to work within existing international structures to regulate monopolies. But these companies also exist within UK markets, and are subject to UK law including competition regulation.

This new social contract would change market structures so industry is incentivised to share more of its many benefits. With that guiding principle, we can begin to build a digital public sphere.

This would be an online space that supports civil society, where people can feel safe, where people won’t be surveilled. Jeremy Corbyn addressed these issues head-on last summer, when he spoke about building a free and democratic media for the digital age.

And he’s right that without radical thinking, our public spaces and debates will be taken up by unaccountable tech giants and trust in the media will further suffer.

So we need to be bold and ambitious in a changing media landscape.

One area that a digital public sphere can support is quality journalism that holds the powerful to account. The digital economy has displaced much of traditional journalism. 136 local and regional papers have closed in just six years. And there are 6,000 fewer full-time positions in the industry than in 2007.

A digital public sphere will provide a space for journalism in the public interest. We could give charitable status to some local, investigative and public interest journalism, allowing outlets to use grants, donations, and tax exemptions to fund the brilliant work they do.

As a society we stand at an inflection point. We cannot be held hostage to a marketplace of data monopolists who extract far more than they return, and whose business model undermines the integrity of our democracy.

Social justice and the public interest must be built into our market structures. We need: more protection from those that wish to do us harm; more choice and control over our own lives online; and more opportunities to benefit from the wonders technology has to offer.

That is the mark of a fair society that only Labour can deliver. And if we get this right, the results could be spectacular.

Tom Watson is the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Author headshot credit: Tom Oxley