Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the case for improved digital understanding at all levels of United Kingdom society.
My Lords, the last time I secured a debate in your Lordships’ Chamber, it was to mark the 25th anniversary of the world wide web. We marvelled at having Bach and da Vinci at our fingertips and celebrated 94 year-olds on social media. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, called the internet,
“the greatest transformative force in history bar none”.—[Official Report, 16/1/14; col. 403.]
However, even on that day we were cautious. I said that,
“we are sleepwalking into assuming that the platform underpinning so much of our daily life is not changing”.—[Official Report, 16/1/14; col. 396.]
I am sad to report that nearly all of us, including me, have spent too much of the past three years continuing to sleepwalk. If that debate was a birthday party, today’s must be a mid-life crisis.
We are in the midst of some major geopolitical shifts. The planet is hotter than it has been in 115,000 years. Populism has seen a worrying resurgence, both at home and abroad. Stagnating wages mean that young people are earning thousands less than generations before them. Alongside these, we are living through the staggering transformation brought by the internet. Technology is changing our world at a speed we have never seen before, a speed that I believe will now never be reversed. That is a challenge, but if we allow ourselves to awaken we can make it a source of tremendous opportunity: if we seize them, if we own them, we can harness the power of these technologies to address the other great challenges we face. I am calling today for digital understanding to be improved everywhere because I believe it is central to our ability to create better outcomes for people in the next century.
For as long as we have had the internet, we have had the internet’s promise. The internet promised us energised democracies and a world where all could speak to one another. In a way, it has fulfilled that promise: we can register to vote, petition the Government and support candidates who match our values with just a few keystrokes. But in addition to that, we have emotionally manipulative advertisements that target us based on our gender, our faith, and even our sexual preferences. The Vote Leave campaign last year spent 98% of its budget on digital adverts and boasted that the advantage of doing so was that it was so poorly scrutinised by the political media. Just this morning, as many noble Lords will have heard, Facebook revealed that many thousands of dollars of political ads were bought by Russian trolls during the US election, and I am sure there will be more revelations to come.
The internet promised us flexible, creative work that could be done anywhere. Again, it delivered: today we have the biggest tech industry in Europe, with 1.5 million people employed and £7 billion invested last year alone. However, alongside that we also have Amazon delivery drivers receiving as little as £3 an hour with no breaks, while CEO Jeff Bezos’s personal wealth surpasses $92 billion. Not a day goes by without headlines wrestling with the nature of artificial intelligence and how it will affect the world of work. Enormous and extraordinary leaps in quantum computing and machine learning somehow feel dislocated from the people who will inevitably be affected by the ways these innovations are deployed.
The internet promised us free access to the world’s information. We now live in a world where every single piece of art at the Tate has its own web page, but also one where fake news is an art form, slickly produced by anyone who wants to profit from our confusion. The internet promised access to new ways of learning and creativity for our children and in many ways, again, this has been true: learning has become democratised and more accessible, with everything from Khan Academy to the amazing BBC resources. But who in the early days of the web would have imagined the creation of Instagram and foreseen its damaging effects on young people’s self-esteem?
For a dotcom dinosaur like me, one of the most surprising developments is the domination of our experience of the internet by a handful of companies. Twenty years ago the rise of these so-called platform businesses was not anticipated. Now the flows of money, power and usage are controlled in a way far removed from the open, distributed, fragmented early years. We can point to these tech giants, the monopoly platforms, the wily political strategists who have shaped these phenomena, and try to blame them for all this, but the truth is that they only created some of the hollow vessels. We are the users.
Every time we use the internet, we leave a data trail of valuable information to be transformed into personalised and targeted advertising. That may be a tantalising holiday home in Europe for some of us, but for the poor and vulnerable it is likely to be a high-interest loan or a bad insurance deal. Every time we share some outrageous piece of invective or agitation, we encourage the creation of even more content which erodes the factual base of our public conversation. Every time we tap our phone to choose the convenience of a short ride home, we buy into the idea that it is okay for a driver to have no job security or holiday pay. To paraphrase John Lanchester recently in the London Review of Books, “We are the product”.
Now we are seeing the outcomes of these contributions. Expertise has been devalued and emotion reigns supreme. Take a look at the climate crisis. The internet has helped to drive the exponential increase in information, but the public’s ability to accept it has slid. YouTube videos with titles such as “What They Haven’t Told You About Climate Change” and “The Great Climate Change Hoax” have driven millions of views. Is it any wonder that in the UK, Australia, Germany, Canada and the US the average partisan divide over the climate crisis is now 40 points?
We have let these things come upon us, but it is not too late to wake up. If we want to change this dynamic and shape the future we need to recapture some of the internet’s original promise and more of its positive transformative power. That means we need to understand—at all levels of society—what our digital world really is. We need to address the challenges that already exist and pre-empt the ones we do not know about.
We live our digital lives this way because we have the skills to do so. Some 91% of us in the UK have the ability to use the internet. This is a remarkable achievement. It is important to continue the work to close the remaining gap and include those who do not have the skills or access. But we also need to move beyond skills to understanding. Nearly all UK internet users have the digital skills to use a search engine but only half know how to distinguish between search results and adverts. Around two-thirds of our digitally skilled population can shop and bank online but a third of those do not make any checks before entering their personal or financial information. More than 1.4 million of us work in tech-related jobs but, as the recent WannaCry attack showed us, hardly anyone is investing the time, resources or expertise to keep our systems safe. This list could go on for ever.
Becoming a nation of people with digital understanding will be different and more complicated than becoming one with digital skills. For starters, skills are tangible and teachable—can you download this app, programme this device or complete this transaction? They also reinforce the notion that digital is something we do. It is time-bound and transactional. But in a world where we spend more time online than we do asleep and where everything from televisions to kettles can connect to the internet, digital is something we are. Understanding is not a race to be run. It is a lifelong process of learning unique to each of us.
We in this House have a particular responsibility as we have the privilege of playing a role in public life. We must ask ourselves whether we have the digital understanding to provide the leadership needed in this time of technological change. I cannot stress how vital it is that we—parliamentarians, policymakers and politicians—absorb and engage with the realities of how digital technologies work. We must see where our country can make the most of them and be alert to the potential dangers.
In recent months I have heard frankly anodyne comments such as “enough is enough” or “we must scrap end-to-end encryption”—the very system that keeps our personal information safe. This is alarmist and a disservice to the people we serve. Just as it would not be acceptable for a Minister not to understand how her departmental budget works, it is not acceptable for her not to understand how technology affects her brief. It is not an insurmountable task. We live in 2017, not 1817, and we have form to follow.
I had the pleasure of working at the beginning of the Government Digital Service. It has shown how digital understanding can be applied to the world of government, from scrapping paper car tax discs to simplifying the appointment of power of attorney. It has also shown us how not to do it. It saved us £4.1 billion by not creating expensive and complicated apps and by salvaging doomed projects such as universal credit. But the good work being done to help the Government modernise and to make it work for people who live their lives digitally is being dismantled. Departmental silos are creeping back, replicating cost and inefficiency. GDS is celebrated and copied around the world. Last year we were ranked top for digital government by the UN. How ironic if we fail to recognise and nurture this great asset because of a lack of digital understanding.
There are other pioneers making digital understanding a reality. The Open University—in which I declare my interest as chancellor—makes digital literacy integral to its students’ experience. OU students graduate able to manage their digital identities, separate fact from fiction and make sense of what they find online. It is sharing its experience with other institutions. Citizens Advice—a reassuring hand on our high streets since the war—now has a digital dashboard showing what advice people are searching for and is helping millions of its users navigate the new challenges in their lives, from Facebook scams to online identity theft. London has just appointed its first chief digital officer, making our capital a role model for making the city digital. This is not about shiny new gadgets. It is about using technology so we can recycle better and have fewer potholes and more effective parking.
I call on the Government to support and amplify the good things happening and to bring these people together in a more structured way. How about we create a formal network of public organisations that can tangibly build our nation’s digital understanding? Much of their work is admirable but it is co-ordination and focus that will embed digital understanding in the fabric of our lives. Perhaps too this network could have a more formal role as a resource for elected and public officials needing support. But while we do this at a granular level, we need to do it with a purpose and a destination. We need to know what kind of digital world we are trying to shape. For this reason, I welcome the Government’s role in developing a digital charter. It presents an opportunity for us to argue and articulate what we want and to design a moral compass for our digital age.
We know that the digital landscape is currently monopolised by a few American-based platforms—although I would watch out for the Asian digital tigers which may soon join them—which are steeped in the world-view of Silicon Valley with its love of the First Amendment and libertarianism. We can build a charter of our own—an articulation of the nation we want to be and then perhaps we can globally find our commonalities and create the basis of a Geneva Convention for the web. I believe we must come together and attempt to put some of these universal principles in place for the next phase of our digital world.
No matter how we move forward, we must do so in modern ways. We do not need a Select Committee on digital understanding beavering away in a closed-off room. We need smart people working in creative and agile ways to get to the bottom of what is really going on. Difficult or not, this work must be done and done now. It is an issue not just of technology but of fairness. It is simply not fair that only a few people understand technology and are taking advantage of the billions who do not. None of this means that we can rest in the mission to bring basic digital skills to everyone or roll out high-quality broadband to the rest of the country. It just means we need to expand our goal. It is not an either/or but a both.
If there is anyone still struggling to comprehend the universality of tech in our lives, I recommend taking a look at today’s list of speakers. We have a composer, a neuroscientist, the Astronomer Royal, a filmmaker, businesswomen and a Bishop—not to mention the man who brought us Amstrad. I am heartened by the fact that, as this Chamber debates digital understanding for everyone in the UK, we are not simply hearing from those whose careers, like mine, have been built around technology. Members from all over the House will speak and, if a 700-year-old institution can see the value of digital understanding, I have no doubt the rest of the British public can too.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on an excellent speech and for promoting this debate. It is really excellent. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has published a strategy for the data and digital world. It is a good document and well promoted by its Minister, Matthew Hancock, but it is like a signpost pointing the way, and I am not sure we are going down the road that it is pointing to at all clearly.
The whole strategy will be undermined by the fact that we have now a deficiency of 750,000 digital technicians in our country. How is that gap possibly going to be filled? It will not be by the education policy imposed by Michael Gove in 2010, when almost on a whim he made all our students follow a very narrow academic curriculum at 16 comprising five subjects: English, maths, science, history or geography and a foreign language. It is the exact curriculum announced in 1904 by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education. Computing is virtually squeezed out. No computing at 16.
Does the Minister know that, in the GSCEs that have just finished, 7,000 fewer students took computing exams at 16? That should worry his department. I do not know if he has seen these figures: GCSE computing science, which is a tough exam, increased by 4,000 and IT fell by 11,000. It is extraordinary that that is happening in this digital age. It shows that there is no joined-up work in Government. Does he know that in the last year the Government have asked all primary schools to introduce coding? Does he know how many have done so? I would be interested in that figure, but I think it is very few. Last week, I visited a school in Turkey for four to 14 year-olds, with 600 students going on to 900. Two teachers were teaching coding to six and seven year-old Turkish children. That does not happen in our schools at all.
In the colleges that I have been promoting we are very digitally aware. For example, the sixth-formers at the UTC in Scarborough are working in a cybersecurity suite sponsored by GCHQ. GCHQ has come out of the closet and does not worry at all about publicity now, because it cannot recruit from normal schools the youngsters that it wants to employ. Another UTC, next to City Airport, is doing advanced computing. If you go there, you will see 20 16 year-old sixth-form students with helmets on their heads creating virtual reality. There is no other school in the country doing that.
The Ministers in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have got to take an interest in these issues. There is no joined-up government between what the Government are doing educationally and what they hope for in their policy.
If the Minister has any spare time, he might go and visit Estonia. It is the most digitally successful country in Europe, so much so that its former Prime Minister has now been appointed by the European Commission to develop its digital strategy. Coding has been in Estonian schools for years and, as a result, they produce an enormous number of computer scientists and export them. We are in the extraordinary position of trying to catch up with Estonia.
The Minister cannot just look on this strategy as a signpost. He has to engage in the voyage.
My Lords, this is another debate on digital led by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and yet another long list of speakers. Her leadership in this area is obvious. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Baker. There is plenty I want to say in response to his speech, but that will have to wait until next Thursday’s debate in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott.
As the past chair and now patron of the Good Things Foundation, there is also much I would like to say relating to the need to narrow the divide in digital skills and understanding between the majority and the more than 10 million Britons without the skills and confidence to take advantage of the digital world. These are most likely to be older, poorer and disabled: the most vulnerable in our society.
I also remind your Lordships of my interests in the register, in particular my work with TES. In the analogue world, this was the Times Educational Supplement, but in its digital incarnation it minimises the number of characters used and is simply TES. That work has hugely helped my understanding of the power of digital to help the recruitment, training and resourcing of teachers.
I have also co-founded a business, xRapid, which uses the ability of a smartphone to recognise patterns through its camera lens, attached to a microscope, to diagnose malaria and count asbestos fibres. These machines are then able to learn from each other and thereby keep increasing the accuracy of the diagnosis.
Of course, these exciting forms of artificial intelligence need fuelling and their precious fuel is data, so that is what I will focus my remarks upon. This House will shortly be considering the data protection Bill. As the noble Baroness said, it is vital that enough of us have sufficient digital understanding to properly scrutinise and improve that legislation. In doing so, we need to pay special attention to those least able to understand and advocate for themselves.
My attention therefore turns to children: there is no demographic that has a greater need for improved digital understanding. Most parents struggle to advise their children on online safety, but they are also highly concerned to know that their child’s personal data are safe. We currently have little time in the school curriculum, which the noble Lord has just described, to teach children about data. We need to fix that, so that children know what information, images and videos are collected that are personal to them, why, by whom and for what use. What plans does DCMS have to engage children on this agenda?
Will the Minister talk to the DfE about this, and include a warning about the national pupil database? The NPD routinely collects highly sensitive data about all the nation’s children and shares them across government departments, with academics and with private companies. There is little transparency as to why it collects what it does, it is a workload pressure on teachers and I hope that the Minister can help them quickly address concerns about this data collection.
Our digital future is uncertain. With transparency, inclusion and understanding, we can progress with consent and confidence.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for this debate. This area is not a natural strength of mine, but I have always taken the view that the best way to learn is to jump in at the deep end.
The internet is a relatively new phenomenon, compared to the time it took to develop our brains as the basic human apparatus devoted to learning. There are huge opportunities associated with digital technologies, but there are equally big risks. Our lives have been transformed by the internet.
Schools do not equip people to adapt to change or to be questioning and critical about the internet. As a country, our basic and advanced skills in IT have increased year by year. Yes, there are regional, gender, age and socioeconomic differences, but progress and development have been amazing. Schools need to be at the forefront of developing digital understanding, but to do that they need qualified, enthusiastic and inspiring teachers and a school curriculum—and an EBacc—fit for purpose. All too often, Governments perceive a need to develop a subject, decree from on high how it will happen, but do not provide the resources and expertise needed.
I want young people to have the skills, but I also want them to understand the internet. For example, I want children at a young age to know that anyone who uses the internet creates and leaves a series of footprints: lasting impressions of all of an individual’s online activity which can be visible to others, particularly through social media. I want them to understand about data protection and cybersecurity. Understanding is about opportunities, but it is also about threats.
Finally, the biggest gap in digital skills, never mind understanding, is between socioeconomic groups. If you live in a deprived community, you cannot afford a PC, let alone an iPad or a smartphone: you do not have access to the technologies. Perhaps your local library, which might have had a bank of computers, has closed down or has been cut back. You can have all the understanding in the world, but it is for nought.
The internet is, undeniably, an important part of our lives and has transformed them for good. In her stunning speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, asked what type of digital world we want to create. To my mind, that would be the most important building block in our digital understanding.
My Lords, I will use the time available to make two brief points. First, we often equate digital understanding with digital skills, and I believe that is an error which will hold us back. Secondly, I suggest that digital understanding must include a willingness to impose our values on the digital environment as well as to understand it on the terms that it currently presents itself.
With regard to the first point, I draw noble Lords’ attention to a report, “Digital Skills for Life and Work”, that will be published on 17 September by the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. I declare my interest as a named contributor to this, as well my interests on the register. The report gathers some of the best research available from around the world, including from the big tech companies and concludes, in its chapter on skills, that many of the things explicitly labelled as 21st century digital skills are not actually skills but are a combination of knowledge, work habits, character traits and attitudes. The label “skills” encompasses abilities that cover a range of different technical, cognitive, social and ethical domains.
The report underlines that not all of these competencies involve direct use of digital technology. Many of them require awareness, critical understanding and non-technical expertise. In particular, it points out that digital interactions include not only what an individual does but what is done to an individual—and, increasingly, what is done to an individual when they are not consciously or deliberately engaging with the digital environment. In that case, it firmly attaches the idea of safety and security to a knowledge of and an implementation of rights.
The report states that skills, both basic and advanced, are just one small component of a broader set of literacies required for digital competency. It lays out those competencies in some detail, but I urge the Minister and the Government to embrace this notion of digital competency. I recommend the report to the many Ministers who have work in this area and will put a copy in the Library for colleagues after publication.
My second point is that technology is neutral but its culture is not, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, so carefully set out. There is an awkward tension in having a technology that is able to help us to confront our societal needs—an ageing population, health outcomes, education, transport, climate change and so on—and a corporate culture that aggressively balks at the responsibilities implicit in sharing its tax burden or long-term societal responsibilities in the nation states in which they operate. They are the richest companies in the world, with a vast turnover of products which depend on their novelty and expire quickly. They reside nowhere and answer to no one because their presence and their business are considered virtual, even if the products and services they deliver are not.
Any discussion about digital understanding does not begin and end with teaching digital skills or competencies, how to protect the vulnerable online, automation or even questions of security and encryption but rather starts with the question of how we yoke the incredible power and potential of digital technology to our societal values. This in turn requires us to be somewhat clearer about what those values are, and what institutions and arrangements—national and international—are required to implement and protect those values.
The Government have announced an array of interventions in the digital environment. We await a Green Paper and a digital charter. To my knowledge, there is work going on in the Home Office, the Department of Health, the Department for Education, DCMS and the Ministry of Justice. I am looking for a clear core, a clear articulation of our values and a commitment to making our children, businesses and institutions—and our Parliament—digitally competent.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for tabling today’s debate. As well as the powerful economic reasons for improving digital understanding, there are also some very important social reasons why we need to look at this key area. As our lives move increasingly online, we risk leaving those at the margins and without digital understanding even further behind.
I will talk very briefly about the digital inclusion and access required for improved understanding to occur. The charity Scope has pointed out that 70% of disabled people have internet access compared with 94% of non-disabled people. According to Age UK, more than 1 million older people report going more than a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. Digital inclusion is a vital and important way to combat loneliness and strengthen social links. Online connections provide lifelines for those who struggle to leave their homes, sometimes because of illness, and to keep in touch with family and friends. Efforts to improve digital understanding should not overlook the profound difference that helping people to connect online can make.
However, for people to be digitally included, they have to have digital access. The Government’s commitment to a broadband universal service obligation is a good start, guaranteeing that all have a legal right to request a broadband connection capable of a minimum speed of 10 megabytes per second. Nevertheless, there is no point in having this right if people are not able to exercise it. The Government must be proactive in working with community groups to stimulate demand for broadband and assist people who need help to get online.
Creative community solutions can make a difference, not least, for example, in remote rural areas. The Church of England is very involved in the wiSpire project, using church spires to provide high-speed internet to remote rural communities where fibre connections may not be cost effective. This benefits both the rural economy and those living in less accessible areas.
Where people have the skills, confidence and ability to get online, individuals and communities can flourish socially as well as economically. We simply cannot afford to let people miss out on this important development.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for introducing this debate today. I may stray a little from the general thrust of what she wanted to talk about, but it is very rare that we have the opportunity to discuss IT matters in this House.
I have been in the technology industry for over 50 years and I have obviously witnessed the massive growth of the internet. It did not exist 25 years ago and when it started, it came as a bit of a cultural shock to a lot of people. We did not trust it; we did not want to buy things online. Well, that is history. We have seen large companies such as Amazon, eBay and Google emerge in an industry that never before existed. Regrettably, all this is at the expense of a diminishing high street where independent retailers can no longer compete with online services. Looking ahead another 20 years, I simply wonder what the retail arena will look like—large or small.
Some of the public are aware that each and every time they engage in a transaction with the likes of Amazon or Google, they have been marked digitally. It is quite likely that the next time they go online, they will receive unsolicited messages relating to things they may have enquired about in the past. This is effectively what we might call the “big brother” syndrome—someone is overlooking your data and knows all about you. You have a profile somewhere in the cloud. Let me tell your Lordships, it is not going to go away. All we can do is be very careful and wary of what we do online. I am afraid that any discussion today about trying to stop this will be wasted. What I would say is very simple: “Get over it. It has happened”. Can we stop it? The answer is no: we are digitally marked and that is the end of it.
The internet is a wonderful tool, but it can also be used for dangerous purposes—terrorism, paedophilia, and so on. Internet search engine providers have a responsibility to assist the crime and security services in seeking out people who use the internet for the wrong reasons. Of course, if I were to ask the CEO of any of these companies, they would tell me that for sure they co-operate wholeheartedly with the security services. The reality is that they are commercial organisations. Their technical resources are used to find new ways to make money. The Government should insist, and have some form of auditing commitment to ensure that serious technical resource is allocated to seeking out the use of the internet for criminal or terrorism purposes. I suggest that GCHQ should be the auditing party and the Government should have the right to include an audit clause in the licences that allow providers to operate in our country. This will ensure that they are genuinely doing something about it.
I have seven grandchildren and on the very odd occasion that I am blessed with their coming to my home to have dinner, they sit around the table with their faces buried in their smartphones, to such an extent that I have banned the devices from the dining room. I deduce from this that something cannot be right. There is something wrong with young people in society today. I urge parents to take a stance to prevent their children spending too much time gazing into these devices. The internet is a wonderful thing, but it can also be a very dangerous tool.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for initiating this debate and for her brilliant speech.
Connected health or technology-enabled care—TEC, as it is commonly known—is a collective term for telecare, telehealth, telemedicine, m-health, e-health and digital health, which is increasingly seen as an integral and rapidly evolving part of healthcare delivery and of care. For example, the number of health apps on iOS and Android devices alone now exceeds 100,000. By 2018, Europe will be the largest m-health market outside the USA, worth over £8 billion to £10 billion a year. The advantages of digital health to health providers and patients include freeing up time for more direct patient contact and reducing readmissions, A&E attendance and hospital bed usage, which will help reduce the cost of health and social care and will provide better outcomes, especially for patients with long-term conditions because they will be more able to manage their own care themselves. But to deliver this, we will need health delivery systems geared up for it and health professionals trained in digital skills and able to understand and use them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, in a report to the National Information Board in December 2015, made four key recommendations to achieve this, including free wi-fi in every hospital, building the basic digital skills of the NHS workforce, and a target of 10% of patients registered with GP practices using digital services by 2017. This would include patients in most need of health and social care. Can the Minister say what progress has been made in implementing these recommendations, which would go a long way to making healthcare in the NHS digitally skilled?
Does the Minister also agree that to achieve this, we need all training institutions—from schools and universities to medical schools, nursing schools and those providing continuous education in healthcare—to provide the necessary skills and understanding for the workforce? Does he also agree that when NICE produces guidance, it must have a component of m-health and e-health within it, which it rarely ever has? I understand of course that he may not be able to answer these questions because they might not come under his department, but would he mind passing them on to the appropriate department and maybe writing to us?
My Lords, the noble Baroness’s Motion is excellent for those who receive adequate broadband speed. For those who do not, it is meaningless. In answer to my recent Written Question on poor broadband speeds, the Minister said that in this Parliament, the universal service obligation would give “everyone” a “legal right” to request 10 megabits per second. He also said:
“All homes and businesses can now gain access to broadband speeds of 2 Megabits”.
That is just not true. In spite of me and my fellow parishioners constantly asking BT and Openreach for better speeds, nothing ever happens. Our speeds are woefully poor to non-existent, as my noble friend Lord Ashton found out when he stayed with me in Norfolk this summer. He tested our speed and found it was a mere 0.3 megabits per second, which was nowhere near the promised 2 megabits he assured us we had in his written reply.
So where do the Government get their information, which is quite clearly so inaccurate, from? Could it be from Ofcom, which acknowledges that,
“many homes and small businesses still are unable to receive broadband speeds that are adequate to reliably perform a range of common online activities. Almost a quarter of a million UK premises … cannot get a download speed of more than 2Mbit/s.”?
A quarter of a million premises might just about be right for rural Norfolk—I bet the figure is far higher for the whole country. So where has Ofcom got its figures from? It certainly has not visited my home, as my noble friend did, or it too might have discovered a speed of only 0.3 megabits, which is worse than many third world countries.
Since my Written Question and my noble friend’s visit, has his department met Ofcom to enquire why progress in rural areas is so slow? If not, why not? Has his department met BT or Openreach regarding expected progress? Again, if not, why not? Or is getting acceptable speeds to rural areas just too difficult or too expensive?
The Government have just announced another £400 million to boost high-speed broadband, when many parts of the country still do not have the promised 2 megabits Would his money not be better spent providing the basic service that has long been promised the country? Those still languishing in broadband poverty would no doubt welcome the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, if only they had adequate broadband speeds, so they could rise to the challenge.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on her excellent opening speech and her extraordinary career so far. Apropos of what the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, said, I note that quite a few noble Lords were looking at their devices while he was speaking, and he has so far looked at his device three times since he finished speaking.
Do we need improved digital understanding at all levels of our society? You bet we do. I completely buy the distinction made by the noble Baroness between digital skills and digital understanding, and digital understanding is absolutely central to the next few years in our society and in the world at large. The digital revolution is a huge wave of change breaking across the world and transforming our largest institutions but also intimate aspects of our personal lives. The digital revolution is not the internet; the digital revolution is not robotics; the digital revolution is not awesome algorithmic or supercomputing power. It is all three of these, producing a pace of change unknown previously. The pace of change today far outstrips the industrial revolution and it is far more immediately global. It is a whole new world, which we are being plunged into at almost the speed of light. As other noble Lords have said, it is a vast mixture of opportunities and threats. The opportunities are very large. Consider, for example, the overlap between supercomputing power and genetics. Genetics is simply information, and as supercomputers deal in the awesome power of information, there will be fantastic advances in medicine, but the threats are just as large and are everywhere.
I have three quick points. First, the huge digital corporations must be held to account in relation to democratic processes and concerns, and this must happen quickly. Our lives have been invaded. Data are kept, in enormous amounts, on all of us. We cannot simply accept this as it stands. Secondly, as citizens, we cannot just sit back and accept a situation where human beings are programmed out of key technologies. Smart machines can be designed either to replace us or to enhance and extend our capabilities. When it comes to the distinction between AI and what has been called IA—intelligence augmentation—we should push for the second of these. This is a very serious issue. Thirdly, direct human contact should be preserved and sometimes reintroduced. “Back to the future” is a good way of handling advanced technologies. Let us reintroduce human contact wherever we can where at the moment we have robotic automated voices. Let us contain and humanise the robots.
My Lords, I am happy to concur, as always, with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, has said. His remarks are well worth careful study. I want to draw colleagues’ attention to something that those who work with the Parliamentary Digital Service will already know—that tomorrow is the last day for our retiring director, Mr Rob Greig. As a former chair of the Information Committee I shall take this opportunity to wish him well in his career and thank him for the leadership—which is worth mentioning in dispatches—that he gave to the response to the recent cyberattack. Without his leadership that would have had a much worse impact on our institution. He has done two and a half years, and he has made a difference. We wish him well, and thank him for his work.
I was particularly interested in the reference by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, to the way in which we run Parliament. Listening to the debate, I realise that with her, with the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and others, we have an enormous amount of talent among the membership of your Lordships’ House. I am also pleased that the Senior Deputy Speaker has taken enough of an interest in this debate to be present today, because he has a key role in trying to make sure that we do business in a way that is fit for purpose in a digital age.
I agree with some of the speeches made earlier. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, made a powerful speech, and he has done great work in dealing with training needs. He says that we need to catch up with Estonia, and he is correct. That is how bad things are. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans made a powerful speech about fairness. Obviously, I would subscribe to that, because if we in this House are passing laws relying on “digital by default”, it is not right if we do not know what we are asking our clients—applicants for universal credit—to know and understand, because we need a better grounding. We need not only a grounding but an understanding—that is a good word; it is not just digital skills that we need, but an understanding of what a modern Parliament needs.
My plea, following on from the important speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, is that, working with the Lord Speaker—I know that he has a genuine interest—and the new interim director of the PDS, we should be operating with a much closer interest by Members to try to make Parliament much more effectively digital. If we do not do that, we will be left behind. The institution, qua institution, will become more and more irrelevant to the needs, political and otherwise, of the day. I suggest starting some kind of interest group—it could be online, virtual, or anything we like—to bring together some of the collective massive talent we have, and try to encourage other Members who are perhaps less familiar with technology, and do not feel as comfortable with it, to engage in a conversation, so that we can all not only improve our own individual contributions to the work of this important institution, but produce a better result for the British public. That is an important priority for the Government.
My Lords, as we have heard, digital technology has transformed our lives, with the same import as the invention of the wheel. My noble friend Lady Lane-Fox of Soho has reminded me of the important strictures of one of my composition teachers—that you will only ever get out of any venture rewards in direct correlation with what you put in. That lies at the heart of this timely debate.
For example, I can press a button and digital technology will play me a piece of music—but by exploring that technology further, by investing time and creativity in it, I can do so much more. I can write music directly on electronic manuscript paper, or I can play it on a keyboard and the technology will notate it and play it back. Is that not absolutely extraordinary? Just imagine if Bach or Mozart had had that technology. Their improvisations would have been preserved for posterity, and instead of their laboriously writing out by quill all the individual parts for violins, violas, woodwind and brass, and sending them by horse to musicians desperate to rehearse, the technology would extricate the parts, which could then be sent instantly all over the world, where they could be printed—or even, as now happens, be performed by reading from an electronic tablet, just as I am referring to my notes now. Mozart would surely have had time to finish his own Requiem, and so much more besides.
Let us follow the example of composers, scientists and artists of this stature who seized technological advances in their own time, and by understanding them were able to transform knowledge and to write sublime masterpieces for instruments that were still in their infancy. Mozart’s clarinet concerto, and his quintet, are perfect examples of not merely using advances in technology but understanding their potential. Look at how David Hockney has used digital technology in his iPad pictures and his multicamera moving landscapes. Every theatrical event we attend is now lit by pre-programmed computer technology. Many films and television programmes manage magically to combine realism with technological fantasy to transport us to an extraordinary and brave new world—and indeed, to worlds beyond our own.
We must concentrate on the young and the underprivileged in our efforts to educate, and to spread the digital word. Opportunity to learn is such a gift. With it we will transform the lives of so many, allowing them to share in the magical cornucopia of experience that digital technology and the internet offer. The next generation will transport us in ways that are unimaginable as we sit here today. Why, we might meet in virtual reality, thus solving our current problems of housing during repairs and rebuilding.
I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on introducing this debate. She has already forced somebody with few digital skills into a little bit of digital understanding, and I thank her very much for that. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. He put this issue into the context of music and I shall put it into the context of policing. It was a delight that the noble Baroness mentioned climate change, but I am going to avoid that topic today and talk about policing.
A high level of digital understanding is obviously important for the police. It will be essential in fighting crime. The problem is that the rapid pace of technological advancement leaves many unknown unknowns—for example, the policing issues that might arise with driverless cars or quantum computers. As new crimes come forward, such as cyberbullying and phishing, the police need technology skills and support to face these 21st-century crimes. At the same time as we navigate these challenges, we also have to maintain a constant focus on protecting civil liberties while encouraging and facilitating innovation.
Digital crime differs greatly from traditional crimes, because most digital crime can be committed from the comfort of the perpetrator’s own home, and the actions of a computer-savvy criminal can rapidly affect thousands of people. The ransomware attack on the NHS in May showed the devastating effect that cybercrime can have on core public services. To meet these challenges, all police officers and police staff need the knowledge and skills to use digital technology and be aware of emerging trends. Police leaders must have a deep understanding of the developing issues, and have the vision for a new strategy to seize the initiative on these new crimes.
I want to talk about big data, which the police use a lot. That means drawing huge amounts of data from diverse sources, assessing their accuracy and reliability, and then making critical analyses—and sometimes difficult decisions based on what has been learned. This is an important issue, as it has wide-ranging implications for civil liberties and discrimination within society. It offers opportunities for the police to add data-driven insights to their traditional policing expertise. Complex algorithms can make useful predictions from a range of data as diverse as historical crime data, location of cashpoints, census data, football results, weather patterns and temperature changes.
The opportunity is that big data models can give deeper insight into the trends that affect crime and allow police to direct scarce resources better. Often this can make policing easier but sometimes IT goes badly wrong, and I shall give your Lordships an example of that. Last month, London’s Met police used what is actually a controversial, inaccurate and largely unregulated automated facial recognition technology to spot troublemakers at the Notting Hill Carnival. This is the second year running that it has trialled it, and once again it did more harm than good. Last year it actually proved useless, so that was okay, but this year it proved worse than useless, with 35 false matches and one wrongful arrest of someone erroneously tagged as being wanted on warrant for a rioting offence. Silkie Carlo, the technology policy officer for civil rights group Liberty, saw the technology in action and, in a blog post, described the system as showing,
“all the hallmarks of the very basic pitfalls technologists have warned of for years—policing led by low-quality data and low-quality algorithms”.
Yet, in spite of its lack of success, the Met’s project leads viewed the weekend not as a failure but as a resounding success. It had come up with one solitary successful match, and even that was skewered by sloppy record-keeping that got an individual wrongly arrested. The automated facial recognition was accurate but the person had already been processed by the justice system and was erroneously included on a suspect database. It so often comes back to basic record-keeping, not to technology that can make things easier.
I see two particular problems for the police force: understanding what there is in terms of digital products, and having the judgment to know what is appropriate to use.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox. This is a really important topic, and it is right to have this debate before we get anywhere near the Bill that seeks to reform the data protection system.
Who could be opposed to improving digital literacy? Like financial, political or emotional literacy, it is surely of great practical and human importance. No doubt one of the shortcomings of our present situation is that all too many of us are not sufficiently digitally literate. Many of us are part of a generation of digital autodidacts, and both our understanding and our know-how are too often patchy.
However, there are great obstacles to improvement in digital literacy while the underlying rules and conventions of the digital world are so obscure. I do not mean merely that the technical protocols of the digital world are unclear, although few are likely to understand them. I mean that the basic legal, regulatory and cultural standards of the online world remain obscure. Perhaps an analogy with the world of print in its early days will show this. In its early days, printing was initially a deeply disruptive new technology. Today our ability to assess the printed word is supported by a framework of laws and conventions; we can distinguish between authors, printers and publishers; publishers must be identifiable and are subject to laws that bear on defamation or breaches of copyright; and there are sanctions for plagiarism and passing off. There is a huge list of further laws and regulations that bear on the printed word. We can secure good standards of written communication only because we have reasonably clear legal, regulatory and cultural frameworks in place—there are common standards. At present, matters are not comparable in the online world. Digital literacy is therefore not enough to offer adequate protection or empowerment even to those who make an effort to become more digitally literate. It would be naive to expect individual digital literacy to offer adequate certainty or protection to those using digital technologies.
There are still cyber romantics to be found who believe that no legislation or regulation should restrain the online world. However, I think that picture is remote from daily life. Of course we need to preserve freedom of expression online, as offline—but online, as offline, the aim has to be qualified by measures that secure other rights of the person. Freedom of expression, online as offline, is a qualified right. The real problem is not that standards are not needed but that extraterritoriality is an everyday reality of the digital world, and all standards will need to be established by co-operation between the powers of that world and those of the world of states. They cannot be secured by state legislation alone, and this will not be easy. Agreement on the technical standards is one matter, but the wider systemic standards needed for a digital civilisation cannot be secured while there are vast rewards for breaching them.
To cast the burden of improvement entirely on individuals by requiring them to improve their digital literacy would be to overlook where the deeper need for change lies. I suggest that Parliament needs to start to address the deeper issues of securing legislation that supports standards in the digital world. That will not be done by some tweaks in the data protection laws; indeed, I suspect that revising that failing approach to the digital world will not lead us very far.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for tabling this debate. I declare my interest as a trustee of the digital charity Doteveryone, which the noble Baroness chairs so ably. She and I have campaigned for a long time about basic digital skills, and a number of noble Lords here today have spoken very eloquently about that. So I want to park the issue of basic digital skills; they are so essential that a lot has already been said about them today. I hope the Minister will update us on what the Government are doing to deliver on their commitments to spend money on and support universal basic digital literacy.
Instead, I shall focus my comments on the importance of digital understanding more broadly. Basic digital skills and digital infrastructure are essential to be able to start to understand the digital world, and that is really what this debate is all about: broad digital understanding. People are afraid of the things they do not understand. They are particularly afraid of the things they do not understand that threaten their way of life, and we should have no illusions that the digital world is going to do that to a large number of people. There will be good change and bad change. I firmly believe that the good will outweigh the bad, but it is unlikely to happen simultaneously and symmetrically so that individuals are not left stranded unless we do something about it.
I shall talk briefly about one example: cars. If you take a taxi ride in London today and mention the word “Uber”, your conversation is pretty much guaranteed for the rest of the journey. The danger is that those taxi drivers are actually fighting yesterday’s battle. Come driverless cars, it is not going to be a question of regulating the drivers of Uber taxis; we need to think about how we prepare a huge swathe of society to build different skills in order to have different jobs in the new world. We also need to think about how we regulate those driverless cars. I think it was in 1930 or 1931 that the Highway Code was first drafted. One thing that has remained consistent in that code is the exhortation to drivers to drive with care and consideration of others. We are going to need to work out what the Highway Code for driverless cars is that ingrains that in the machine learning and the algorithms. We cannot abdicate that responsibility to either our children or grandchildren in the way that our grandparents did in working the VCR, nor can we abdicate that responsibility to the brilliant software engineers. I honestly think they are the last people who should be working out the new Highway Code and the moral and ethical regulatory debates that that will bring.
To create the right regulatory framework—I have picked one tiny innovation that the digital world is bringing—all of us need a general understanding of that technology to be able to engage in the debate with those brilliant software engineers, rather than to run away from them. That is why this debate is so important and why it is so fantastic, for me as someone who has worked in the tech sector for a long time, to see so many people in the Chamber today bringing such varied perspectives to this subject.
I ask the Minister what he and his department are doing to drive further digital understanding in Whitehall, in Westminster and beyond. Some very important work needs to happen now. I think we already see the signs of fear of change in our society. I would not suggest that technology is the only reason why we have a very fractured and unhappy political discourse today but it is undoubtedly one of the underlying reasons, and that is only going to increase. I hope that in future we will be discussing the real ethical and regulatory issues, rather than the need to discuss them one day.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on this debate; on her visionary, inspiring and rather daunting speech; and indeed on all her work to promote digital understanding and effective usage of digital technology. I was planning to speak mainly on some rather specific aspects of digital skills, based on my experience as a member of the House’s Digital Skills Committee, but, listening to the noble Baroness’s speech and the debate so far, I feel that some of the points I had planned to make fall rather below the threshold of quality that other speakers have achieved. I am going to try to rescue one or two points from my speech, with apologies if I get totally lost as a result, and congratulations to the other speakers.
My first point is about the role of government, which the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, has just raised. The Digital Skills Committee—rightly, in my view—has suggested that the Government have a role as the conductor of the orchestra. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, could have made something of this, but I will merely endorse that role: giving a lead, ensuring co-ordination and harmony between the different groups involved, achieving an overall balance and engaging all the different audiences that need to be reached.
My second point is the importance of building young people’s digital understanding right from the moment they start school, or even before, both in and outside the classroom. Like the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, my grandchildren spend most of their time looking at iPads or iPhones; however, one of the things they looked at was a wonderful kit based on the extraordinary Raspberry Pi computer. My nine year-old grandson, within around an hour of unwrapping that at Christmas, was doing some very basic programming. We could usefully learn from and encourage techniques like that.
My third point, which is another essential in this area, is to improve the careers advice and guidance offer. I have said before in this House that I am a great fan of the work that the Careers & Enterprise Company is doing to help schools improve in this area, both for skills and for understanding. The CEC’s “passport for life” is a promising initiative to provide a standardised and verified digital record of achievement that young people can share with employers.
I had also intended to endorse the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, that one of the key audiences whose digital understanding might usefully be improved is Parliament. I was very interested in a study that Doteveryone did last year, mentoring four MPs. I am sure that there are lessons to be learned from that study and that we should be looking at how we can extend that sort of learning to improve our ability to address these issues. This is a huge challenge, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister that the Government have fully studied the score and are ready to step onto the podium.
My Lords, you will note that I have basically torn up my speech. If you are number 17 on the list, most of what you want to say has already been said. First, I would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, both for her speech and for introducing this debate. Her speech was very good, if slightly depressing. I have already used the intranet and the internet at least twice today: I used the intranet to book a table in the dining room and I drew money out of a cash machine, which uses the internet, as we all know.
I have three political points to make. I am a politician and delighted to be called one, but I do not think that politics is keeping up with the change that is taking place in our society at the present time. In education, in the health service, in shopping, in whatever else it may be, the internet is becoming more and more important. Education was my field before I became an MP. I read education debates, and neither the word “computer” nor the internet is ever mentioned. Why? Surely we ought to be involved in that discussion. The computer and the internet ought to be transforming our education policy. I listened to the First Minister of Scotland, and she never mentioned it. It was never part of her policy.
We want to spend more money on the health service. Good, but on what? What is our health policy? Should we be connecting everything together by computer and by the internet? In the area of genetics, for instance, you can move forward only by connecting all the various computers together and making them all work on the same policy and issues. Why are we not doing that?
The internet is transforming our society and the way we work, yet our political parties—despite what the Liberals might say, and I will come to that in a moment—are not keeping up with the transformation that is taking place. They are not moving with the times. In part, this is due to the fact that our democratic process is a five-year process, whereas the process of planning for the internet, science and technology looks forward 20 years. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, raised that issue.
I will finish with one last point, which comes back to ensuring that everybody has access and which will make the Liberal party wake up. The only way you can ensure that everybody has access to the internet and the skills needed is by introducing a smartcard or an ID card—whatever you like to call it.
I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for the opportunity to contribute to this timely debate. As a neuroscientist, I urge that digital understanding should go further still and include a deeper awareness of the impact of screen technologies on the physical brain and how it is changing our actual thought processes and consciousness.
Humans possess the superlative ability to adapt to the environment. The human brain becomes highly personalised after birth by the development of unique configurations of connections between brain cells. This, I suggest, constitutes an individual “mind”. These neuronal connections are constantly being modified by input from the outside world—a world now increasingly mediated by screens. Our highly impressionable brains, our minds, will be adapting in an unprecedented fashion.
While the internet can be a source of high-quality entertainment and education and of socialising in new ways, such benefits, especially for the young, should be weighed against some very basic considerations. Young children, who are still developing the ability to regulate their emotions and cope with frustration and boredom, need to develop self-calming skills that do not rely on the palliative of the screen. No matter how high-quality the content of what is flashed up, time spent in a screen-based world displaces time spent learning, playing and socialising in the real world. Real-world toys, activities and human-to-human interactions foster the imagination, creativity and social skills of a child in ways that screen technologies typically cannot. Computer gaming has been shown to bring benefits such as improved dexterity, but the content and context of these activities should not be ignored. Put bluntly, is it not worth pondering the relative merits of 10,000 hours spent playing “World of Warcraft” online versus 10,000 hours developing skills on the guitar or piano in the sociable company of other musicians?
The temptation to immerse oneself obsessively in the screen world is well-nigh universal. Over 2,000 peer-reviewed articles relating to internet addiction offer increasingly strong evidence that it is a real phenomenon. What exactly is an internet addict addicted to? We have always found pleasure in finding new information, whether through intentional searching or happenstance, but the preference to engage with the screen world could be because it offers a qualitatively different experience from that encountered in the three-dimensional, less-compliant real world. Whatever you do in the screen world will elicit an instant response, unlike real life. This instant feedback is not merely reassuring, but so compelling for some that it becomes a prerequisite for their well-being. A recent Harvard study found that, rather than sit alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes, many people chose to give themselves painful electric shocks. That was in Science in 2014.
Screen culture, characterised by its never-ending traffic of input and output, appears symptomatic of a new type of existential challenge: to sustain and enjoy a rewarding personal, inner world that is independent of external stimulation. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, should be applauded for founding a think tank highlighting a key area: examining the internet’s effect on how we live, care, consume, love, learn, work and die. Surely central to such examination should be careful consideration of its unprecedented effects on the brain itself.
My Lords, like others, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox. She has been a role model for us all. She has created a successful digital business; she helped the Government to get ahead on technology when we served together on the coalition’s Efficiency Board; and now she is beating the drum for digital skills, awareness and understanding.
I know that she feels that public policy on this matter has developed rather too slowly. I share that sentiment, but it is rarely in the nature of government to be quick. Nevertheless, as a nation we benefit from very strong technology and creative industries. So some things are going well, and we benefit from the support of groups such as techUK, which briefed us for this debate.
When I came to Parliament, I used to wax lyrical on the awfulness of internet and mobile coverage, as well as the problems of exclusion, described again today by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and my noble friend Lord Cathcart. This made me very unpopular with Ed Vaizey, who, to do him justice, worked hard to extend coverage with less help from industry than he deserved. Only last week he was on the “Today” programme, still cheering us up on this very subject. We made money available for digital infrastructure when I was at the Treasury, and it is clear to me that a combination of wi-fi and 4G and 5G mobile providing digital access right across the UK is essential to our success now that digital affects most—indeed, perhaps all—of our endeavours.
Today, I want to make two further points. First, the noble Baroness is right to worry about digital understanding, as well as about skills. I was cheered by the figures in the Library note showing that, according to Lloyds Bank, only 11.5 million people lack digital skills and, according to the ONS, only 9% have never used the internet. If you look back only 10 years, that is an extraordinary improvement and a tribute to free-market transformation. My noble friend Lord Baker will be glad to know that my granddaughter learned coding in her first year at primary school in Wandsworth.
However, as with everything in life, there are drawbacks to internet penetration. It poses a major challenge to government and society. There are worrying externalities to balance the wonderful convenience, pleasure and efficiency that digital brings. I am referring to scams, especially the millions of financial scams every week, with data and identities constantly at risk from cyberattacks. Which? has produced very good reports on this scourge. I am also referring to access to the compulsive dangers of gambling and drugs, and to bullying online, child abuse, pornography and Islamist extremism. There is also biased, unregulated and annoying advertising, putting the offline advertisers at a commercial disadvantage and undermining the print media. Close to my heart, there is also the theft of intellectual property, affecting books and other networks. In addition, there is fake news online and its huge impact on society, public sentiment and elections.
Finally, regarding Brexit, as the Minister responsible for the digital single market, I spent many hours with other member states, including Estonia, debating the right way forward—how to open up the opportunities for the flow of digital content, fintech, commerce and so on. In finishing, I should very much like to ask the Minister to share his thinking on the positives and negatives for our digital policy, the digital economy and digital understanding of a post-Brexit world, because equivalent challenges and opportunities will still exist post Brexit.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for introducing this debate. Before I start, I should draw the House’s attention to some of my interests listed in the register.
There have been two very brief mentions of disability in this debate—by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Knight—in the context of groups of disabled people not getting access to the internet. However, we have not addressed the fact that there is another problem for these people. Many groups can use adaptations to allow them a degree of access to the net—but, unless companies do to their websites what something like 80% of major firms have done, that technology will be non-accessible. This is the equivalent of insisting, in the built environment, that you have steps in front of everything—it means that some people cannot get in. Currently, there is no understanding of the need for accessibility when these systems are devised, or of how this might be done.
With the expansion of this area, effectively we have totally forgotten something that we have talked about and implemented over many decades in the built and non-digital environment. The problem is that some people cannot access certain functions. From what I have been led to understand, those with visual impairments are probably the worst affected. Dyslexics also have a problem—for them it presents an absolute barrier. I have been studying a group called AchieveAbility and the problems relating to employment for those in the neurodiverse community—dyslexics, dyspraxics, those with autism and dyscalculics. The biggest problem that this group experiences with recruitment is through the big agencies. They insist that you go online—but you cannot fill out the form. The rest of society should be made aware of something this basic. At the moment, nobody knows about it and most of these sins are committed in ignorance. Let us start to look at this issue. If we do not, we will be excluding something like 20% of the population from the benefits of the internet.
My Lords, I, too, welcome this important debate introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox. Without question, the future is digital.
I speak as a professor of civil engineering at Cambridge University and also from my 25 years’ experience of industry as a practising engineer. In March, the Institution of Civil Engineers published its report State of the Nation 2017: Digital Transformation. Its principal message was that digital transformation should be at the heart of the infrastructure pillar in the Government’s industrial strategy.
Our infrastructure, which I will use as an example, is vital for our economy and our society. More importantly, we need smart infrastructure. By this, we mean combining physical infrastructure with digital infrastructure. Bridges can have sensors measuring all kinds of parameters, as can our tunnels and buildings—indeed, any type of infrastructure. We will be able to know when a bridge or a tunnel is overstressed, requires attention or is reaching the end of its useful life. Sensors on our infrastructure are part of the “internet of things”—myriad smart devices that collect and transmit data.
Here, I should declare an interest. In the engineering department at Cambridge, I lead the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction. Innovative sensors—fibre optics and wireless devices—have recently been installed at more than 100 sites, providing important and unique new data. However, to be of any use, the data from sensors on infrastructure will require understanding, interpretation and management—crucial digital skills. Vast amounts of data themselves are of little use. We need to turn data into knowledge. All data must be critically interpreted and managed, and the implications properly understood. The limitations and implications of unreliable data need to be fully appreciated by the users of the data. Full digital understanding is needed for this.
These skills relate principally to our engineers and scientists, and to our technologies and industrial strategy. They are in the category of the digital worker and the digital maker, as defined by the Digital Skills Taskforce. These required skills are significantly beyond those of the ordinary digital citizen, who may be reasonably confident with day-to-day activities such as communicating, finding information and purchasing goods or services. We need to convert many more digital citizens into digital workers.
The Government’s Green Paper Building Our Industrial Strategy highlights the importance of enhancing digital skills at all levels of society. In responding to the Green Paper, the Royal Academy of Engineering reported that the engineering community would like to see a general computing GCSE introduced, as well as increased and sustained support for computer science. Also, computing should be designated a core subject in schools.
My final point relates to primary schools. I fully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Baker, that more emphasis in primary schools on STEM subjects, including digital skills, will surely lead to improved digital understanding at all levels in our society.
My Lords, I would like to add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for her influential work and for introducing this important debate.
I begin by stating that I am a technological optimist. Advances in information and communications technologies have brought great benefits to humanity, with potential for many more to follow. Much of the utility of the super-computers that now surround us has been provided to us by companies whose programming skills have made them household names. As their usefulness has grown, so too has the value of these companies, to the point now where they are the mostly highly capitalised companies on the planet, replacing oil companies. The companies with the highest market valuation are the particular breed through which vast amounts of data pass—data generated by users, which means all of us.
These platform service providers often do not charge for the services they provide, yet their incomes are vast, derived mainly from advertising—and specifically from highly targeted and efficient advertising, the likes of which older forms of broadcast and print media could never deliver. As we go about our digital lives, we leave behind us valuable digital information that can be processed en masse by super-computers, helping to profile us into ever more detailed market segments, defined not just by who we are or what we do, but by how we think and feel.
A mass communications revolution is under way and there will inevitably be negative consequences. We need to ask how these can be minimised. Internet platform providers are not classed as broadcasters since they do not generate original content. This has led to controversies around abuses of copyright and stretched the boundaries between freedom of expression and the rules seeking to govern defamation, incitement to hate and other forms of illegal communication.
As interconnectedness has grown in a concentrated number of platforms, information volumes have also increased. This has led to more curation of the flow of information to improve user experiences. But who decides what improves a user experience? Often, it means keeping content in line with already known preferences. Our natural confirmation biases are being strengthened as our news feeds are curated to show more of what we agree with and less of what we do not. With no requirement to maintain political neutrality, platforms can serve up content which is the equivalent of the entire panel of “Question Time” being populated only by Nigel Farages every week.
In this polarised environment, deliberate misinformation or fake news can spread like wildfire. It can spread naturally if the “click bait” is compelling enough. However, why leave it to chance? It is possible to guarantee a higher circulation of stories—whether real or not—using fake personalities controlled by computers to “like” or “favourite” stories thousands of times so they are picked up by listing algorithms and circulated more broadly.
Algorithms control what we see. Has the line between companies such as Facebook being platforms and publishers been crossed? Are publishers not editors of content? Even if it is an algorithm doing the editing, these algorithms originate somewhere and they express a set of beliefs that shape what we see. They should be open to scrutiny. Transparency is a precursor to understanding.
Increased digital understanding will be necessary before we draw up and maintain a rule book so the benefits of digitalisation are felt by everyone and the incidents of abuse and misuse are minimised. As a group of lawmakers, we have a particular responsibility to educate ourselves. That is why I am delighted that we have created an ad hoc committee to consider artificial intelligence, which, I am sure, under the expert chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, will produce excellent results. I also look forward to the Government’s digital charter and data protection Bill, which will allow this rich debate to continue. There are so many aspects of this debate that we could have covered today, but time is short. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, once again for introducing this debate and I hope it will not be the last of its kind.
My Lords, I join other speakers in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on this debate. Our lives have been hugely enriched by consumer electronics and by web-based services that are free or very cheap. Indeed, during a decade where many people’s real wages have fallen, the main reason why they may enjoy greater subjective well-being is the consumer surplus offered by the ever more pervasive digital world. However, it is not an unalloyed piece of good news that young people spend so much time online, and there are other concerns. What about, for instance, the burgeoning information about us on the net—about health records, google searches, where we have travelled and what we buy?
When we are at home, Amazon’s home robot is recording what we say. Even the humble robotic vacuum cleaner can record the floorplans of our rooms. All this information has commercial value to the companies that dominate the sector. Criminal hackers can steal our identity. As the internet of things becomes more pervasive, they will be able to sabotage our house and our car as well. When on the phone or online, it is increasingly hard to tell whether you are dealing with a real person or with a computer. Bots can engage in increasingly sophisticated dialogue—but it is important that we should be able to recognise them for what they are. Would we be happy if a stranger who sat near us on a train could access facial recognition software, identify us and then search our online presence?
AI will enable machines to control traffic flows, the electric grid and such like. They will do such jobs better than humans and that is an unambiguous benefit, but when machines decide the fate of individuals, one is ambivalent. If individuals are denied a request, they should be entitled to be told the reason. One genuine dilemma is that machine learning leads to algorithms that seem reliable, but no human understands how they come to their decisions.
When so much business, including our interaction with Government, is done via websites, we should worry about, for instance, an elderly or disabled person living alone who is expected to access the benefits system online. Think of the anxiety and frustration when something goes wrong. Such people will have peace of mind only if there are enough adequately trained human beings in the system to ensure that they can get help and are not disadvantaged.
This leads to a more general point. The digital revolution generates huge wealth for an elite, but preserving a healthy society will require massive redistribution of wealth and, of course, redeployment of labour to ensure that everyone still has worthwhile employment. To do this we should surely hugely expand the numbers of public service jobs where the human element is crucial and where demand is huge, and now hugely unsatisfied, especially carers for young and old, and in particular, enough computer-savvy carers to help the old and the bewildered.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on securing this very relevant debate. It is difficult to overestimate her role in promoting digital government.
In 2010, my noble friend Lord Maude commissioned the noble Baroness to carry out a review of government digital capability. Unlike most government reviews, which take months if not years, the Martha Lane-Fox report was produced in two weeks. Her recommendations were admirably straightforward: government should be digital by default with assisted digital for those not yet online, and there should be a new government digital organisation headed by the best person possible—the outstanding Mike Bracken took this role.
The results of what became the Government Digital Service, or GDS, speak for themselves. In 2010, the UK was a byword for car-crash government IT programmes. In contrast, as we have heard, in 2016 the UK was top of the UN rankings. We saved over £4 billion from the IT bill in just four years, Government became an attractive employer for a generation of digital talent, and start-ups and SMEs won government business, ending the domination of a few international companies. The award-winning GOV.UK became one of the most visited sites in the UK. GDS was hailed as Europe’s best start-up, with the Washington Post calling it the “gold standard” for digital government.
When the Australian Government set up their Digital Transformation Office, Malcolm Turnbull, now the Australian Prime Minister, emailed my noble friend Lord Maude to say that if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he should consider himself very flattered. Many other countries, including the US, copied the model, often with the help of former GDS staffers.
These remarkable results were not accidental. Reform, especially in the Civil Service, needs leadership, stamina and political courage. The success of GDS depended on strong authority and leadership at the centre of government. The mantra was, “the strategy is delivery”. Yet the new GDS mandate—to support, enable and assure departments—seems to place the needs of departments over the needs of users. The battle over the use of shared platforms is worrying. Cross-government platforms such as Verify are designed for the user so that digital government is consistent and easy to deal with. Their use by departments is set to save billions of pounds, yet they are resisting their use.
One of the great myths of government is that while central control may be needed to drive initial reform, there comes a point where the reforms are said to be embedded and controls can be eased off. My experience is that reforms embedded in departments are precisely that. They are usually embedded six feet under so that departments can regain autonomy and go right back to their old ways without further interference. We should not risk our digital leadership position to maintain a pointless power battle in Whitehall.
The Government have published a powerful digital transformation strategy and GDS is vital to its delivery. I hope the Minister can reassure us that GDS must be empowered to do so. I wonder whether now is a timely moment for the noble Baroness to review progress after five years, which could address her other concerns.
My Lords, as noble Lords know, this is a time-limited debate and we must finish at 4.33 pm, which may cut into the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I live in rural Norfolk so if my remarks sound rather like those of the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, I am sure that noble Lords will understand.
It would be so nice to follow the call of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for digital understanding, but for those of us who do not have access to the digital world through an effective broadband internet, that understanding is a bit of a chimera. The Government have a totally inadequate strategy to achieve universal coverage of the internet broadband service in rural areas. Where I live in the parish of Brockdish and Thorpe Abbotts in the Waveney valley along the border between Norfolk and Suffolk, it took from 1926 to 1955 to get electrification and it looks as if it is going to take as long to get broadband. I discovered two months ago that there is a cable laid by a Dutch company that runs all the way down from Lowestoft to London and is laid 300 yards from my door. However, the Government processes of putting in rural broadband around Norfolk are constrained by not only all the money being given away to BT, which has wasted it in ways I will outline in a minute, but also by the fact that nobody can get access to this cable except through voluntary organisations that have now bought into it. It looks as if I will have to dig the cable myself.
Is that satisfactory? I do not think so. I am supporting a group of very angry local residents who feel we have been totally abandoned. It has been a scandal. Hundreds of millions of pounds have poured into BT and Openreach and their vans are all over place. They are putting in cabinets that connect to copper wire, through which we can get an effective signal about 30 yards from the cabinet. So those of us who live in the outlying villages will never get broadband. There are little red dots on the BT maps that say “you’re never gonna get it”.
It is making a huge difference to educational and economic prospects: our farmers tear their hair out, I cannot even buy things online from my favourite shops and as for downloading things, it is not enough. What I want to know is: how are we going to get an adequate strategy that enables us to get a realistic deliverable timetable? To me this is as important as electricity and a clean water supply. Can the Minister, say something to cheer up us unconnected village folk of Brockdish and Thorpe Abbotts, and the thousands round our county and all the other rural counties who have exactly the same problem? We are never going to catch up unless you give some real government support for local communities to get it in.
My Lords, I join the deserved chorus of congratulation for the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on securing this debate. I want briefly to address two issues: first the impact on young people, who in many ways personify the dilemma of digital understanding. On the one hand, digital opens up for them a world of opportunity. On the other hand, the fast-moving world of social media presents great danger in terms of isolation, bullying—particularly homophobic bullying—and depression. Schools have a very fine balancing act. I am a governor of Brentwood School in Essex—I declare an interest accordingly—which is one of those showing the way in this area. It harnesses the power of digital to enhance and enrich learning by ensuring that every child in the school has their own iPad. At the same time it strives to keep children safe by keeping control of the technology by banning mobile phone use during the school day, encouraging pupils to use technology in a family space and advocating social time without the distraction of any devices. I am sure that that will be music to the ears of the noble Lord, Lord Sugar. That seems to me to be a good way of squaring the circle of empowerment and safety. It is a challenge all schools must face up to.
In my own world of the media—I declare an interest as executive director of the Telegraph Media Group—the digital revolution has allowed us to reach out to huge new audiences. Today 39 million people in the UK digitally access news on the industry’s websites, and many hundreds of millions worldwide. Last year, content on those websites drove 1 billion social media interactions. That is a phenomenal success story, but it has come at a price. As all noble Lords know, the digital revolution has destroyed the business model which sustains the news publishing industry as advertising revenue has shifted online. For many in the business it is a race against time to adapt and to find new revenues. I am confident it is a challenge that can be met, provided the industry is free to adapt unburdened by excessive and punitive legislation including, of course, the odious Section 40.
One area of great concern is fake news, which is central to this area. Fake news has been with us ever since the printing press was invented, and always will be. What has changed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, said, is the impact of social media, where algorithms connect users to news by second guessing what the user might like rather than assessing its quality. As it thrives, it attracts advertising from reputable brands and Government. Fake news causes real social harm by reinforcing so-called “filter bubbles” that warp people’s understanding of the world and insulating them from opposing views.
There is no easy answer to that, but one thing we need to do is ensure the sustainability of the real, verified, regulated news which appears in UK news brands. Like many others, I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to establishing a digital charter which will go a long way towards dealing with some of these issues. I also believe that while fake news is an important issue in its own right, it is actually part of a much wider problem of the sustainability of the news industry, and the structural changes in the advertising market from the establishment of a duopoly of news aggregators. That is an issue to which we shall have to return.
My Lords, in 2007 the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, appointed me as the Minister for Digital Inclusion. It was as bizarre an appointment to me as it was to my friends, but one of the most significant actions I took when I did that job was to recommend the appointment of the noble Lady, Baroness Lane-Fox, as the digital champion for our country. She did a wonderful job, and has done a brilliant job this afternoon in introducing this extremely important debate. She talked about the difference between skills and understanding. I think when I was Minister I had some skills, but I did not have much understanding. I hope this is better now.
What certainly is better is that 10 years ago there were about 17 million people in our country who had no digital skills at all. That figure has now gone down to about 11 or 12 million so there has definitely been an improvement. But there are of course still parts of our society where an awful lot more work has to be done: among older people, who can benefit enormously from digital skills, whether by shopping or by talking to their relatives abroad, or whatever it might be—that has got better; among younger people from different socioeconomic groups and from poorer groups in society, who will not get jobs unless they are digitally literate; and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans told the House, among disabled people, whose lives can be greatly enhanced if they are linked up to the internet.
However, there is another divide, too, which is between the different parts of the United Kingdom. In England, in Humberside, Yorkshire and the West Midlands, there is a deficit, and there is certainly a deficit in Wales, where I come from, and in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Therefore my plea to the Minister today—this has not been mentioned yet, so I hope that he can reply to me on this—is for him to say how he will bring together the different parts of our country on the issue of digital improvement.
The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare—who is of course himself a Welshman—talked about the orchestra and the conductor. The fact is that in the United Kingdom there is more than one orchestra. There is the English orchestra, but also the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish ones. How will the Minister and the Government co-ordinate the work of all the different Governments in the United Kingdom and to share experience and best practice? There is one way of doing it, which is to ensure that they look at the various institutions which allow them to do just that. There is the British- Irish Council, which brings together Ministers and Governments from these islands, and the Joint Ministerial Committee. It seems that there is a great job of work to be done there to ensure that we approach digital inclusion, digital skills and a better digital understanding right across the United Kingdom. I look forward to the Minister’s response on those issues.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for this debate and I declare my interests as laid out in the register, particularly as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
The potential for public services to use information technology to provide opportunities to improve lives and empower people is great but the reality is that, here in the UK, this is grinding to a halt. We started well but now we have moved into the slow lane. There is now a focus on measurement, cost efficiency and the model of new public service management—on digitising the back office and self-service—and not on how to improve lives and deal with long-held social ills and lack of opportunities for people to reach their potential.
A Deloitte report in 2015 might shed light as to why. It is clear that those leading in the public sector do not really understand the digital world—they see it as a way of doing what we do now but just via a different platform. Some 89% of leaders in the public sector say that they see digital as a way of cost-cutting and not transformation, and 25% said they do not even have the skills to execute the limited plans now being undertaken.
IT is here for the public sector to take advantage of, yet the lack of a design-led and innovation culture, knowledge, governance rules, legislation and digital leadership for doing so is now sadly missing for the next step of a digitally led facilitating and networking public service. For our public sector to transform, we need to address the following. We need leadership at both political and managerial level, building a network of people with the skills, knowledge and understanding to guide the new world, not a governance model of regulation that is concrete and suited to Victorian ideas of government built on siloed pillars. But we also need to build a network for citizens who can support each other and empower each other to understand the risks and the opportunities that technology brings, not a top-down paternal approach that is so yesterday. Data should be seen as for the citizen and by the citizen. Look at Estonia, which is changing the power between state and citizen. The reason why a lot of people do not understand is because citizens are seen as passive and not holding power, but they could be empowered. A new HR strategy is needed to look at leaders who are design-led—networkers and co-producers, not technical experts—and who know the offers of IT transformation that are real, as well as the ones to be avoided. For this to happen we need a clear path—a direction to go forward with. That is vital if we are to transform people’s lives.
I also thank my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox for introducing this very topical debate. I declare an interest as patron of Citizens Online, a national charity set up to tackle issues of digital exclusion. Its focus has been supporting the public, many of whom are elderly, to develop digital skills, while helping partners to improve service delivery.
I noted in the brief of techUK that, while businesses are increasing their digital awareness, 38% of SMEs still lack basic digital skills. It is also alarming that one in 10 adults in this country has never used the internet, and many more are missing out on the opportunities the digital world offers, whether through lack of connectivity—we have heard a lot about that today—digital skills or motivation. Although the digital world has been inexorably marching forward over the last 20 years, providing ever more efficient services to businesses and the public through the internet, only now is there a new revolution about to occur. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, that just as the Industrial Revolution transformed the nature of manual work, artificial intelligence—AI—is set to dramatically change the nature of white-collar work and the service industry. I am talking about chatbots replacing call centres, credit decision officers being replaced—even accountants, lawyers and truck drivers. A confluence of change means that AI has reached the flashover point—computer power, availability of huge volumes of data and the fact that digital channels for interacting with businesses and citizens are now preferable.
Time precludes me from speaking about data privacy; we shall have plenty of time to do that on the data protection Bill. The AI revolution will happen in years, not decades. Time is of the essence. The very global nature of business and the internet means there is scope for any country to become specialist and dominant in this sphere, with all the associated export benefits, as well as maintaining its own interests, both economically and from a security point of view. The United Kingdom cannot afford to be complacent in believing that its superior education system will be enough to provide a front-row seat. A proactive campaign is essential to raise digital understanding and for the United Kingdom to lead from the front. This is necessary at all levels, enabling business to leverage the opportunity and become more competitive on a global playing field. Just as Estonia is a world leader in digital skills, we need to ensure that the United Kingdom is at the forefront of the AI revolution, as it was in the Industrial Revolution.
My Lords, I also commend my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox for securing this debate but, beyond that, for continuing to champion the digital and tech agenda as she does with such alacrity and passion. We have heard many fascinating speeches and insights this afternoon, so I will keep my comments brief and to two areas. The first is digital’s contribution to our economy and our global competitiveness. To coin a once popular phrase, if we are to win the global race, delivering the pipeline of digital skills and digital understanding is a necessary condition of success.
There are lots of positive signs. Tech City UK’s recent Tech Nation report found that in 2016 UK digital tech investment reached £6.8 billion—higher than any other European country. However, we need to do more if we want to reap the benefits of moving to a fully digital, tech-savvy economy. For example, according to research from O2, 745,000 additional workers with digital skills are needed to meet rising demand from employers over the period 2013-17. I am interested to hear from the Minister whether we are on track.
What more needs to be done in policy, particularly, as my noble friend Lord Baker mentioned, on education? One example is coding and software development. Coadec—the Coalition for a Digital Economy—has identified key areas. One concern is mathematics and a lack of students taking further maths qualifications—a necessary precursor for developer training. Indeed, data show that for the proportion of students studying any maths after 16 years old, England is in the 0% to 10% category, yet countries as diverse as Taiwan, Russia and Japan are in the 95% to 100% category.
The second area that I want to consider is something that the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, has spoken about—that this challenge does not merely concern new and exciting digital factors but is also about whether our entire population can participate in the life of the nation. We need digital skills to participate, but we also need the understanding to equip us to deal with the rapidly changing technological landscape. I am delighted to be participating in the House of Lords Artificial Intelligence Committee. As my noble friend Lord St John mentioned, this area is evolving rapidly, enhancing diverse areas from healthcare to finance. But AI is also making us subject to decisions made by algorithms without fully understanding how they work and how AI may affect humanity.
Coadec suggests making access to digital education free for all adults just as we have done with adult literacy, with good results. I could not agree more. We must capitalise on all opportunities for global Britain, particularly in the light of Brexit, but we must also realise that improving digital understanding at all levels is an opportunity to increase participation in our national life. Winning the global race means ensuring that everyone can take part.
My Lords, I may be the 30th speaker to congratulate my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox on introducing this debate with a fantastic speech. It is no less heartfelt for being the 30th, but I will be brief. I welcome the debate for three reasons. First, the emphasis on digital understanding is very refreshing. We have had debates about digital skills before, but the need to look at the some of the wider issues we face is brought out by this whole concept of digital understanding.
Secondly, I believe that this House is well placed to explore some of the wider issues. As this debate is demonstrating, Members of this House can bring the whole range of expertise to bear, illuminating the constitutional, ethical and social consequences of the digital revolution. My third reason for welcoming this debate is that it offers a chance, at least briefly, to commend the Government for their digital strategy, which was published last March.
I make three comments arising from the strategy. The first is the obvious one relating to the issue of digital understanding before us in this debate. The Government’s digital strategy is rightly focused on areas where practical progress can be made—for example, in infrastructure skills training or start-up growth opportunities. These are obviously crucial, but do the Government see the need to give a lead in the examination of the wider issues that have come out in this debate? Will they, for example, lead the debate on some of the public policy and regulatory issues ahead, on questions of privacy around big data, on concerns about censorship and freedom of expression around the internet, or on the profound ethical issues raised by AI and the social issues around digital exclusion?
My second question about the digital strategy is more specific—about digital skills—and is one I have raised before in this House. The one certainty about digital technology is continuing change, and the digital skills required are not something to be left to be learned at school. They require access to lifelong learning opportunities for everyone. We all need opportunities to reskill and retool throughout our working lives. Are the Government giving sufficient priority to lifelong learning?
My final point is that the digital revolution is obviously a global megatrend. It has the capacity to offer major opportunities to change lives for the better, to generate economic growth and to improve national well-being, but as this debate demonstrates, there are many wider policy issues which require examination and discussion. Given the many other huge policy challenges the Government are grappling with, can the Minister assure us that our digital future is being given the priority it so clearly deserves?
My Lords, may I be the 31st speaker to congratulate, quite justifiably, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on initiating this debate and on the way she introduced it? This has been a really important debate and of course it has stimulated terrific contributions from all sides of the House. I declare the interests in the register in relation to ombudsman services, Queen Mary University of London, the AI Select Committee and the all-party AI group, all of which seem to have coalesced in this debate, which is a very strange experience.
There have been some very powerful and well informed speeches today on skills, on infrastructure and on inclusion. I am not going to go over that ground: it was extremely knowledgeable and I agree with a huge amount of what has been said, particularly on the state of our infrastructure. I recommend that the Minister take his holidays in Estonia in future, rather than with the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart: that might be a sensible solution.
The noble Lord is aware, of course, that Estonia insists on every citizen having an identity card, which is a smart card.
I was going to deal with the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, later, but if he talks to the Government Digital Service about blockchain technologies, he might find that the technology in the Verify software will move into blockchain and therefore there will be no need for identity cards. I am very happy to give him a little instruction later.
I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, that we need to look at the broader issues relating to digital understanding. Indeed, doteveryone has a very interesting agenda, bringing to our attention that we cannot simply compartmentalise some of these issues—that is why we have had such an interesting debate today. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, reminded us about the pace of change and the fact that we are in a new world, with digital technologies opening up new opportunities around prediction, machine learning, the internet of things and the use of algorithms. We need to take action, as the noble Baroness urged, on digital understanding. It impacts on our lives and affects the choices we make as citizens, and the decisions that are made about us and for us by businesses and government bodies, particularly in ways that affect us financially.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, made an extremely important point about the impact of immersion in the screen world. We need to understand the impact that is having on us.
Of course, there are also very strong positives, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, reminded us, as did the noble Lord, Lord Patel, in terms of healthcare. We must ensure as we experience the “fourth industrial revolution” that we know who has power over us and what values are in play when that power is exercised, including in terms of social media and fake news, as the noble Lord, Lord Black, reminded us. Of course, that includes us as parliamentarians and public servants, as my noble friends Lord Kirkwood and Lord Scriven reminded us. It is vital for the proper functioning of our society and, as the Government declare in the context of their statement of intent on the new data protection Bill, for the maintenance of public trust.
The Government’s digital strategy touches somewhat on the issue of digital capability but we need to go much further. There are three crucial elements I will briefly highlight in this context. The first is the need to understand the power of big data and what is known as data capitalism. I think the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, would refer to it as “Big Brother syndrome”. What is being collected, when, what is it being used for—as the noble Lord, Lord Mair, said—how reliable is it and who is it being shared with? How long is it retained and when can it be expunged? What is the impact on those who are not of an age of majority? Many of us, having worked on the Digital Economy Bill and about to work on the new data protection Bill, will not have a readily available answer. I am sure the Minister will enlighten us.
We need to be able to look beneath the outer layer of the tech giants, as many noble Lords today have reminded us, to see what the consequences are of signing up to their standard terms. What redress do we have for misuse or breach of cybersecurity or identity theft? What data are they collecting and sharing? I believe very firmly, as my party does, in the need for a digital Bill of Rights so that people’s power over their own information is protected.
Secondly, we need to understand the impact—sometimes beneficial but also sometimes prejudicial—of AI, machine learning and the algorithms employed on the big data that are collected. The noble Lord, Lord Rees, reminded us about chatbots, a growing feature of our lives: semi-autonomous interactive computer programs that mimic conversation with people using artificial intelligence.
On algorithms, I recommend Cathy O’Neil’s recent book Weapons of Math Destruction as autumn reading. The potential for bias in algorithms, for instance, is a great concern. How do we know in future when a mortgage, grant or insurance policy is refused that there is no bias in the system? I have argued on a number of occasions for ethics advisory boards when those algorithms are employed in the corporate sector. There must be readily understood standards of accountability, and with these go explainability and transparency, remediability, responsibility and verifiability. A whole raft of different areas needs addressing. The concept of accountability, and with it responsibility and remediability, in particular, means that our complaints and dispute resolution systems must be fit for purpose. That means being readily accessible and understood. If ombudsman schemes are to continue to be effective in improving business practice and in tackling consumer detriment, their role and capabilities must change. These schemes must understand and engage with fairness in an emerging digital world.
Finally, there is the need for young people starting in higher and further education to have the tools to understand the challenges of the future and the skills they will need. We have had very important contributions on the secondary sector. What skills will be in demand in the future? The Royal Society in its Machine Learning report makes a strong case for cross-disciplinary skills. Other skills include cross-cultural competency, novel and adaptive thinking and social intelligence. We need new, active programmes to develop these skills. To be able to make career choices, young people need to have much better information, at the start of their working lives, about the growth prospects for different sectors. We are going to need skills in creativity, data usage and innovation, but we may well not need quite so much in the way of analytical skills in the future because that may be done for us. In the face of this, young people need to be able to make informed choices about the type of jobs which will be available. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, made that point.
It is vital that we treat AI as a tool, not as a technology that controls us, and the greatest priority of all is the need to ensure public understanding. Public awareness of AI and machine learning is extremely low, even if what it delivers is well recognised. We then have to go through the question of what kind of values we want to instil in our new technology. The noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Lady O’Neill, raised this point. We cannot be cyber romantics—an extremely good phrase in the circumstances; we need to establish what the noble Baroness aptly called a “digital civilisation”. We do not yet have consensus on that, but I hope that as we work on, develop and debate the Government’s digital charter we will be groping our way towards some kind of understanding of what the future world should look like.
My Lords, in her excellent speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, called herself a “dotcom dinosaur”. I beg to differ. I think she was suggesting that her time had passed and that she was a fading force in the scene. That is simply not true: she is a star. We all value the contributions she has made and continues to make in this area and long may she continue. In particular, her willingness to acknowledge the dark side of the digital world, such as poor employment conditions, cybercrime, cyberbullying, fake news and identity theft—I welcome the fact that that was also picked up by the former Minister—was very refreshing and gave a very good start to this important debate. If digital is now something we are, not something we do, she is right to suggest that we parliamentarians have a duty, as the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, said, to understand this better and to do something about the problems that we perceive.
The theme which has come through most strongly this afternoon is that digitalisation has brought us both good and bad. As the noble Lord, Lord Rees, said, we have got information, convenience and entertainment but we also have sources of crime and loss of privacy. The price we pay for what is often called a “free” service—though it is certainly not that—is that we let companies, the Government and others learn all there is to learn about us. We have no control over who owns the data about us, no idea where they are kept and how they are used but, on the other hand, this flow of personal data leads to products and services that respond more quickly and precisely to our needs and can help give better value and improve productivity. That is why the noble Baroness may be right: as we live more of our lives online there is no doubt that we simply must improve our digital understanding.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and other noble Lords were right to warn us of the category error of confusing digital skills with digital understanding. However, it would be wrong if the Minister does not pick up in his response the problem of the need for basic skills to be properly funded and introduced across the country. The importance of infrastructure was so wonderfully explained by the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, and the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy. I was going to deal with some issues to do with technical training and skills, but time has cut into that.
Two points have not had enough attention. The first is the need to make the UK a safe and secure digital economy. Ensuring safety and security is a role for government and it is important that we understand how this happens and what will work. The UK needs to aim to make itself the safest place for people to go online. Young people must be supported to develop digital resilience to navigate the online world safely. As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, there is a huge amount of catching up to do in this area under the Department for Education. There is good practice, but it is not nearly sufficiently well bedded.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, talked about data ethics and the noble Lord, Lord Mair, touched on this in relation to the data—which underpin all parts of the UK’s ever-digitising economy—that need to be looked at much more carefully in order to get the most out of this revolution. There is another side to this, which has also been raised. A data-driven economy and its licence to innovate will work only if there is public confidence in which data are used and the ethical decision-making employed in using them. As has been noted, that is something which we will return to when we get on to the data protection Bill.
This has been an extremely good debate; one of the best that I have witnessed and been involved in in your Lordships’ House. It will serve as a taster for the Bill as it comes forward. I hope the Minister will be able to explain where we are on that and when we are likely to see a draft, because it would be quite interesting to see what it contains.
It has been said, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, was right to remind us, that we still have many issues around some of the points that are coming up here. We need to look at the powers which the Bill may contain to give people the right to ask for material on the net to be deleted; the power it may explicitly give to hold or withhold consent to our data being used; the power to protect our online identity by extending definitions of personal data and our right to contest decisions that are made about us by algorithms—a point that came up in some of the later contributions.
This has been a very interesting debate. I take from it that improved digital understanding will help us to benefit more from the good and make us less of a victim of the bad. At the end of her remarks, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, suggested—and others have picked up on this—that a digital charter might help with the process of improving digital understanding. As we sit here, around us are the effigies—or perhaps I should say the avatars—of those barons who were involved in the original Magna Carta. They wish us well.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness and everyone who has contributed to the debate. I have 10 minutes and about 50 minutes’ worth of material, so I will speak fast and hope I will be able to answer some questions.
This is obviously an extremely important subject, as demonstrated by the contributions around the House. I have certainly enjoyed the debate. As everyone has said, there are good things and bad things about our digital world, but the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. The noble Lord, Lord Sugar, expressed it more succinctly: “Get over it”, he said. We will have to cope and I will try to explain how we will.
We have three overarching goals for digital technology. First, we want the country to continue to be what it is today—a world-leading digital economy and the best place in the world to innovate with technology and to start and grow a digital business. Secondly, we want all the benefits of digital to be enjoyed by everyone, rather than be the exclusive preserve of tech professionals. Thirdly, we are committed to making the UK the safest place in the world for users to be online. I will come to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, is right to highlight the importance of awareness and understanding in accomplishing these goals, but we need the skills to be in that position. I do not have time to outline them, but we are making enormous efforts to develop and enhance these digital skills. If I have time, I will come to some of the educational areas that we are looking at. If not, I will certainly write to everyone who has asked a question which I have not managed to get to.
Thanks to these efforts, we are in a position of relative strength on digital skills internationally. However, that is just one part of the story. Increasingly, people need digital skills in every aspect of their lives: shopping, doing their taxes and getting the best healthcare. So we are taking action on every category of digital skills: basic skills, the general skills needed in most jobs, and advanced skills for specialist roles such as cybersecurity. I will not go through those now, because it is important to focus on what the noble Baroness outlined in her very good opening speech.
The technology promises bountiful opportunities and rewards, but it comes with challenges and threats. These threats are to our security, privacy, emotional well-being, mental health and safety—especially the safety of children. Society’s norms, rules and institutions must all evolve so that technological progress delivers a better world for everyone. That is the underlying thinking behind the digital charter that the UK Government will introduce. It will set out a framework for how businesses—including the huge digital corporations mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens—individuals and wider society should act in the digital world. This is absolutely not just a task for the Government. Over the coming months we will work with businesses, academics, charities and the wider public to build consensus around what this framework should be.
An important part of that work will be the publication of the internet safety strategy Green Paper. This will ask for views on a range of options to counter internet harms. We talked a lot about that in the progress of the Digital Economy Bill last year. Through the strategy, we want to agree the balance of responsibilities shared by technology companies, teachers, parents and the Government in keeping people safe online.
I turn to the difficult issue of social media. The Digital Economy Act requires the establishment of a code of practice, to be issued and reviewed if necessary by the Secretary of State. This will offer guidance to providers of social media platforms on action it may be appropriate to take against users of the platform who engage in intimidating or insulting behaviour. We expect online industries to ensure that they have relevant safeguards and robust processes in place and to act promptly when abuse is reported. The data protection Bill will give individuals more control over their data. We are working also towards an international consensus, which is so important in this area.
I return to the concept of digital understanding. The Government have put forward the idea of establishing a data use and ethics body, which will I believe address some of the examples given by the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin. This will establish a sound ethical framework for understanding how data can and should be used. It will address both the needs of the present and the challenges emerging on the horizon as data use becomes ever more sophisticated. Importantly, it will ensure that the public have confidence that their data are being handled properly, that businesses have the assurance that they are handling data with integrity, and that regulators and Parliament are equipped to identify and guard against abuse. We will be very interested in people’s views, and the body will consult widely. Since we mentioned it in a debate in this House in July, we have been working with stakeholders such as the Nuffield Foundation, the Royal Society and the British Academy to identify the roles and functions. So the Government are working with the public, tech companies, education and training providers, and charities such as that of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, Doteveryone, on this vital agenda.
I will quickly come to as many of the questions as I can. The noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, asked if digital was a priority of this Government. I confirm that it is a priority—which is reflected in the fact that my department has now been renamed the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The noble Baronesses, Lady Lane-Fox, Lady O’Neill and Lady Kidron, asked whether we would make a clear articulation of values online. We absolutely agree with the importance of articulating those, which of course is why we are going to introduce a new digital charter and set out a framework, as I mentioned. Our starting point is that the delicate and careful limits that we have honed over generations for life offline should apply online, too.
It is true that I went to inspect my noble friend Lord Cathcart’s broadband, which I would describe as slow but sure. However, being serious, this is difficult. We are on track to reach 95% superfast broadband. For the 5%, there are problems, but I assure my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, that, in her words, there has been real government support for this. More than £24 million of central government funding has been allocated to better broadband for Norfolk. That has been matched by local council funding, which means that more than 173,000 additional homes and businesses are able to access superfast broadband in Norfolk. I accept that, for people who do not have it, this is a real problem—I have experienced it myself. But I also commend what the right reverend Prelate said about WiSpire fixed wireless providers. They would be particularly appropriate in Norfolk—which, as we know, is very flat.
Could I just ask the Minister whether he has seen trees in Norfolk?
I did not quite hear that.
I realise there are trees in Norfolk. I would have mentioned to my noble friend Lord Cathcart the work we have done on bringing forward 5G, but as he does not have a mobile telephone, there is no point.
The noble Lords, Lord Maxton and Lord Baker, talked about joined-up government activities on education. I cannot go into all the details now—I would be happy to write to the noble Lord—but the DfE is working closely with the DCMS in improving communication and coherence in digital skills. As an example of that, we have DfE officials in the Box today. We were the first country to mandate computing sciences in both primary and secondary schools. As I have said, I will write further to the noble Lord on our whole education provision.
The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, will remember that in the Digital Economy Act we took some time to talk about data in government departments and how they could be used, subject to relevant safeguards. We are making progress with that, but it is very difficult and we have to be careful with the safeguards. None the less, we have made a lot of progress. ID cards are a separate subject, which is probably out of date: it is much easier to microchip the noble Lord than to give him an ID card.
I am coming to the end of my time; I am sorry that I did not have the full amount of time. Lastly, I must add that we are giving attention to lifelong learning, which we take very seriously. As announced in the 2017 Budget, we are spending £40 million to deal with it. My time is now up. I will of course reply to all noble Lords who I did not even begin to answer. I wish I had had more time. These are vital issues, and the Government are working hard to address them, but we need to do so in partnership with academia, business, charities and other stakeholders. I also look forward to many more contributions from your Lordships on this vital subject.
My Lords, you would have thought that, as a director of Twitter, I would be expert in reducing complicated content to just 140 characters—but even I am flummoxed by how to concertina such an erudite and interesting debate into the few short seconds that I have left. I feel as if I had opened a huge dam—or perhaps that is not the right expression. Anyway, a huge amount has come out and a huge amount of emotion has been expressed. I hope we can continue the conversation. We need to have it, and more importantly, the country needs us to have it. I hope that Sir Alan—or rather, the noble Lord, Lord Sugar—will forgive me: I was on my device, but I was making notes, because I too have learned a lot this afternoon. I thank noble Lords for their contributions.
House adjourned at 4.33 pm.