Sunday, 28 November 2021

Labour calls for closer scrutiny of tech firms and their algorithms

LONDON: Labour’s industrial spokesperson has called for the algorithms used by technology firms to be made transparent and subject to regulation, as the party prepares the new year launch of its industrial strategy consultation. Shadow minister Chi Onwurah wants to see greater scrutiny of the mathematical formulas that now control everything from the tailored news served to Facebook members to the speed at which workers are required to move around an Amazon warehouse. “Algorithms aren’t above the law,” Onwurah warned this weekend. In a telephone interview on Sunday, she said: “The outcomes of algorithms are regulated – the companies which use them have to meet employment law and competition law. The question is, how do we make that regulation effective when we can’t see the algorithm?” Labour’s industrial paper, due to be published after the Christmas break, will call for suggestions on how tech firms could be more closely supervised by government. “We expect algorithms and data rights to be considered as part of that consultation,” said Onwurah, who was shadow digital economy minister before taking on the industrial brief. “Algorithms are part of our world, so they are subject to regulation, but because they are not transparent, it’s difficult to regulate them effectively.” The business models of technology firms are increasingly being challenged by lawmakers. Google’s shopping and advertising services are under investigation by the European commission, while Uber drivers won a landmark case at a London tribunal this autumn to be considered as employees of the ride-hailing app, and therefore entitled to a minimum wage and holiday pay.

The equations behind the operations of digital businesses are a closely guarded trade secret. Any suggestion that they might have to hand them over to government agencies is likely to trigger a major pushback from silicon valley, where many of the biggest names are headquartered. Some commentators have compared forcing Google to share its search algorithm to ordering Coca-Cola disclose the secret recipe behind its best selling fizzy drink. But pressure for reform is mounting. Social media platforms are being blamed for allowing the spread of misinformation and online abuse, conditions which some argue are fueling the resurgence of extreme politics in America and western Europe. There are also signs that Google pages are being distorted by the spread of unchecked hate speech. Many search results are now reinforcing extreme views, with articles denying the holocaust or disparaging women increasingly appearing at the top of the rankings. Facebook has swung between relying entirely on maths and employing humans as well as software to weed out fake news, pornography and extremist propaganda. “If people were falling very ill after drinking Coca-Cola, the company would have some duty to share what could be causing that,” said Onwurah, a chartered engineer who built telecoms networks before entering parliament.

“Google and others argue their results are a mirror to society, not their responsibility,” she wrote in a letter published Sunday. “Google, Facebook and Uber need to take responsibility for the unintended consequences of the algorithms and machine learning that drive their profits. They can bring huge benefits and great apps, but we need a tech-savvy government to minimise the downside by opening up algorithms to regulation as well as legislating for greater consumer ownership of data and control of the advertising revenue it generates.” She has raised concerns about Google being given access to NHS patient data. Its British subsidiary DeepMind, which specialises in machine learning, has signed an agreement with the Royal Free Hospital in north London to develop an app that will warn doctors when patients are at risk of acute kidney injury. Junior health minister Nicola Blackwood revealed, in response to parliamentary questions, that the government had not been shown the details of the agreement or discussed it with the hospital. “Labour is having to raise the debate because the government is years behind on this and refuses to face up to the challenges of the digital era,” Onwurah said. The government says it is introducing greater protection for consumers and in particular for children online. The digital economy bill, which is awaiting approval from the House of Lords, is designed to ensure that websites that allow children to access pornographic content will be blocked.

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