November 12, 2019

David Cameron on regulating tech, criminal gangs and the Wild West internet

Former British prime minister David Cameron speaks with Alexander de Carvalho from venture fund Public about the current digital agenda and the role policymakers should play in it. 


6 min read

Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron looks at his notes before delivering his speech at a rally at the Milton Keynes Academy Saturday March 27, 2010. Photo By Andrew Parsons

Ahead of the GovTech Summit taking place in Paris later this week, former British prime minister David Cameron speaks with Alexander de Carvalho from venture fund Public about the current digital agenda and the role policymakers should play in it. 

The UK saw many advances in the way the government uses technology during your premiership. What should be the agenda today?

When we came to office in 2010 the government’s approach to technology could best be described as “analogue”. It was the second decade of the 21st Century yet our public sector was still using fax machines, pagers and paper records. We were determined to change that. We merged 1,700 government websites into one: We made services, from car tax to power of attorney, “digital by default”. We created the Government Digital Service and published reams of government data, spawning new businesses such as CityMapper. Critically, we created the Digital Marketplace to help smaller firms sell their products more easily to governments. And by 2016 the United Nations ranked ours as the most digital government in the world.  

But we cannot stand still. Other countries inspired by our approach — indeed those governments we even trained in our approach — could overtake us. The first answer is doing more of what works — migrating more services to digital, publishing more data. The second answer is bringing principles that are flourishing in the private sector, for example in fintech and medtech, into public services, which form a big part of my focus post-politics. What will facilitate all of that is making sure the digital mindset permeates all of government. Training is key, particularly for those who procure such services. The better officials understand digital developments the better services governments are able to provide.

How do we strike a balance between allowing innovation to flourish but not allowing large, winner-take-all companies to gain unfair market advantage or play fast and lose with citizen’s data?

The reliance on big companies was a real problem when we took office. I remember Francis Maude coming to me one day exasperated that of all the people in the Office of Government Commerce no one could tell him who the top-20 suppliers were. All we knew was that Labour had negotiated enormous five-year IT contracts. Opening up procurement to smaller businesses, removing barriers that hindered them and publishing data that would help them was key to unleashing innovation. It was a big part of what enabled us to embrace a digital future. We need more of that.

But at the same time we have to ensure that such innovation happens safely. There can be the unintended consequences of unbridled innovation. I saw that first-hand as prime minister — indeed, I wrote about it in my book — when I clashed with tech companies over their insistence that they were merely platforms, who could not prevent people from typing child pornography terms into their search engines. Eventually Google and Microsoft agreed that 100,000 terms would yield no results except a warning: that child abuse was illegal. From that experience I became convinced that we can achieve tech success while putting the privacy, safety and security of our people first. It doesn’t have to be either/or. But to achieve it we do need robust, independent regulators who are focused on competition and the consumer. And politicians need to let them get on with the job. 

What kind of technology scares you and what fills you with hope?

There are lots of areas of technology that fill me with hope but the main one is in health. This is where I see it all coming together — technological advancement, big data, machine learning, private sector innovation and competition, government backing and the greatest needs of our society today. In fact, one of my proudest endeavours as prime minister was in this area. With the US firm Illumina, which pioneered the practice of whole genome sequencing, we were able to sequence 100,000 genomes, helping us build up a picture of cancer and rare diseases (a project which has since been expanded by the heath secretary Matt Hancock). Moreover, as president of Alzheimer’s Research UK, I see how key tech is when it comes to confronting our biggest killer. From monitoring people’s smartphone activity to detect early warning signs, to observing global trends across vast datasets, we are relying on tech — in its micro and macro forms — to defeat the diseases that cause dementia.

But, of course, technological advancements can be used for ill as well as good. During my time in office the use of technology by terrorists, hostile states, criminal gangs and, as I’ve mentioned, paedophiles rose to the top of the agenda. The balance we’ve got to strike — again, this tech tightrope we’re walking — is ensuring innovation can flourish while heinous practices are prohibited. The internet should not be like the Wild West. But nor should it be a police state. 

In your book you describe how the Leveson inquiry in 2012 led to the establishment of a new, robust regulatory body for the UK’s press and media, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). You comment how surprised you were at the lack of attention given to online and social media. Do you think that it’s time for a full review of these new forms of media?

Yes, it’s shocking really: just a few paragraphs devoted to what has become one of the biggest challenges of our age. Leveson implied that people take online content with a pinch of salt. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only do people listen to fake news, they build whole echo chambers out of it and never leave. And just as technology changes, regulations have to evolve — and that doesn’t just apply to the press and social media. Think about surveillance. There was a time when we had to change the law to give permission to spooks so they could steam open envelopes and listen in to telephone calls. But nowadays the people that would do us harm aren’t writing letters or calling on landlines, they’re emailing, texting, sending encrypted messages online. That is why one of our first big moves in government was compelling companies to retain communications data.

A lot of people worry about how the state will use their data. Is it wise for the state to be so involved in data collection?

Both the WikiLeaks and Snowden scandals happened during my time in office. I am aware of how dangerous hacking can be to our national security. People are also right to be alive to the risks involved with the gathering of their personal data. That is why it is incumbent on all of us who are championing new technologies and the gathering of data to make sure it is done so in a way that is safe. But I am optimistic. I think of all the manpower, creativity, intellect and enthusiasm devoted to technological progress. If we applied those things to these vital issues of safety and security around our data — and we must — then I know we can take people with us, and, above all, keep them and their information safe.