Extramarital affairs and the National Business Awards

A campaign against an affairs website, and the company that hosts it, is open ground for Labour.

Next week, George Osborne will address the National Business Awards. Over a thousand commercial leaders -- described by David Cameron as the "best of British" -- will gather for a glittering ceremony in central London. But a group of Christian Socialists is fighting to get one company disqualified for facilitating what Ed Miliband might call "predatory" behaviour, of a sexual kind.

Global Personals helps companies set up their own dating sites. Nothing wrong with that, except that two of its many clients -- Marital Affair and, until recently, AffairsDating -- facilitate extramarital affairs for money. Type in your preference and relationship status to these sites, and they fix up what you want. According to one's slogan, "The grass is always greener" -- even if you have kids.

Jon Kuhrt, a Christian Socialist and Labour member, decided to take on this practice when his five-year-old son spotted one of Marital Affair's giant billboards and asked him what it was all about. He set up a Facebook group that attracted 4,000 members and encouraged religious groups to bombard the company with complaints.

Although the advert was withdrawn, direct campaigning against these sites gave them a boom of free publicity.

A far more strategic target was Global Personals. This is an independent company with separate management and no responsibility for marketing these affairs websites. But it does provide the software, technological support and hosting for such sites. If you want to make a payment to Marital Affair, it goes through Global Personals. It monitors all the site's activity and takes a share of the revenue.

When campaigners, now working under the Faithfulness Matters coalition, wrote to the judges of the National Business Awards to express concerns, Global Personals was less than impressed. It sent the New Statesman this statement:

It is not for Global Personals to be the arbiter of "good taste" or to bow down to unelected bodies who seek to threaten and interfere with lawful business in a democratic society. Indeed it would be wholly undemocratic for Global Personals to implement the wishes of a campaign group because it seeks to bully, by threats, its chosen "target" business.

By threatening behaviour, Global Personals says it is referring to campaigners' attempts to "bombard" the switchboard and "harass" staff. Activists calling and emailing the company insist that their messages have been entirely peaceful -- and have been ignored.

The debate raises interesting questions of liberty. It is not the state's place to outlaw companies for "immoral" behaviour, but that doesn't mean that a company should abandon all sense of ethics.

Campaigners say that as long as the company continues to operate Marital Affair, they will push for the disqualification of Global Personals from the awards to "send a message" to others. AffairsDating is no longer a concern, as it recently left the Global Personals platform.

As for the awards judges, they say they "interrogated" Global Personals's operations and introduced a new scoring band for "ethics" in response to campaigners' demands. Nice, although one has to wonder why they didn't think of this earlier.

Meanwhile the campaigners under the Faithfulness Matters coalition still have a couple more cards to play. They are contacting other companies that use the Global Personals platform -- which include NatMag/Hearst Magazines, the publisher behind You and Your Wedding, and Bauer Media, which oversees Askamum and Mother and Baby -- to ask what they think. Ouch.

Campaigners also plan to start targeting George Osborne. It's a clever move, because it goes right to the heart of the liberal/conservative split in the Conservative Party. Critics such as Ed West of the Telegraph have already spoken out against fellow members for failing to take on business practices like this, arguing that it cedes ground to Labour.

As ever on the left, there is some suspicion of any campaign led by religious groups, particularly one that pursues "conservative" values. But, with its explicit emphasis on "committed relationships", this campaign is about more than protecting marriage. (Activists would be wise to change their heterosexual logo, however, even if the sites are targeted at straight couples.)

Nor are they fighting against dating -- campaigners are keen to stress their approval of 99 per cent of Global Personals's business partners. They're not even criticising infidelity. They are simply fighting the practice of making money out of businesses that promote extramarital affairs. At its heart, it is an anti-consumerist campaign against the commodification of relationships.

This is open ground for Labour to capture. Like Ed Miliband's narrative about "predatory" business behaviour and like the "small c" conservative values of Blue Labour, it puts the Tories on the back foot. It also raises interesting questions about a potential revival of the Christian Socialist movement within the party. Global Personals won't be the only one watching this space.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital