Labour must resist Tory deregulation of AI and set out an alternative vision

Jeni Tennison
© everything possible/

It feels like you can’t move for headlines and hype about the current artificial intelligence revolution. It’s not grabbing as much airtime as ChatGPT, but new legislation being debated in parliament on April 17th is of major significance for the future of data and AI in the UK. It’s also a chance for Labour to articulate a compelling alternative vision.

On March 8th, Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, announced to the party faithful on the ConservativeHome website that “at long last, as an independent nation once again, we have the power to eliminate this one-size-fits-all hulk [GDPR] and replace it with an agile, British, bespoke, common-sense alternative”.

Desperate to demonstrate a Brexit dividend, the occasion was the re-launch of the previously withdrawn data protection and digital information bill. The bill lights a fire under the EU’s GDPR and is framed by Donelan as saving the public from pesky cookie pop-ups on websites and businesses from red tape.

These much-lauded savings are, by the government’s own estimates, just £82 per business per year, in exchange for a whole new set of confusing rules. But the bill does much more than that. As data and AI become embedded in all areas of our ‘datafied’ lives, the bill further weakens the power of people to exercise their data rights, individually and collectively. Power that is desperately needed to make sure that data works for us all, not just big tech and government-by-algorithm. Power to achieve Labour’s industrial strategy goal of ‘harnessing data for the public good’.

Arguments against this bill aren’t about being anti-innovation or technophobic. Rather, as Harold Wilson said in his 1963 conference speech, it’s about avoiding the “blind imposition of technological advance” and instead directing “the conscious, planned, purposive use of scientific progress”.

Take the way data is used in the workplace. The bill reduces the need for human review of automated decision-making, the ability for people to see what data is held about them and the chance to raise concerns pre-deployment. For millions of workers, that means being increasingly subject to algorithmic performance management and ‘robo-dismissals’ without ever understanding the targets you’re expected to meet – let alone being able to negotiate them. Masquerading as ‘pro-innovation’, the bill is part of a deregulatory race to the bottom that will fuel precarity and public distrust of technology, undermining the responsible innovation it’s supposed to unlock.

For these and many other reasons, Labour must resist the worst of this bill. But it must also be seen within a bigger picture of technological transformation, fuelled by data and AI.

The Tories have laid out their vision: let AI rip and tell the public they better like it. Just as the bill de-fangs the Information Commissioner’s Office, the government’s AI white paper, released last month, sets out a weak approach to regulation. This is out of step with both industry and the public. Just a few days earlier, prominent global voices on AI called for a pause on tools like ChatGPT so that society could catch up. And shockingly, only 27% of people, by the government’s own polling, believe that tech companies are sufficiently regulated to protect the publics’ interests.

Labour needs to spell out their alternative. At its heart needs to be the recognition that data-driven technologies can drive progress and productivity, but that they can also intensify inequality and societal disruption. They affect us all in every aspect of our lives: as workers, at school, as patients and at home. And we therefore need an empowered public voice equal to that of industry and government. In practical terms, legal force should be given to individual and collective rights, empowered and independent regulators and support for the development of socially useful tools, not just those hyped by AI companies.

The beginnings are there in Labour’s industrial strategy. At Connected by Data, we have been working with Labour and leading data and AI thinkers to further develop the underpinning principles for a progressive approach to technology and hardening them into meaningful and compelling policy positions.

Most immediately, this starts with resisting the ways in which the data protection and digital information bill takes us backwards. But this is also an opportunity to get out in front of what is, alongside net zero, the most profound societal shift we will experience in the next decade. Labour must give people hope that data and AI can be used to help build a just society. The rapid drift towards AI just serving the interests of a few powerful players is not inevitable, but a political choice.

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