In the summer, the European Union hit Google with a £3.8billion fine for “serious illegal behaviour” after finding that Google was making phone manufacturers pre-install its search and browser apps on Android devices.
Apple has just paid a multibillion dollar fine to the Irish Government for illegal tax activities. And in September, the EU announced it would investigate Amazon for using data from third party sellers to gain an unfair advantage when selling products.
When it comes to taming the tech giants, there is definitely strength in numbers. While I was glad to see the Chancellor take long over-due action when he set out plans for a UK-only digital services tax in the Autumn Budget, unilateral action won’t be enough.
It is far too easy for these companies to find legal, though complex, set-ups to avoid paying their fair share of tax. They’re far too slippery for any single national tax regime to get a hold of. The Chancellor did commit to continue working with the EU on a multilateral solution, but now that we have decided to leave the club, it’s unlikely we’ll get much of a say on how that should work.
Tax is just one of the current battle fields with the tech giants. Another is fake news. We have yet to fully understand to what extent fake content posted on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter influenced the US Presidential election and the EU referendum in the UK. And despite their promises, we cannot be sure that the platforms are doing enough to guarantee that our future elections won’t be compromised.
This is simply not good enough. Until a few years ago, Facebook’s unofficial motto was “move fast and break things”. And we know that still reflects much of the mentality in Silicon Valley. But I certainly don’t want these tech giants to be quite so callous with our democracies and our civil rights, for which we have worked so hard as a continent and for which so many gave their lives.
A growing area of concern is the design and use of artificial intelligence (AI). It has incredible potential to improve our lives, from how we move around our cities to how we diagnose and treat illnesses. But if the right ethical principles are not embedded in it from the design stage, AI could also perpetuate some of the worst aspects of humanity, for example by entrenching bias and discrimination.
In my view we need a Lovelace Code of Ethics for data scientists, similar to the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath. But for it to really work, we need to get Europe—and others around the world—behind it. How this could be done is one of the questions I will be exploring with leading tech industry experts through the Liberal Democrat Tech Commission, which had its first meeting just last week.
Brexit has already done untold damage to our international reputation – and we haven’t even left the European Union yet. Over the last two and half years, all we have told the world is that we are better off on our own – that we don’t need their help and we have no interest in fulfilling our responsibilities in the global community. We have given our closest allies every reason to exclude us and to stop relying on us.
This is going to hurt us the most. So many of the challenges we face today transcend national borders. We can’t stop climate change on our own, nor can we guarantee the security of our country without cooperating with others. And it will be a great irony if we spend all this time and effort supposedly taking back control, only to then hand it over to foreign tech giants and unaccountable algorithms.
Leaving the EU will leave us isolated and vulnerable right when we need our friends the most. Only now do we know just how much it will cost us and all the promises that have been broken. It is only right that we go back to the people with all the facts and ask them to choose the future they want, with the option to stick with the deal we currently have as members of the EU.
Jo Swinson is deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for East Dunbartonshire