These are heady times for the corners of government where technology policy is developed. For years a nerdy backwater, then briefly a dating agency for ministers desperate to get closer to Silicon Valley, tech policy is now getting very serious indeed. And I’m not just saying that because I’m the Executive Director of Technology and Public Policy at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. There seems to be a constant clash between politics and tech. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
Technology has always caused change. What we now call “tech” follows the Industrial Revolution, electricity, the motor car, the bomb and a million other smaller developments. Each in its own way has caused change across economies, societies and politics.
In recent years digital technology has disrupted industries, blurred national boundaries, and unsettled political structures. Some of this has been painful, and occasionally genuinely dangerous. But nobody serious thinks we can wind back the clock.
Instead, the choice facing policy makers is between an open, optimistic posture and a closed, defensive one.
The former recognises that technology and government co-depend and can work together. The latter wants to show technology who is boss.
Thus we see governments everywhere competing to get tough on Big Tech: to make them pay taxes, make them accountable for their content, or make them change their operating model to let other businesses compete.
From the Online Safety Bill in the UK to cryptocurrency regulation, well, everywhere, tech policy is in danger of becoming a dogfight.
One reason for this is that “tech” is easily personified in the shape of five or six enormous businesses. The prominent profiles of their leaders have made things a little personal. But even accounting for personalities, it’s hard not to see states looking a little worried about their place in the world.
That three tech businesses can report combined profits of $50 billion in a single quarter is seen as threat enough. That some of the businesses can make decisions which could potentially swing elections is even worse. Even where the companies do the right thing, and kick bad behaviour off their platform, governments now start to twitch because they see such decisions as naturally theirs to take.
Governments are therefore mobilising to take on tech. This is risky. For one thing, policy makers might fail to bring about the results they really want. Regulate one big tech platform and the benefits might fall to another. Create a huge compliance challenge and new entrants might find building a business dauntingly difficult.
But more importantly, technology itself just goes marching on. The questions of how to make an economy more productive, how to support a changing society and how to transform government will not go away. They will just be harder to answer without engaging properly with how technology and politics really work together.
So for governments who want to find a progressive approach, there are three major challenges.
The first challenge is recognising and promoting values. Technology can evolve and be used in unexpected ways. But more often than not it embodies something of the values of the people who make it or are able to control it.
The best example of this at present is social media. Governments understandably look at a young billionaire from a foreign country who is able to give a Caesar-like thumbs up or down to content available to half the world, and shudder.
The temptation therefore is to strip away platforms’ ability to decide what can be seen and leave that to the law. But for progressive governments, living with independent institutions making important decisions is very much part of the job. States should not control everything. Instead, progressive governments together should be looking to promote the sort of values they endorse – openness, free expression, accountability – as the norm for digital platforms.
Delivering this is difficult, and progress will be uneven, but if the platforms feel unable to take decisions, the values they come to embody may well look even worse. And leaving the decisions in the hands of political appointees carries its own dangers.
The second challenge is separating “tech businesses” from “technology”. Governments around the world are looking at what the regulatory structure for tech businesses should look like. The shape and behaviour of businesses has changed, they say, so regulators need new tools to react quickly and stamp out abuse of dominance.
This is a mostly fair analysis, but it is not really “technology” policy. Governments might constrain the behaviour of a handful of tech businesses. But this is mainly about money. By chipping away at the value of tech businesses, governments will do little to influence the nature or use of technology.
If governments can resist some of the pressures to escalate these fights, they might save space for the third challenge: harnessing technology to deliver policy, and to refresh the way government operates.
They might start with economic policy. Supporting the growth of economies by driving up productivity has been a preoccupation of policy makers for a long time. There are compelling arguments that while technology is vital to this task, and local jobs are important, boosting native technology sectors is not the answer.
Instead, governments will achieve the greatest results encouraging technology adoption across all sectors. This points to the usual focus on skills and infrastructure, but also on programmes to support small business transformation and clusters of innovation.
As business transforms, so can government. An efficient and effective state in the 21st-century cannot look and feel like one established in the 19th-century. There has been progress, and many services are now available online. But this needs to be the tip of the iceberg: unless governments can disrupt the underlying system and find a new way of organising and delivering public services, they will fail to deliver the standard of government people need.
Governments today face a unique set of policy questions. At the Tony Blair Institute, I lead a team of more than 40 policy and subject matter experts researching, writing and engaging on these policy questions. From crypto, digital identity and cybersecurity to climate change adaptation and fostering tech start-ups, we provide research and analysis and propose practical policy solutions to help leaders grappling with the pitfalls and potentials the tech revolution can bring.
For example, governments who cannot find smarter ways to prepare for, mitigate and manage another massive event like Covid-19 will find voter patience in short supply. If there has ever been a case for an ambitious health technology policy, which tackles issues like how to live longer and healthier, how to leverage the possibilities that genomic surveillance brings and how to implement and use digital health passes in a way that helps improve people’s lives, this is it.
At the same time, the prospects for limiting the effects of climate change look bleak without a more concerted technology strategy, especially in low-income countries where climate crises are hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. The belief that as-yet unknown innovation will fill the gaps in the decarbonisation plan seems a big risk. Any government serious about delivering its pledges will need to work with technology businesses to find the incentives and structures that actually deliver.
These are the things governments should really focus on. They will need to work with each other and the best of the technology sector. They might need to challenge the worst of that sector. But a government that worries only about mastering tech is unlikely to succeed.
In other words, it is time to stop obsessing about what governments can do to technology and focus on what technology can do for governments.