The Government's Digital Economy Bill Merely Tinkers Around The Edges And Ducks The Challenges Presented By The Digital Revolution

18/10/2016 08:21 | Updated 18 October 2016
Jorg Greuel via Getty Images

We are only at the start of our digital revolution and the challenges and opportunities are almost unimaginable. The revolution is burgeoning in unexpected, unusual places as if to confirm the comprehensive, all-encompassing nature of this fourth industrial revolution: farmers using millimetre accurate GPS to guide their crops, or start-ups using blockchain to address financial inclusion.

Digital, though, is a more than an upstart; it is transforming the way we consume, interact with each other and the world around us. We are seeing new types of work, new products and markets and the good news is, the UK has one of the largest digital economies in the world.

In amongst this disruptive mass of technological change, the Government has unveiled a Digital Economy Bill which seems, generously, to merely tinker around the edges while ducking the challenges we face.

Labour believes that this should have been a Digital Future Bill looking at how we support the digital economy so that it works for everyone: thinking about skills and education, Digital inclusion, workers' protections in the gig economy, the ethics of Big Data and data sharing, digital infrastructure, taxation, digital public services, financing for start-ups particularly outside London, WiFi in public spaces, the progress of open data policy making and post-Brexit the ability of companies to recruit specialists.

On those challenges and opportunities the Government is silent.

We don't oppose areas of policy for the sake of it, and there are some much-need needed measures in this Bill but it is frankly not ambitious enough for the sector or the country.

Take the Universal Service Obligation for broadband for example - extending a legal right to every household in the country for 10mbps (megabits per second) by 2020. For anyone who has ever suffered with poor broadband you'll be somewhat underwhelmed with 10mbps. And you'd be right. The danger is the USO speed will be outdated even before its introduction and five years, let alone ten years down the line, it will seem like a relic of a bygone age.

The Bill also covers some measures on nuisance calls, on protecting children from age-inappropriate content on the web and on data sharing between government agencies.

Labour's DCMS team is tabling dozens of amendments to strengthen those areas, attempting to do the Government's job for them but the truth is this Bill, limited by the imagination of the Ministers, can never be ambitious enough for our growing digital economy. And it isn't just the opposition that is saying that; everyone from the tech sector to digital rights campaigners and trades unions are rightly underwhelmed.

We have been waiting for over a year now for the Government to publish its Digital Strategy; still nothing. The industry is crying out for some vision and direction from the Government and this is the best they can come up with - a collection of disparate measures that will actually do nothing to help a single tech start-up, SME or established company in the country. The very real fear is that Ministers and civil servants will congratulate themselves on a job done, tick the box and not think about the digital economy for another 5+ years.

Well I'm afraid that simply isn't good enough.

That's why we'll also be working with the industry, with the workforce and with interested parties to develop our own digital industrial strategy that will tackle all these areas so that we can work in partnership to tackle the challenges that are presented by the digitisation of our economy and make the most of the benefits they bring.

We simply cannot wait for Government to do it for us.

The digital economy brings a new set of employment intermediaries, such as Uber, TaskRabbit and Deliveroo whose workers in the informal 'gig' economy enjoy few rights and protections and a total lack of stability of employment. The market as it currently stands means that the benefits of the digital economy accrue amongst the few at the top who rely on the low-skilled, low-paid, exploited, insecure workforce at the bottom. The recent revelations around ASOS are an excellent example of precisely that imbalance.

But it is possible to address these problems whilst harnessing the incredible advantages that are on the horizon. From improved efficiency in public services and lower costs to developments in healthcare and science that we can't even dream of now. Working with the industry and with partners across the labour movement, Labour will ensure that we hold the Government to account on this and prove it is possible to be on the side of both business and workers in this digital age.

Louise Haigh is the shadow digital economy minister and Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley