In my last post I urged the Lib Dems to think beyond Brexit. I suggested that the party should develop radical new ideas on the politics of information and technology, following a recent essay by Paddy Ashdown. But that was all very abstract. What does this actually mean?
Information and technology are throwing up difficult issues that affect practically everything. And yet liberal politicians seem to be in various stages of denial – and that may let more sinister forces make the running. Let me touch on just four issues to illustrate my point: fighting crime; cyber security; making the NHS more efficient; and tackling the cyber monopolists.
According to popular myth, crime is always getting worse. Statistically that looks like nonsense (except cyber crime, which I will come to) – but the nature of threat is changing, and a lot of people worry about it. Top of the list is terrorism, and especially Islamic extremist terrorists. Increasingly police forces are using information technology to fight these crimes. And these largely depend on gathering banks of data (DNA profiles, mug shots, video camera footage, email records, and so on) in order to identify criminals and terrorists. Liberals, fairly consistently push back. But it is far from clear that the public is against this banking of data. It looks like a good way of stopping the bad guys.
I am sure that the liberal position on this needs to be rethought. Society has changed, including attitudes to privacy, and old-fashioned techniques for fighting crime are losing effectiveness. But the threats of excessive state power are real enough. False positives happen, and that can lead to a quagmire of circular investigation procedures with nobody taking responsibility, and a potentially permanent stain on reputation, all for a completely random cause. Perhaps it is better to reform the management and oversight of security services so that false positives can be dismissed rapidly, rather than throwing sand into the wheels of justice? That’s a half-baked idea – but by simply pushing back and dismissing the danger, liberals are in danger of losing the argument. And if that happens the advocates of unchecked state control will win out.
Cyber crime is definitely growing, and we struggle even to recognise it. It seems to be invisible in the crime statistics. We don’t bother to report the attempts to defraud us that come to our email inboxes and telephones daily. Further, we depend increasingly on online databases, and yet there are sophisticated hackers out there who often get ahead of those charged with data security. Can we leave it to the market to keep up with the hackers and ensure our security? Or shouldn’t the state be more involved in establishing data standards that will make life much harder for criminals? I hear no politicians, liberal or otherwise, who want to talk about this except the odd injunction that “somebody must do something”. But action for action’s sake will simply lead to regulators making life harder for the innocent while doing little to tackle the real criminals. And we can’t rely on state agencies to protect liberal values while dealing with the problem either – their solution is always to appropriate more arbitrary power to themselves. Liberals must get involved.
For a different angle, consider Britain’s National Health Service. The NHS is chronically inefficient. Large organisations are best dealing with simple problems; our health is infinitely complex. One aspect of this inefficiency is record-keeping. Our health records are fragmented, adding to medical risks and causing delays to treatment. And we can’t check whether patients are entitled to treatment without making everybody feel like foreigners in their own land. Technical solutions to this depend on creating a single central NHS file for everybody from birth. There have been attempts to develop this, but, quite apart from the difficulties that afflict all ambitious IT projects, there is a big problem. This central record will contain highly personal and confidential data. How on earth to stop it being stolen? If it is voluntary it will lose much of its power. We are back to the problem of hacking. Once again liberals shout about protecting privacy and individual choice without coming forward with constructive solutions. And the NHS is collapsing under the strain.
Another feature of the 21st Century world is the enormous power of a small group of businesses who are able to harness network effects to create a virtual monopoly. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon spring to mind immediately. Apart from Amazon, these businesses are starting to pile up enormous profits. And yet they are also innovative and constantly improving their offering – so unlike classic monopolies, especially state-owned ones. What should governments do? On the one hand excessive power is accumulating to people who are not properly accountable tot he public. On the other hand most types of intervention risk reducing the benefits of modern technology available to ordinary people. Liberals need a new angle on the problem.
And I could go on. Fake news; tax avoidance and evasion; automation and the destruction of stable, secure jobs for the majority. All these are 21st Century problems to which liberals have few new ideas. And there are opportunities too. Technology has the possibility to abolish poverty and allow everybody to achieve a more fulfilling life. It is very interesting that Germany’s Free Democrats (see the the FDP minimanifesto for the current general election) have chosen the more optimistic gloss. This party has rebranded itself, based on the idea that politics need to be rethought in the modern information age. Whether they are targeting the right things is another matter – to some it may simply look like re-badged neoliberalism. But keeping the message positive is probably the right tactic.
The liberal agenda should be an enabling one. We want people to benefit from the many things technology and information-sharing can offer. But we need to give individuals more control. And we need to prevent the state growing into something that suppresses freedom and democracy in the name of security – as is happening in China, Turkey and Russia, to name but three. Neither do we want the world turned into an open market for abuse and bullying, in the manner promoted by Breitbart News. Sinister forces will prevail unless liberals start to make the running.
This will need fresh thinking. Some newer technological developments – blockchains for example – may offer answers. But it will not be easy – there will be trade-offs. Privacy against security, for example. We need the intellectual framework to manage these trade-offs.
I will try to practice what I am preaching. I am not especially well-qualified to deal with the politics of information, but I will give it a try. I don’t know where this journey will end, but I hope to provoke further thought and discussion amongst my readers.