A series of panels at the annual Parliament and Internet conference hosted by the cross-party Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum (Pictfor) explored themes around broadband availability and its impact on inclusion, data privacy and security.
In a wide-ranging speech at the event, shadow digital economy minister Chi Onwurah said the current government was failing to grasp the opportunities around the digital economy – particularly when it came to the use of big data and the internet of things (IoT) to innovate and improve productivity.
Onwurah said the default government position was to do nothing, and called for a more progressive “interventionist industrial strategy”.
Asked what she might include in a hypothetical communications white paper, were she sitting on the government benches, Onwurah picked on three themes – digital exclusion, the IoT and data privacy and security.
She said that, in her constituency of Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central, she saw people come to her surgeries who were unable to get online to conduct their mandatory job searches to continue to claim benefits, so were sanctioned and had to resort to food banks. Onwurah challenged the secretary of state for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, to consider the impact of digital exclusion in his controversial welfare reforms.
Onwurah also called for greater emphasis on improving ICT literacy in the government, alongside ongoing efforts to get more students to pursue Stem subjects at school and university.
“We need better skills, and we need more emphasis on the skills of our public servants and the third sector,” said Onwurah. “They are the front line of the digital interface with the public.”
Who owns your data?
Onwurah – along with a number of security experts – took part in a debate on whether or not the growth in digital services meant the end of privacy, which raised questions over the use of personal data and website cookies to serve intrusive advertising.
Renate Samson, chief executive of Big Brother Watch, said that, having cheerfully given up personal information to the likes of Facebook for many years, it was only now that people were beginning to become aware of the value of their personal data. He suggested it was time to have a conversation over taking back control of it.
Onwurah, who related a story about being constantly served adverts for a product she bought online after having bought it, said that ownership of one’s own data should be a means of empowerment.
On the question of exactly how to get more control back into the hands of users, Abeed Janmohamed, chief revenue officer at Eagle Eye Solutions, suggested user education could be made incumbent on the advertising industry.
Elsewhere at the day-long event, BT Openreach boss Joe Garner went head-to-head with Hyperoptic CEO Dana Tobak and Sky director of communications products Lyssa McGowan, to discuss broadband roll-out and the future regulatory environment, in a spirited debate.
Garner said Ofcom should consider more predictable regulation to encourage the larger-scale investment needed to advance the national broadband roll-out.
“Certainty and clarity are needed to give investors the confidence to commit millions of pounds to projects where payback periods are measured in decades,” he said.
McGowan at Sky said that, without renewed regulation on Openreach, providers such as Sky would “lose all the benefits of the past 10 years and be forced back into being resellers of a wholesale product”.
“BT has 75% of the fibre market. BT Retail can set the strategy of Openreach, and we see that coming through in fibre time and time again. Ofcom must refer this market to the Competition and Markets Authority,” said McGowan.