Why the UK shouldn't be afraid of regulating bigtech

Syndicated in The Sunday Telegraph

London’s tech-friendly mayor last week turned up at South by Southwest, the annual celebration of new technologies in Austin, Texas, with some party-pooping words for the big platforms.

This year Sadiq Khan became the first British politician to make a speech at the conference, revealing the extent to which he had been racially abused on Twitter and criticising policymakers for a dereliction of duty.

Khan claims that politicians have failed to regulate and steer the technological revolution so that it benefits everybody. His message is all too familiar to anyone who has followed the recent “techlash”.

These days the anti-tech rhetoric seems to come thick and fast. Recently the European Commission published its latest report on the threat of “disinformation”, a term that encompasses everything from fake news to online manipulation.

Chancellor Philip Hammond outlined a consultation in the Spring Statement which could see online firms taxed more "appropriately". The UK Chancellor said last week he was consulting on taxing big tech companies more “appropriately” and even Sir Tim Berners-Lee, one of the founders of the web, has published a letter revealing his concern that it is being “compressed” by the few dominant platforms. Calls for better regulation are not going to evaporate.

Meanwhile, other nations have already moved more swiftly than the UK to regulate private internet companies. Last year Germany brought in regulation to fine technology firms for not dealing with hate speech quickly enough.

Tough restrictions on freedom of speech on online platforms would sit uneasily in the UK, which has a proud history of free enterprise, technological innovation and open public forums. Yet without greater regulation, the current techlash is just the start.

Before people get seriously irritated by the way machines and algorithms control their lives we need to work out just what it is we want from these technologies. Regulation to both inspire innovation and protect citizens is required.

Fortunately for the UK, this is an area in which we already excel. Our fast-growing fintech sector provides a great example of regulation that nurtures, rather than stifles.

The UK Government has been a creative and adaptive regulator of tech in the financial services sector. It has worked with industry leaders, technology evangelists and regulatory bodies to build an accessible and evolving regulatory system.

Collaboration, investigation and partnership are the way forward. Organisations like the Financial Conduct Authority run innovation programmes and have launched a “sandbox”, where new companies can run small tests to see whether their product has potential, while staying within consumer protections.

This proactive approach has resulted in open banking standards, a genuine step along the road to improving consumer experiences. Contrast this with the US, where outmoded regulation persists and powerful industry lobbies make innovation difficult.

Fintech isn’t the only sector where our regulation of new technology stands out. The connected and autonomous vehicles programme awards grants to joint partnerships experimenting in self-driving cars.

When it comes to an even greater challenge – artificial intelligence – the UK is also establishing the Centre for Data Ethics & Innovation, which will provide insights into how the state can use this new technology to improve public services and the economy in a fair and ethical way.

As Khan said in Texas, tech innovation is something that should serve us all. Tough regulation is not to be feared and it should help make private companies better at what they do. Now is the right time to take a tough line, before the techlash becomes an uprising.

If that happens, our opportunity to harness tech for good will slip away and we may find the rest of the world has left us behind.