Conservative MP Ed Vaizey has called for an overarching privacy framework to protect citizens from the growing threats to freedom posed by big tech.

"At the moment, I do think there is an opportunity to regulate tech provided you know what it is you want to regulate and provided you work in partnership with tech," Vaizey said at the Privitar In:Confidence conference in London.

© Crown Copyright
© Crown Copyright

He argued that the growth of data collection and intrusive new technologies such as biometrics made a compelling case for "a comprehensive privacy framework that protects us all, whether it is your local supermarket or a global corporation like Facebook."

"I think that's probably potentially a more coherent way forward," he said.

The former Minister of State for Culture and Digital Industries added that the business operations of big tech have made every element of regulation that affects them potentially open to changes. 

"Everything that we're talking about in terms of regulation, whether it's competition regulation, or regulation in terms of access to your data, is up for grabs because of the way the tech companies are operating," he said. "The European Commission has been pretty effective in taking on Google and others in terms of anti-competitive behavior as opposed to antitrust and breaking them up. But certainly I think our competition authority still takes a very analogue approach."

Vaizey admitted that it can be hard for politicians to balance limiting the power tech companies and appealing for them to bring business to the UK, but believes that this should not be a barrier to regulation.

"Politicians quite rightly want to attract investment in the UK," he said. "We welcome Amazon setting up data centres, or Microsoft setting up data centres, or Facebook and Google effectively having their European tax-free headquarters here, and employing a significant number of people, but that shouldn't prevent us having a proper go at regulation."

He added that the global nature of the tech giants made it harder to regulate them on a national level than companies with services in the UK, such as broadcasters.

"With broadcasters regulated in the UK, they are at least physically broadcasting from the UK, even if they're broadcasting 12 countries, but with Facebook, the services are not necessarily here," he said. "So there are some obstacles, but I certainly think there wasn't enough of a push from the top to really grasp this."

Politics of regulation

The scale and reach of big tech companies and the mystique around how their services function has convinced some to believe that they belong in a unique category of regulation, but the objective of their operations are nothing new. Like any other business, their behaviour is driven by profit.

"What always amazed me about tech regulation, was the tech community saying that you cannot regulate the internet, if you dare to regulate the internet you'll censor or you'll intervene in something you don't understand," said Vaizey.

"We regulate food standards, so you know the things you buy from Tesco are safe. And it seems to me completely bizarre that somehow tech regulation is off the table for politics, an example of government stepping in to a remit it doesn't understand or stifling creative artists. It's nonsense. When half the population is using this product, the idea that it's completely unregulated seems to me completely bizarre."

Ade Adewunmi, a data transformation consultant and former leader Government Digital Service's data infrastructure programme who was speaking alongside Vaizey, added that the current regulatory bodies are incapable of auditing the likes of Facebook.

"I think we need to see a lot more funding and resourcing for regulators," she said. "Being able to regulate these large organisations, requires skills and requires infrastructure, but also requires legislation that changes the framework and allows some auditing. I can't think of a single regulator that will be operating in these spaces in the UK that has the capacity or capability to effectively audit even one."

The transformative impact of technology has given rise to the belief that we are living at the beginning of a fourth industrial revolution, but Vaizey believes this is an inadequate description of the environment that his fellow MPs have to regulate.

"It's not Industrial Revolution 4.0," he said. "It's actually the Guttenberg press, which incidentally, led to a revolution and bloodshed all over Europe, because it effectively helped people challenge the authority of the church.

"Similarly, this is the Gutenberg press of the 21st century, and it's throwing up an enormous amount of challenges of how our society adapts and reacts."