Politicians love to make sweeping statements about the pace of technological development, or how we live in an age of unprecedented digital progress.
They frequently invoke the promise of hyper-fast broadband, autonomous vehicles and the digital economy, but rarely go into detail about what it all means for people’s lives. I want to go beyond the vague clichés, and focus on the role the Liberal Democrats see for government amidst all this change.
First and foremost, the government must strengthen our infrastructure and make it fit for the future. If we are to benefit fully from technological innovation, we need to put the right foundations in place. That means increasing broadband and mobile coverage, which in too many places remains slow, patchy or even non-existent.
It also means protecting our businesses and public services from cyber attacks, such as the ransomware attack that crippled our NHS. We need to improve our security and intelligence services’ capability to counter these threats, and properly fund the NHS so it can keep its IT systems up to date.
Instead, the Conservative government has cut support for cyber security, wants to weaken encryption in the name of surveillance, and now threatens to undermine international cooperation in the fight against cyber crime by pulling us out of Europol.
Second, the government needs to make sure the benefits of innovation are available to all, and especially to those who need them the most. For example, we must harness the power of autonomous vehicles not just to reduce traffic and transport goods, but also to give greater independence to the isolated, older people who can no longer drive themselves.
Similarly, we must ensure those without computers or IT skills are not excluded from receiving vital public services. Making government “digital by default” is a Liberal Democrat priority: it can make systems faster, easier and more efficient. But those without access to a computer, or who cannot navigate government websites, must not be cut off from these services.
Read more about the general election
- The Labour Party’s 2017 election manifesto highlights better use of technology, maintaining data protection, and a £250bn investment in infrastructure.
- While nobody will decide their vote based on a party’s digital policies this general election, the imminent poll will raise important questions that affect the tech community.
Third, when new technologies come online, they have a way of disrupting other industries. People lose jobs as a result of automation – not always, but often. We don’t believe this is a reason to impede technological innovation, but it’s certainly true that successive governments haven’t done enough to ensure that the transition for those losing out isn’t too difficult.
In fact, much of the push-back against globalisation today is a consequence of the failure of governments around the world to appropriately address the negative aspects of rapid technological change.
The information age also raises big questions around privacy and control. The Liberal Democrats are standing up for civil liberties and fighting to protect your data online. We blocked Theresa May’s “Snoopers’ Charter” in coalition, and opposed it again last year, when Conservative and Labour MPs together passed it into law. Our manifesto commits to rolling back this expansion of state surveillance and ending the mass collection of communications data.
In conclusion, the Liberal Democrat approach to digital – and indeed all technology – is straightforward. We believe the government should facilitate technological progress and bring our systems and infrastructure up to date. We must also make sure the benefits are felt as widely as possible, and that the negative consequences are mitigated.
With their failure to invest in infrastructure, undermining of cyber security and pursuit of ever-more draconian surveillance powers, the Conservative government is taking the country in the wrong direction. Only the Liberal Democrats can provide an effective opposition and change Britain’s future.
Susan Kramer is the Liberal Democrats’ shadow business secretary and the party’s business spokesperson.