Twice in the past week, the UK government has passed legislation despite overwhelming concerns from the technology community.
The Digital Economy Bill – a mostly sensible attempt to update laws around the digital economy – was waved through the House of Commons in the face of warnings from privacy experts about the data sharing aspects of the bill. The House of Lords now faces the challenge of tackling those concerns.
In both cases, the new legislation is an attempt to apply 20th century, industrial-era constraints to the emerging digital world. There is a very real risk that both – or either – could instead hinder the progress of the UK’s tech sector by anchoring it in politics that cannot keep up with digital change.
Privacy experts described the data sharing proposals as applying concepts developed for paper documents to digital information – as if data that needs to be shared has to be “photocopied”, creating a new version for whoever needs it. There was no understanding of simple concepts such as distributed databases or application programming interfaces (APIs), which would avoid duplication, enhance privacy, and improve security.
The new surveillance laws include clauses that could allow the government to force communications companies to break encryption or allow backdoor access to their products. All it will take is one example of a UK tech company being forced to fulfil such a provision, and nobody will ever trust a product developed by a UK supplier again. Some US companies have already suffered from similar issues with US laws.
Separately, health secretary Jeremy Hunt was pilloried by the tech community this week after suggesting that technology companies should take responsibility for preventing children accessing online porn, or being victims of cyber-bullying. While well intentioned – nobody would disagree that social media firms, for example, have a role to play here – Hunt’s comments displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of how technology works, and perhaps more importantly, how people actually use that technology.
Increasingly our politicians are running to keep up with technology – and failing. Sadly, this is nothing new. The tech community has long complained about the lack of digital literacy among MPs. Nothing has changed, and most of those MPs have little incentive to do so.
It will take a generational shift in MPs, as they are replaced by younger, tech-savvy politicians, for the situation to improve. In the meantime, perhaps the tech community ought to take a different approach – instead of simply shouting from the sidelines (although don’t stop doing that), wouldn’t it be good to see IT experts getting actively involved in politics as well, maybe even becoming MPs themselves to take the lead.