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22 March 2018updated 31 Jul 2023 4:48pm

The sad thing about the Cambridge Analytica story? It’s not surprising

That Facebook data was harnessed to influence elections shows why I’ve been calling for data protection reforms since 2012.

By Chi Onwurah

“Move along, nothing to see here, it’s been happening forever, you’re just upset Trump won, stop politicising the internet.” That has been the response of a significant proportion of the tech community to revelations regarding Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to target the public with ads in political campaigns.

Let me put it this way – Cambridge Analytica is the Harvey Weinstein of tech, denying any illegality whilst incarnating a widespread culture of exploitation and abuse. The difference is that tech is proving, once again, that it is much worse than the creative sector in responding to a crisis of confidence. And also that government has failed to put in place the legal framework that would have required it to do so. Or better still, protected British citizens in the first place.

Normally I feel it is counterproductive to say  “I told you so”… But I did. Again. And again. And again.  And not just me. Academics, journalists, even businesses. We have all been sounding the warning bell for years. This truly is the Chronicle of a Death Foretold. And the death here is the public trust in the shiny Brave New Tech World.

It did not have to be this way. In 2002 the then Labour Government saw the growth of new communications technologies and undertook a comprehensive, forward looking review of  the issues they raised. The result was the 2003 Communications Act and a new regulator, Ofcom, with the powers to ensure these issues were resolved in the public interest. That regulatory framework was given a ten year life span – I know because I was Head of Technology at Ofcom before entering Parliament.

In 2012, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition saw the growth of social media and big data and did – absolutely nothing. The 2012 Review of Data may be the most important review we never had.

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This lack of understanding and regulation for tech giants such as Google and Facebook  brings to mind another sector and another crisis. Governments from all parties repeatedly failed to put in place a rigorous regulatory regime for the finance sector prior to the 2007 crash. The Tories have expanded an infatuation with the money-makers into an infatuation with the code-makers  and the consequences for our economy may be just as dire.

We have a government which does not grasps the risks of today’s technology at the same time as  new technologies are growing in importance. The Internet of Things is connecting everything from our cars to our coffee machines with the number of connected devices worldwide predicted to reach 75 billion by 2020.  After ignoring concerns for years, the Government did get  round to reviewing the security implications of the IoT but Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Matt Hancock’s answer appears to be ‘leave it to the market’.

Similarly, Artificial Intelligence is a growing force in industry and society – lauded by Theresa May at Davos as ‘fundamental to the advance of humanity’. But as long as the Government resists every attempt by Labour to put technological power back into the hands of people or small businesses AI will further the interest of the few. Lacking in both Theresa May’s Davos speech and her industrial strategy was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on.

Today I finally managed to wring agreement from Matt Hancock that a ‘new settlement with the tech giants’ was required. My colleague  Liam Byrne, Shadow Digital Minister, will be holding him to account on that as the Data Protection Bill is debated next week.

Cambridge Analytica is the Harvey Weinstein of tech. It could change the tech sector for the better. Or it could be fast forgotten as the vested interests take hold. At the beginning of last year I called for 2017 to be the year that we made crucial changes to the Internet economy. 2018 needs to be the year we get a government capable of making that happen.

This article was amended on 23 March 2018 to remove a suggestion that smart meters are compulsory. 

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