Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Spotlight
28 January 2022

Now is the time to make sure technology benefits the whole of society

Governments need to wake up to the fact that the responsibility for using tech rests with them.

By Robert Buckland and Ben Jafari

In his last interview, the great American scientist Carl Sagan alerted us to the fact “we’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology”. “This combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later,” he prophesised, “is going to blow up in our faces.” He later posed the question: “Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?” Twenty-five years on, his questions are even more relevant. 

Despite a dramatic acceleration in the use of technology over the past year and a half, governments are still incredibly slow to deal with concerns around artificial intelligence (AI) and are still failing to get a grip on regulation. This lack of regulation means that big digital megaliths, the likes of Google and Facebook, are able to operate almost as non-state actors, above the level of government, frequently accused of utilising some very questionable practices, while consumers are increasingly anxious about their privacy and the way in which their data is used. When you combine all of this with a lack of basic scientific understanding, it not only fuels scepticism towards technology, but is now manifesting itself in horrifying trends such as anti-vaccination movements.

Thankfully, the UK government is finally beginning to act. After launching National AI and National Data strategies, it is now working to enhance transparency around how it uses algorithms and has begun issuing guidance to public sector organisations on how they should interact with AI. However, there is still much more to do and many of these problems need global solutions. We shouldn’t be frightened of this, and instead view it as a great opportunity. If Britain really wants to establish itself as an AI superpower, it can do this by leading the way internationally and working collaboratively with other governments and organisations to regulate and set standards via an international treaty. 

Technology can and should always bring more benefits than it does problems, but governments need to wake up to the fact that the responsibility for using it rests with them. Introducing democratic standards will mean that we can allow for all the benefits AI brings and will continue to bring, as well as building public confidence in technology too. These standards do not need to stifle creativity and limit technology’s ability to provide solutions to everyday problems, but they can protect people’s interests and livelihoods. Even Adam Smith, in his 18th century definition of the free market, envisaged its boundaries and limitations. 

As users become more aware of their privacy, the market will obviously see an increasing number of organisations that aim to protect users’ data, but this may not be enough, and it may not happen quickly enough. In today’s world, governments have new ways of controlling their populations, more incidents of online harms are being reported (highlighted by the terrible ordeals MP Siobhan Baillie and others have had to endure), and cryptocurrency is traded freely without a proper legal framework. This is why we must act now to determine how technology impacts on the rule of law and how we should regulate it.  

In this context, collaborative solutions that aim to strengthen our rights to privacy become hugely important. Article 8 rights on privacy in the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation both play important parts, perhaps even reinvigorating the need for these institutions in the modern world, but we still need a bigger, more global framework. An international treaty can help prevent large corporations willing to abuse the system from doing so, while those with good intentions will be able to flourish. If we allow ourselves to lead the way, the government can not only deliver on its promises, but propel our international standing. 

Robert Buckland is the MP for South Swindon and former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary

Content from our partners
Harnessing breakthrough thinking
Are we there yet with electric cars? The EV story – with Wejo
Sherif Tawfik: The Middle East and Africa are ready to lead on the climate

Ben Jafari is a former special adviser at the Ministry of Justice

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Topics in this article :