BEN STANSALL,DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS,TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images
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Elliot Jones

Researcher at Demos

Where do the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats stand on tech?

Overall, there is consensus between the parties in some areas of tech policy, like the need for unilateral taxation of large tech companies, some level of adult education to combat automation, more investment in cybersecurity, and wider high-speed internet access. But all the parties shy away from some uncomfortable issues. 5G and Huawei; what to do about digital identity and the Verify programme; and the subject of autonomous weapons are all absent from manifestos.

The Liberal Democrats want to take a soft-touch approach to regulating tech, leaning towards consumer protection, ethics, privacy and transparency. The Liberal Democrats also have the most detailed proposals on technology, which perhaps comes as no surprise given that Jo Swinson was leading their Tech Commission until she became leader. 

Labour is, as across the manifesto, outspending the other parties on connectivity and skills, with a focus on workers in any automation transition. They also aren’t afraid to tackle tech companies head-on, either on system-level approaches inherent in their approach to online harms, or in the use of technology in the NHS, particularly the value of NHS data.

The Conservatives have put AI and data at the forefront during government as one of their four grand challenges. Across the manifesto, it seems like they still see much of tech as primarily as an engine of growth to be championed and as a useful security tool. Here, they’ve promised investment in innovation, are the strongest on the use of AI and digital technology in policing, and want a more content-based approach to online harms.

Connectivity

Broadband has become the hottest tech topic so far in the election. Labour put the issue at the top of the agenda by promising to nationalise Openreach, roll out full-fibre broadband to the entire country, and provide universal free internet access by 2030, all under the banner of British Broadband.

The Conservatives are also promising a full-fibre roll-out to every home and business by 2025, with £5bn to connect areas that are not commercially viable but primarily rely on private schemes to come through.

The Liberal Democrats have the most modest offer, promising all households and businesses access to “super-fast” broadband, with £2bn in support for local authority and community-led projects. Further, all new homes from 2022 will need to have “ultra-fast” broadband and SMEs will be prioritised in the roll-out of “hyper-fast” broadband. While super and ultra-fast sound hyperbolic, they refer to specific thresholds and crucially neither are full-fibre, so their plans are less ambitious or at least lack a concrete commitment to full-fibre.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have promised to ensure greater mobile coverage. However it is notable that none of the parties mentions 5G directly, despite ongoing security concerns around the use of Huawei masts and a decision on whether Huawei should be allowed into the UK’s 5G network infrastructure having been postponed due to the election.

Security

Still, all the parties view cyber security as an important issue, all promising to invest in cyber security, though none attaching specific funding. Labour has the most in-depth proposal, wanting to create a co-ordinating cybersecurity minister and review the role of the National Cyber Security Centre to determine whether it should be given powers as an auditing body, with the ability to issue warnings and designate risk.

All three also promise to empower the police to deal with internet-enabled crime, which has become a serious problem in recent years. Labour by empowering the National Crime Agency, the Liberal Democrats by creating a new Online Crime Agency, and the Conservatives with a new national cybercrime force. Labour and the Conservatives also want to upgrade police technology, with the Conservatives particularly highlighting police use of AI. 

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats want to immediately halt the use of facial recognition surveillance by the police and in fact want a citizens’ assembly on when it is appropriate for the government to use algorithms in decision-making. These are specific examples of a wider push from the Liberal Democrats for more ethical uses of algorithms and data.

Governance

The Liberal Democrats advocate a soft-touch consumer protection approach to governing AI and data use. They want a “Lovelace Code of Ethics”, to turn the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation into a regulator who will call in products that breach the code, and to require computing courses to include ethics and the Code. They also want a kitemark for companies that meet ethical standards in their development and use of AI.

Labour’s data protection commitments come bundled with the NHS, promising to ensure data protection for patient information. They see NHS data as a valuable publicly funded resource and want ensure NHS data is not exploited by international technology and pharmaceutical corporations. At the moment, companies like Deepmind have used NHS data to train their machine learning systems, that can then be fine-tuned and deployed elsewhere without compensating the NHS and under Labour the companies would likely have to pay a much higher price to use NHS data. Speaking of the NHS, both Labour and the Conservatives are promising to invest more in healthcare technology but lack a concrete funding commitment.

On the subject of data governance, the Liberal Democrats want tech companies’ algorithms available for close inspection by regulators and most importantly access for regulators to the programmers responsible for designing and operating them.

Further and more stringent technology regulation comes from both the Conservatives and Labour, who make clear nods to taking forward the Online Harms White Paper, though they diverge in their emphasis. Labour explicitly mentions enforcing a ‘legal duty of care’ suggesting they will keep the White Paper intact. Meanwhile Conservative proposals focus on online abuse and harmful content, suggesting they will take a more content-takedown focused approach perhaps similar to Germany’s NetzDG, which has proved controversial.

The Liberal Democrats don’t explicitly mention the Online Harms White Paper but their commitment to a ‘free flow of information’ in the internet and general soft-touch approach present in the rest of the manifesto suggests they’d be unlikely to champion the legislation in its current form. That isn’t to say the Liberal Democrats don’t have internet governance proposals. They want real-time transparency for political advertising, donations and spending, including an easily-searchable public database of all online political adverts and a review of election safeguarding legislation for the internet age.

Tax

None of the parties want to stop at just regulating either. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have committed to the Digital Services Tax, a tax on revenue from UK users of search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces. Labour don’t specifically mention it but they plan for taxation of multinationals including tech companies to pay for the operating costs of British Broadband, so they will probably also support a Digital Services Tax. 

It’s not all doom and gloom for big tech companies though. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats want to expand R&D tax credits to include investing in cloud computing and data, with the Conservatives also wanting to raise the rate to 13 per cent.

Automation

Instead, all the parties have policies for life-long learning and digital skills to deal with the challenge of workplace automation.

The Conservatives are promising a National Skills Fund worth £3bn for those returning to work or changing careers. The Liberal Democrats with ‘Skills Wallets’ giving every adult £10,000 to spend on education and training over the course of their life. Labour makes the biggest offer, giving everyone a free lifelong entitlement to training up to Level 3, e.g. A-levels, and 6 years training at Levels 4-6, e.g. up to undergraduate level, they would also have additional entitlements for workers in industries that are significantly affected by industrial transition.

Perhaps the most interesting proposal on tackling automation is Labour, who want to give workers a legal right to collective consultation on the implementation of new technology in workplaces. This fits into their wider view of worker democracy as a solution across their manifesto.

Elliot Jones is a researcher at the think-tank Demos. Follow him on Twitter @Elliot_M_Jones