Manifesto tech takeaways: Lib Dems pledge ‘firewall’ to keep Home Office from collecting data and trebled tax for tech titans

The party’s plan for government includes a wide variety of detailed programme, policy and legislative commitments for digital and data that seem intended to rebalance power between institutions and individuals

With less than a week left until the general election, the general consensus seems to be that, since the poll was announced, no-one has had more fun than Ed Davey.

But, while he has been busy baking, frisbeeing, and watersliding, the Liberal Democrat leader (pictured above) and his party have also been making time for rather more serious business of preparing for government. This much is evident in the publication of a manifesto that is longer and, invariably, more detailed than either of the two major parties.

This policy heft is strongly reflected in a wide-ranging set of commitments for the state’s use and regulation of technology and data.

Here are five to look out for.

Digital services tax
Perhaps the most eye-catching tech-related commitment is one that doubles down on an existing government policy. Trebles down, in fact.

First announced in late 2018 and brought into effect two years later, the Digital Services Tax imposes a 2% levy on all UK-derived revenue – above an annual threshold of £25m – of social networks and online marketplaces, covering the likes of Meta, Amazon and Google.

The Lib Dems have announced that, if elected, the rate would be increased to 6%. This would form part of wider plans to “make the tax system fairer and raise the money needed for our investment”, according to the manifesto.

At its current rate – and after several years in operation –  the Digital Services Tax (DST) was originally expected to bring in £440m a year.

But figures released by the National Audit Office after the measure’s first full year in effect, 2020/21, HM Revenue and Customs received £358m – some £83m higher than the tax department’s original estimate of £275m.

“The initial forecast assumed that business groups would seek to minimise their DST liability, but [HMRC] had not observed such behaviour,” the NAO report said.

Digital rights and literacy
Alongside the proposed raising of the tax burden, the Lib Dems set out various other measures that seem intended to level the balance of power between individuals and tech giants.

The manifesto states that, if elected, the party would “empower consumers and ensure that everyone can enjoy the benefits of new technology, by setting a UK-wide target for digital literacy”.

Tech manufacturers, meanwhile, would be subject to additional rules “requiring all products to provide a short, clear version of their terms and conditions, setting out the key facts as they relate to individuals’ data and privacy”.

Beyond consumer issues, the party proposes the creation of a broader “Digital Bill of Rights to protect everyone’s rights online, including the rights to privacy, free expression, and participation without being subjected to harassment and abuse”.

These legislative measures would be accompanied by the creation of “national and local citizens’ assemblies to ensure that the public are fully engaged in finding solutions to the greatest challenges we face, such as… the use of artificial intelligence and algorithms by the state,” the Lib Dems propose.

The party believes there is a need for a wider “cross-sectoral regulatory framework for AI that… establishes transparency and accountability for AI systems in the public sector [and] ensures the use of personal data and AI is unbiased, transparent and accurate, and respects the privacy of innocent people”.

Home Office blocked by personal data ‘firewall’
If the Liberal Democrats were in government, one of its major departments would find itself subject to much stricter limitations on how much data it could collect, and how it could put such information to use.

The manifesto sets out a plan to “establish a firewall to prevent public agencies from sharing personal information with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration enforcement”.

The Liberal Democrats would also remove existing measures in UK data-protection law in which public bodies can be exempted from upholding individuals’ rights if, according to the Information Commissioner’s Office, they can demonstrate that doing so would “would be likely to prejudice the maintenance of effective immigration control or the investigation or detection of activities which would undermine the maintenance of effective immigration control”.

The NHS has previously been subject to requirements to share data with the Home Office about patients’ immigration status.

The manifesto also pledges that Lib Dems are committed to “ending the bulk collection of communications data and internet connection records” – a practice that has quietly grown in recent years.

A PublicTechnology investigation two years ago uncovered work to create a national digital service through which authorities can search for and obtain citizens’ internet connection records from communications firms. The public bodies responsible, the Home Office and the National Crime Agency, declined to comment on our story, as did the UK’s 16 leading broadband providers and mobile network operators, and the primary trade industry body for ISPs.

But, while some data collection would clearly be significantly curbed, others would face new obligations to make public the information they hold; the Lib Dem manifesto outlines a policy of “mandating all water companies to publish accessible real-time data on any sewage they dump”.

Ring-fenced NHS digital budgets
The Liberal Democrats’ plan includes a range of measure to boost the NHS’s use of technology and data – with the aim of, ultimately, improving patient outcomes.

This includes a commitment to “expanding virtual wards and investing in [other] new technologies that free up staff time and allow people to be treated at or closer to home”.

The party also echoes the pledges of its rivals by setting out – rather imprecise – plans for “replacing old, slow computers to free up clinicians’ time to care for patients [and] requiring all IT systems used by the NHS to work with each other”.

The use of technology should be so ubiquitous and connected that “every care setting has electronic records that can feed into a patient’s health record with the patient’s consent” – a permission that would be ensured by a commitment to “protecting patient data and patients’ rights to opt out of data sharing”, the manifesto says.

Other healthtech measures set out by the Lib Dems include expanding the use of the current NHS Digital Staff Passport – which allows employees to swiftly share their details with NHS trusts, making it easier to move jobs or take on shift work – will be expanded to cover the care sector.

For care users, meanwhile, the party would “develop a digital strategy to enable care users to live tech-enabled lives”.

The ability of the health service to invest in tech would be protected by “ring-fencing budgets to enable the NHS to adopt innovative digital tools that improve patient care and experience and save staff time and costs”.

For health and care technology developed by third parties, the Lib Dems would establish “a new kitemark for health apps and digital tools that are clinically proven to help people lead healthier lives”.

A Cyber Geneva Convention?
As the use of cyberattacks, disinformation and other digital warfare techniques has grown in recent years, many have suggested that the world requires a new or dedicated agreement in the mould of the Geneva Conventions.

The conventions, which pass their 75th anniversary this year, outline international standards for the humanitarian treatment of both civilians and military personnel during wartime, and the rights that should be extended to enemy combatants and citizens.

The age of cyber warfare seems to bring with it a blurring of the lines between those two groups and the Lib Dems pledge that they would “support and promote the development of international treaties on the principles and limits of the use of technology in modern warfare”.

The party would also seek to re-establish to the UK’s participation in European cooperation agreements that would result in “restoring direct, real-time access for UK police to EU-wide data sharing systems to identify and arrest traffickers, terrorists and other international criminals”.

Elsewhere in the world of defence, security, and justice, the Lib Dems pledge to put in place “a new data strategy across the criminal justice system to ensure that capacity meets demand, and to understand the needs of all users, especially victims, vulnerable people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds”.

Sam Trendall

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