Lee Rowley MP: Our big tech questions needs answering - will you help us?

Amid growing concerns around just how responsible the digital technologies we use every day really are, Conservative MP Lee Rowley explains why a new cross-party Commission with BCS and Oxford University is needed to ensure ethical practices in technology development are assured.

As Mark Zuckerberg finishes a two-day grilling in front of the US Senate, it is difficult not to feel as though we may be at an inflection point in our relationship with digital technology. Seemingly not a day goes by without the news being filled with coverage of data misuse, the vague worry about machines taking our jobs or intelligent algorithms analysing our every thought. We have yet to properly understand exactly what happened with Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook user data, before we even think about broadening the discussion to the next wave of developments about self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and big data.

Polls suggest the majority of the public does not trust the technology it relies on every day, and the point at which that lack of trust translates into debate about how technology really is going to impact on our day-to-day lives may be nearing. Opaque decisions are being made without any explicit ethical reference point, but with far-reaching human consequences, and our awareness of this is growing each day. People are getting to the point where they want to understand more about how the digital products and services they use on a day-to-day basis actually work, how they make money and how far they have been designed with the needs and values of their users in mind - and also what decisions are being taken effectively on their behalf by technology companies. In a world of network effects and digitisation, people have limited choices and there is currently limited competition, so how can we ensure that our digital lives are run with our best interests in mind? 

These are big questions, and as the use of these new technologies has increased exponentially, the requirement for some clear thinking on how we can ensure ethical practices are established and followed has become ever more important for society. Our lives are seemingly dominated by immense technological development. That is why we need to ensure the principles on which these new opportunities lie are both sensible and ethical. Failure to do so means we will be perpetually, and unsatisfactorily cleaning up after the technology invariably produces unethical outcomes or, worse still, that we miss the opportunity to set an appropriate framework before technology takes over and embeds itself even further into everything we do.

It is for this reason that Labour MP Darren Jones and I are co-chairing a newly-established cross-party Parliamentary Commission on Technology Ethics. With the help of Oxford University’s Professor Luciano Floridi and BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, the Commission will examine the complex questions associated with tech ethics. What we hope will come out at the end will be some concrete, tangible recommendations for how we can improve the ethical standing of emerging technologies, now and in the future.

We will be scoping the main focuses of the Commission in a meeting in Parliament next Tuesday, 17th April at 12-2pm. The event, hosted by the all-party parliamentary groups for data analytics (APGDA) and for internet, communications and technology (Pictfor), and are keen for all interested stakeholders to let us know what themes and areas they feel should be addressed.  As an early demonstration of the great interest in the topic, the event is currently functioning with a waiting list, but if you are interested in attending please contact events@pictfor.org.uk as we would like to involve as great a range of views as possible.

Interestingly, the meeting will be taking place 24hrs before Cambridge Analytica’s Alexander Nix returns to parliament to face a select committee; something that should focus our minds on precisely why a clear and ethical approach to technology is so badly needed.

Lee Rowley is the Conservative MP for North East Derbyshire

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The BCS Policy team works to inform and drive the debate on public and private IT policy developments.

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September 2018

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