Now that the digital tech industry is growing up it should not be shy of being held to account

Two-thirds of people feel government has a role to play in making sure technology companies treat us fairly

Rachel Coldicutt
Thursday 22 February 2018 09:26
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Education is vital to building the public’s digital understanding
Education is vital to building the public’s digital understanding

The internet is the defining technology of our age. Like electricity or water, it’s become a utility – an essential background to our daily lives.

We love our gadgets and apps, our glossy glass screens. But we worry about them, too. What am I really signing up to? How much screen time is too much? Why can’t anyone make these companies pay their taxes?

Until now, questions like these have mostly been asked quietly. But new research from Doteveryone shows that many people in Britain feel a deep ambivalence about the technology they use and the impact it has on the world.

People are concerned, for example, that the web services that give them huge personal convenience are also detrimental to society at large. They don’t want digital technologies to create disruption if it occurs at the expense of communities and social structures. And they feel that the pace of technological change is happening beyond their control.

It’s perhaps no surprise that our report found that the worse off people are, the less comfortable they are with disruptive technologies. For example, we asked if people would support an online retailer giving free delivery to disadvantaged families if local shops suffered as a consequence. Over two thirds said this would be unacceptable – but those on lower incomes were the least likely to approve.

It’s crucial that everyone – government, tech companies, and civil society – mobilise to make our future digital society one in which people have real agency, control, and confidence around the way they interact with technology.

This will require education to build the public’s digital understanding. But it will also demand greater clarity from tech firms on how they work. What are their revenue sources? Can voluminous terms and conditions be simplified? What, in plain English, are they doing with our data?

Perhaps most contentiously, it is time for a serious discussion on regulation of web services. This is a complicated area – Britain has so far agreed to the libertarian Silicon Valley view of regulation – but it’s not a conversation we should be scared of having.

From our research, we know that more than two-thirds of people feel that government has a role to play in making sure technology companies treat us fairly. Regulation is not the opposite of innovation: it is a sign that digital technologies are here to stay.

The technology industry is growing up; it’s no longer the disruptive younger sibling, but a mature industry that affects every part of modern life. So as a society and as individuals we need to know there are standards that can be upheld, and that there is somewhere to turn to when things go wrong, without having to navigate impenetrable bureaucracy or ad hoc corporate standards.

Government capacity and traditional regulators cannot change at the speed of technology, so we need to think differently. An independent body which could direct the public towards the help they need and make sure they get real accountability would be a step in the right direction.

Technology is not a panacea, but we are in a moment where it’s often touted as the solution for every problem. Much of this is because tech is easy to use and easy to love – simple as turning on the tap or flicking a switch.

Most of us can’t imagine how technology will affect our lives in five years’ time, let alone for the next generation. But we do have a responsibility to ensure that innovation doesn’t mean leaving people behind.

By building Britain’s digital understanding, by clarifying how the tech sector operates, and by rebalancing power between industry and people, we can help make sure thoughtful, responsible technology makes our society a genuinely better place.

Rachel Coldicutt is Chief Executive of Doteveryone

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