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How does Britain build a “good” digital society?

The tech sector needs guidance, not laissez-faire governance.

By Spotlight

In a society where work, socialising and public services are integrated into online spaces, the need to ensure that everyone has access to the digital world is ever urgent. Large parts of the population – especially those on low incomes, people over 65 and disabled people – are at risk of being left behind, as emerging technologies like AI and robotics look set to play a greater role in our lives and interactions with the state.

That society is now digital cannot be changed. But how can policymakers ensure that our digital world is a beneficial one? What does “good” look like? Spotlight asked the government, the opposition and an academic expert to give their view of how Britain can build the “good” digital society.

“The benefits of connectivity must extend to all – especially young people” – Michelle Donelan and Chloe Smith

Consider the wealth of innovation we are seeing in the NHS today through digital technology: from telemedicine helping patients receive quality care in the comfort of their homes, to AI improving diagnostics and treatments for diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s. Whether it’s with surgical robots or virtual GP appointments, medtech is driving delivery of the PM’s pledge to cut waiting lists, while helping people live longer, healthier lives. And we want to see that same spirit of innovation applied to all our public services. 

To build that thriving digital society, we need healthy competition so smaller start-ups have the space to innovate and get new services and products to market. Our Digital Markets Competition and Consumers Bill is making that vision a reality. It will ensure businesses relying on the biggest tech firms aren’t strong-armed with restrictive contracts.

We must also ensure that reliable, high-speed internet is available to everyone when they need it, where they need it. We have made real strides towards this goal with 75 per cent of the UK now covered by gigabit-capable broadband. Almost 80 per cent of the country is covered by 5G, and we have just appointed a new rural connectivity champion – Simon Fell – to work with us on hitting nationwide coverage as soon as we can. 

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Tech must be accessible in its development and in its deployment, and the benefits of connectivity must extend to all – especially young people using the internet to learn, study and connect. 

Alongside those freedoms, we must afford people safety, security and privacy. Our Online Safety Bill will force social media companies to up their game on removing illegal material and stopping children from seeing harmful content. And our approach to AI regulation will ensure that the right guardrails are in place to encourage safe, responsible innovation. 

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A good digital society is one in which technology works for us, and not against us, in creating a safer, happier, healthier country. That’s what our department is trying to achieve.

Michelle Donelan and Chloe Smith are Secretaries of of State for Science, Innovation and Technology.

[See also: Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen: “I wouldn’t wish Mark Zuckerberg’s life on anyone”]

“The government has let tech disruptions run amok, rather than harnessing them for good” Lucy Powell

The digital revolution is radically altering the way we live, work and play. Now the rapid development of AI brings this age of change into profound focus. 

Digital technology has opened up huge and exciting possibilities, connecting people across continents, widening job and education opportunities, and offering new markets for businesses. It also has the power to transform healthcare, scientific discovery and productivity. With the right approach we can grow the economy, transform public services and open up opportunity. 

But for too long the government has stood on the sidelines, letting tech disruptions run amok rather than shaping and harnessing them for the common good. We’ve seen huge increases in online scams, children vulnerable to predators online, bricks and mortar businesses squashed by huge online competitors, and now workers at the mercy of decisions made by machines without any recourse. 

The key question facing those of us ambitious for a good digital society is who will benefit from the disruption? Will it leave some behind, or can it help build a society where everyone is included and inequalities are narrowed not widened?

Labour is ambitious for the future. To build a digital society and economy that works for everyone we must get the foundations right. That means action to ensure families and firms can access digital infrastructure; that people have the skills to engage, with affordable broadband for those on low incomes; and a government that uses digital applications to improve public services. It also means an active industrial strategy that has data and digital at its heart, unlocking productivity with responsible regulation that drives innovation and growth. 

Labour will be an active government working with business, civil society, workers and our public services to use digital and tech advances to deliver for the common good, ensuring the right guardrails and protections are in place, while making the UK the country of choice for tech investment.

Lucy Powell is Shadow Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

“There is no consensus on what ‘good’ means” Helen Kennedy

From algorithms introducing bias under the guise of fairness to policies designed to make social media safer that do the opposite, well-intentioned technologies can end up doing harm. 

Because digital technologies are not always good for societies, we need to “imagine and craft the worlds we cannot live without”, as the US sociologist Ruha Benjamin says. To limit future harms, we need to think about how to build a good digital society. 

But that simple word, good, is surprisingly complex. There’s no consensus on what it means. To understand it, we could draw on philosophical ideas. Or we could follow the guidance of computing ethicists on what should and should not be built. Or we could take account of ordinary people’s understandings of whether, how and for whom digital technologies are good (something that too rarely happens). Ideally, we would do all of these things, because bridging these differences is essential for advancing the good digital society. 

Bridging differences is not straightforward. What a good digital society looks like is complicated. And it’s also political. If my politics aren’t the same as yours, then my good digital society might not be yours. Seeking a good digital society will involve hashing out our differences, standing up for our vision, disagreeing with each other, facing impasses. 

But this is better than oversimplifying the challenge. 

On the Digital Good Network, we believe that addressing the following challenges is crucial: 1) sustainability, because our current digital technology use has serious environmental effects; 2) resilience, because digital innovations can play a role in providing support and infrastructure for individual and collective well-being; 3) equity, because of the myriad examples of interconnections between the digital world, access, and inequality. 

Because these are major challenges, maybe we won’t arrive at a good digital society, but as web accessibility advocates say, it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

Helen Kennedy is a professor of digital society at the University of Sheffield.

This piece first appeared in a Party Policy special Spotlight print issue. Read it here.

[See also: When the internet goes dark]