Understanding the Importance of Universal Digital Suffrage

03/06/2015 12:36 BST | Updated 03/06/2016 10:59 BST

I decided to be an engineer for a number of reasons but one of the most important was that I saw technology as democratising and enabling. Technology building bridges and connecting people, rather than making weapons of mass destruction and snooping on people. And I still believe technology is an amazing force for good. But I know better than I did that it can also control and destroy and, particularly when it comes to networks, it can concentrate power.

We have the technology we aspire to, which is why last weekend's Web We Want festival headlined by Tim Berner-Lee, was well timed. The very same weekend Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without parole for founding Silk Road, the leading 'Dark Web' purveyor of drugs, weapons and other illegal services.

Ulbricht called himself 'Dread Pirate Roberts' but he did not receive, thankfully, the death sentences meted out to the pirates, highwaymen and smugglers of old. Still this next-to-ultimate sanction marked for me the interment of 'www: wild west web', the concept of the web as beyond the reach of legal frameworks. That did not prevent at least one commentator referring to 'lawless cyberspace' when discussing Ulbricht. If cyberspace was lawless then how on earth could someone be sentenced to prison because of what they did there? Cyberspace is not lawless. That is not to say that there will not be new leading dark web sites and that illegal activities will not continue on the web, just as they happen on the highstreet or indeed in the workplace. But these activities are illegal rather than occurring 'beyond the law'.

The sentencing of Ulbricht is a clear sign that the web is part of our civic and civil society. And that is both an opportunity and a responsibility to define the kind of web we want.

And nowhere is this more important than in digital government. As Shadow Minister for Digital Government I often said that the next government would be the most digital ever. I naturally hoped that it would be a Labour Government, to ensure progressive, inclusive and empowering digital government services‎, which were efficient and saved money but also pushed power out from the centre

But it is the Tories who will lead our Government into its digital future. Our job is to hold them accountable. And there are two key tests I shall consider.

Firstly who owns public sector data? Before the election Labour committed to enabling citizens to own and control data about them held by Government. Public sector data shouldn't be owned by the Government - it's the people's data, let the people have control of it, rather than being left on the side-lines hoping that the Government doesn't sell it to the highest bidder. Data is becoming one of the most sought after 'commodities' in the world, driving new business models and attracting investment. The Government will be faced with a serious of choices on how they collect and treat our data and if we are not vigilant citizens will see their data nationalised away from them.

The second question is who has access to digital services. GDS have done a great job in putting services online, making them more agile and responsive, but the last government forgot digital inclusion for most of its tenure. When it did finally get round to thinking of inclusion, it demonstrated a wholesale poverty of ambition, its target for inclusion was (and remains) 90%. So one in ten will never have access to digital services. Labour is closer to the ambitions of Martha Lane Fox with her doteveryone approach. Not to support people to get online whilst making it mandatory that some key services are accessed online is a recipe for frustration and misery. I regularly see in my surgeries constituents who are forced to go to foodbanks to survive, having lost all benefits because they cannot sign on, or do their mandatory work searches, online. That is unfair. And it is also a massive stain on technology, turning it from a force for good to a force of oppression.

In the 19th Century the Tories finally came round to the idea that universal suffrage was a democratic prerequisite. As change is happening more quickly, we shall seek to make them understand the importance of universal digital suffrage in the next few years.