Industry and government must show that technology is a force for good to avoid losing the trust of a public feeling nervous and angry about technology and excluded from the digital economy, the government’s top tech official said last week. Julian Blake reports.
Speaking at the launch of Nominet Trust’s five-year NT100 report in London, Matthew Gould, the director general for digital and media policy at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), said people working in technology “are engaged in one of the most exciting, positive, life-affirming important projects in the world, in building the digital economy and exploiting all the things it has to offer”.
But Gould – the civil servant responsible for UK digital policy – said those working in technology were in danger of losing a public that felt excluded by fear of technology, a lack of confidence and skills or simply an inability to get online. People were nervous about the internet and what it meant for their safety or the safety of their children; and there was a growing sense that there weren’t rules, with issues like tax and fake news affecting public trust.
“If we are not careful, we will have a group of people who are immersed in it, understand it, love it and who are really going for it.” said Gould. “Then we risk having a really big group of people who are bewildered by it all, a bit discombobulated, left behind and angry.”
Gould leads on implementing the government’s digital and media policy, including internet safety, digital skills and data protection. He is overseeing the introduction of the new digital charter and internet safety strategy green paper, which closes for consultation on Thursday.
“We mustn’t leave people behind,” he urged the Nominet Trust audience. “We need to know that all our citizens have the skills, the confidence and the support and the access that they need to be part of the digital economy. Because there’s no point creating a fabulous digital economy if you leave behind a substantial portion of people who just basically become digital have-nots. That is emphatically a work in progress.”
Gould said the public needed to see that the issues they care about – like corporate tech tax and fake news – were being addressed. “With the internet, we need to make sure that we create a framework of how it should operate in a way that enhances and encourages innovation rather than stifles it.
“That’s going to be a hard trick to pull off, but we have to do that if we want the UK to be the world’s best digital economy, as the government wants it to be. But if we want our citizens to feel comfortable in that digital economy, then we have to show that we can do both those things at once.”
In a clarion call for tech for good, he said: “We need to make sure that tech is part of the solution, whatever the problem is. Whether it’s health to housing or development, or whatever it is, technology should be there offering solutions.”
“Part of keeping the faith of the people is in showing, demonstrating, vividly, over and over that when society has problems, when people have problems, the tech sector is there coming up with solutions. If we can work out how we work together to resolve some of these issues, or at least make progress on them, then I think actually it is achievable.”
The NT100 five-year report, out in January, features 10 case studies from its social tech guide, highlighting the power of tech for good, including in mobile, battery, 3D printing, food and geolocation technology.
Welcoming the report, Gould said: “Nominet Trust’s work over the last five years is incredibly important. It shows the positive value of tech by bringing together industry, government, civil society and the private sector to help society overcome its problems.”
Gould took up his role as director general in 2016, charged with ensuring the UK has the “world’s best digital economy”, following a spell as director of cyber security at the Cabinet Office. During five years British ambassador to Israel, he set up the UK-Israel tech hub.