Daniel Hannan: If a restaurant can refuse to serve you, Amazon can refuse to host Parler

20 Jan

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Trump’s Twitter ban is being treated as a free speech issue, but it isn’t. Properly understood, it’s a free association issue. The First Amendment to the US Constitution does not give Americans the right to say whatever they want in whatever forum they please. What it says is that “Congress shall make no law” abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.

In other words, provided you stop short of direct incitement to criminality, you can legally say whatever you like. But, though the government can’t shut you up, there is no obligation on anyone else to provide you with a microphone. You have the right to free speech, but everyone else has the right to free association. A restaurant can refuse to serve you because you’re not wearing a tie. A hotel can turn you away because it doesn’t cater for children. An online platform can reject your custom because it doesn’t like your opinions.

Whether a platform is wise to exercise that right is a different question. When I was an MEP, Facebook, Google and the rest used to fall over each other to assure us that they had no editorial control, and therefore could not be held liable for anything that appeared under their banners. That argument is now redundant, and I suspect the big tech companies will come to regret the shift. But, as a matter of broad principle, our starting assumption should be that a private company can set its own terms and conditions and pick its own customers.

Freedom of assembly and association is, or ought to be, as fundamental a right as freedom of speech and expression. We talked a great deal about the loss of our liberties in 2020, but it wasn’t our right to worship, speak out or cast a ballot that was suspended. The heaviest constraint, the one we all felt, was being unable to congregate as we pleased.

You might think that the lockdowns would have made us appreciate a liberty that, in normal times, we take for granted. That, though, is not how politics works. In practice, every age sacralises certain values, lifting them above the run of normal debate. In mediaeval Europe, the works of the ancient philosophers were judged, not by their accuracy or logic, but by their compatibility with Christian orthodoxy. In our own day, it is the tenets of identity politics that have been sacralised.

Thus, instead, of having an abstract conversation about the value of free expression in a manner that John Milton or J S Mill would have recognised, we start by asking whether it is ok for people to say racist things – an odd way to settle a general principle.

Likewise, when it comes to free association, lots of people see the debate solely through the prism of whether an imaginary private club would be allowed to exclude someone on grounds of ethnicity – a scenario that could come about, I suppose, though it would surely be very rare in this day and age. Hard cases make bad law, goes the saying; and hard putative scenarios make bad general precepts. The correct way to determine our position on human rights is to start from first principles and then see how those principles apply to specific cases rather than the reverse.

What should our first principles be here? Most obviously, a presumption in favour of liberty and property. If people are to be prevented from getting together in whatever combinations they please, there needs to be a good reason. An epidemic might be such a reason. The expectation of equal treatment as a citizen might be another.

In balancing the competing claims of private property and non-discrimination, many countries draw a distinction between ordinary businesses and companies defined as utilities, diluting the rights of the owners in the second category. We might, for example, say that the owner of a small café has the right not to serve her ex-husband, but that she would not have an equivalent right to refuse his custom if she owned an electricity company. We might say (indeed, the law broadly does say) that a religious baker should not be compelled to decorate a cake with a message celebrating gay marriage, but that a railway could not withhold its custom from gay people.

Obviously, people can reasonably disagree about where to draw the line. But wherever we draw it, it should then apply to everyone equally. Equality before the law means precisely that. Either the café owner has the right to refuse someone service or she has not. “Laws” as Hayek said, “must be general, equal and certain”.

Where does that leave us with Twitter banning Trump, Amazon banning Parler and the rest? Well, either they are defined as utilities or they are not. If they are, then regulators can tell them whom to serve. If they are not, then they can ban anyone they like: Republicans, Protestants, left-handed people, cartwrights. It’s one or the other.

There may be an immediate test of the principle as the lockdowns end. The Government has, quite rightly, said that it will not make vaccination compulsory or issue immunity certificates. But what if a cruise ship wants proof of vaccination before you board? What if a gym requires a certificate as a condition of membership? I reckon that free association gives them the right to set their own terms. But, either way, the law must be general, equal and certain.

If test and trace is to succeed, a centralised approach won’t work

9 Oct

Despite being initially hailed as the main way to manage Covid-19, test and trace has proven something of a nightmare for the Government. From technological flaws in its contact tracing app, to u-turns on whether to use Apple and Google’s technology, the papers have been filled with negative stories about progress in this area.

Perhaps it could be said that this week has provided the biggest headache so far for ministers, beginning with the news that 16,000 people who tested positive for Covid-19 between September 25 and October 2 disappeared from official records in England.

This was reportedly due to Public Health England (PHE) using an outdated version of Microsoft Excel to process data. The spreadsheet could only handle a limited amount of information, hence why so many contacts were missed.

The result is that there are potentially tens of thousands of infectious people who have not been contacted; indeed, NHS Test and Trace apparently had to track down an estimated 40,000 Covid-19 cases.

Matters were made worse by the fact that Ring Central, NHS Test and Trace’s call system, allegedly failed to work too – locking workers out of their profiles for prolonged periods.

As if that wasn’t troublesome enough, yesterday it was shown that NHS Test and Trace contact rate figures have reached their lowest rate yet, with 68.6 per cent of close contacts of individuals who’d tested positive for Covid-19 in England reached in the week ending September 30 (the system needs to reach 80 per cent of contacts in order to be considered viable). 

Furthermore, it was shown that fewer than one in four people testing positive for Covid-19 receive their results in 24 hours – a far cry from Boris Johnson’s initial pledge that, by the end of June, results of all in-person tests would be back within that timeframe.

With all of these events, the Government can look forward to even harsher criticisms from Keir Starmer and the opposition on testing, which has repeatedly been called a “shambles”.

No doubt many members of the public, too, are wondering how many more of these problems are to come in test and trace; whether the strategy will ever work, and what it means for their livelihoods in the meantime. So what exactly has gone wrong?

Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain the repeated weaknesses in the contact tracing system.

The first, straightforward one is that the Government simply did not plan enough for a pandemic. Whereas countries like South Korea were able to deploy pre-existing infrastructure for contact tracing, the Government started from scratch – creating NHS Test and Trace, which has had to “learn” on the job.

Even more significantly, NHS Test and Trace highlights an instinct of the Government that has run throughout this crisis; its tendency to create large-scale, centralised solutions to managing Covid-19, rather than utilising existing systems (one of the main examples being its initial desire to build a centralised contact tracing app – instead of going with Apple and Google’s technology).

Many will remember Dido Harding announcing of NHS Test and Trace at its inception: “This is a brand new service which has been launched at incredible speed and scale.” But it is this speed and scale that might explain why there have been so many issues – as rushing something out of this complexity in a pandemic represents huge logistical challenges.

It could be said that the Government has missed a trick by not tapping into local teams and networks to carry out processes such as contact tracing. This is why Germany, Italy and much of Asia have got ahead, using large-scale local investment and resources to do contact tracing.

And indeed, when England started to switch to using local contact tracers, it made a massive difference to success rates. In the week to September 30, for example, these teams were able to reach 97.1 per cent of contacts, much higher than NHS Test and Trace’s rate of 68.6 per cent (done via online messaging or phone calls).

The added advantage of local teams is that they can help ensure compliance in those contacted, some of whom may want to avoid call centres – wary that a number beginning 0300 could mean a tracing team is getting in touch.

It’s not only that devolving responsibilities can enhance the tracing process, but decentralisation can boost testing too – which smaller labs in universities and the private sector initially offered to help the Government with. Instead, it has mostly relied upon PHE labs and NHS trusts to carry out this work.

While the Government should be praised for how quickly it managed to scale up testing, there have been problems with laboratories being too slow to process results (allegedly as a result of over-reliance on post-graduate science students to analyse lab results, who were only there over summer), and incompatibilities between systems – both of which might have been addressed with a more decentralised approach, and flexibility about which labs were used.

Robert Buckland, Secretary of State for Justice, since said that the Government would open 100 more test centres, including a “mega lab” on the way to enhance capacity.

But maybe this brings us back to the initial point – that the Government’s quest for new systems, as opposed to tapping into local and/ or existing solutions, might ultimately hold it back in accelerating testing. Instead of devolving powers, the Government’s instinct has always been to take more responsibility.

Will there be a change to the direction the Government is going in? The shift to using more contact tracing teams is certainly promising – and should be built upon, but given the amount of money, energy and investment that has gone into Test and Trace – along with the Government’s recent plan to merge PHE and NHS Test and Trace into the new “National Institute for Health Protection” – centralisation seems one area it is reticent to u-turn on.

Kate Dommett and Sam Power: We must act now to protect our elections from foreign interference

25 Sep

Dr Kate Dommett (University of Sheffield), and Dr Sam Power (University of Sussex) are the authors of Democracy in the Dark: Digital Campaigning in the 2019 General Election and Beyond.

Only now are we beginning to get the real picture of what campaign spending looked like in the 2019 election. Our new analysis shows that the £19.5 million the Conservatives raised in this period is greater than the sum total of reported donations to all political parties in 2017 during the same pre-poll period (that stood at nearly £18.7 million).

Where did it go? The official spending returns aren’t yet out. But we can catch glimpses through social media giants’ ad archives.

Digital campaigning is a big business. We estimate that spending on social media platforms increased by over 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2017. Of this, the three main UK-wide parties spent around £6 million on Facebook and just under £3 million on Google.

While Facebook was used by all three national parties to a relatively equal extent, the Conservatives invested dramatically more in Google (which includes YouTube). The advertising archives suggest the party spent £1,765,500, dwarfing the combined spend of £873,300 made by Labour and the Liberal Democrat accounts on this platform.

Yet despite these large numbers, online spend by parties made up only a fraction of the total political ad spend overall. Why? Because we are seeing the rise of the ‘outrider’. These so-called ‘non-party campaigns’ often spring up in and around elections – with the public in the dark about how they are funded, and by who. In 2010 there were 18 of these bodies registered with the Electoral Commission; by 2015 that number had nearly doubled to 30, and last year the figure had doubled again to 64.

While digital campaigning has huge, positive potential to reach out to voters, there is much we don’t know about who is behind online content. This has led to urgent calls for change.

Many of you will be familiar with the practice of putting ‘imprints’ on printed campaign materials. Bizarrely, 15 years after the launch of Facebook in the UK, there’s still no such rule for online material meaning the provenance of these ‘outriders’ is often not widely known.

In this transparency vacuum, social media giants’ have set up their own online ad archives, allowing us a glimpse of the scale of campaigning. But anyone who has used them will know they are insufficient, error-riddled, and often too vague to be useful. Often, we just don’t know who’s targeting us online.

Analysis presented in the report coded data from Facebook to identify 88 UK organisations as non-party campaign groups active during the 2019 election. These groups placed 13,197 adverts at a calculated cost of £2,711,452. Facebook knows who they targeted and why, but they provide only limited information about this in the archive. This makes it impossible to know what exactly is happening, and suggests a need for more transparency.

Whilst the government has rightly pledged to implement online imprints, this remains out for consultation. Whatever the result, it only scratches the surface. We have revisited the many inquiries that have been explored the issue of digital campaigning to highlight a number of simple and proportionate recommendations to protect a free and transparent debate, around which there is broad and cross-party consensus.

The need for online imprints – and soon – is clear. However, currently donations under £500 are not classed as such, meaning foreign actors could split up donations into smaller amounts to shift our political debate. Companies funding political interventions only have to generate a nominal amount of income in the UK. A simple change in law could clarify that campaigning by non-UK actors is not allowed. Given concerns about Russian interference, this kind of enshrined principle is vital.

Many of the recommendations in this report echo existing calls to modernise electoral law to help rebuild trust in our democratic system. It’s why the report has been backed by Cheryl Gillan. As she notes, we need honest conversations about the need for “more transparency in the money spent on campaigning in the electoral process, particularly in the light of the rapidly developing digital world”. Despite the huge growth of online ads, what was spent on digital campaigning is far from clear.

“We must continue to examine how we can ensure we have free and fair elections and what changes are necessary to our laws as technology continues to advance,” Dame Cheryl writes.

We cannot leave our electoral integrity in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley giants. Unfortunately, recent years have seen parties and campaigners become even more cautious about disclosing information about their campaign activities online.

Maintaining transparency needs an independent regulator, which is why we are concerned by threats to abolish the Electoral Commission if it cannot be ‘radically overhauled’. The ICO has major clout to investigate alleged wrongdoing when it comes to our data. We must give the same – if not more – gravity to our free elections.

With elections due to take place across the UK in May 2021, we cannot let the urgent task of ensuring our electoral integrity be kicked into the long grass once more, or set-backwards through the rash dismantling of our watchdog.

At present, it is exceedingly difficult if not impossible to uphold the fundamental principles of our democracy: of openness, transparency, and public trust. Digital campaigning has the potential to be hugely positive – provided we don’t let secrecy rule the day.

Sanjoy Sen: How can the Government accelerate a cleaner, more efficient future for transport?

10 Sep

Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer in North Sea oil. He contested Alyn & Deeside in the 2019 general election.

“It’s a bit like saying we’re banning the sale of steam engines by 2040″. So responded Aston University’s David Bailey to the axing of “conventional” (i.e. petrol and diesel) new car sales. As green alternatives improve and prices fall, which they both are at last, today’s vehicles will become obsolete long before any government deadline.

On the face of it, the road to zero-emission transport ought to be straightforward. Anything too big to lug around massive batteries (lorries, buses) works fine as a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle (FCV). Small stuff (private cars) are well-suited to becoming electric vehicles (EVs). And intermediates (taxis, delivery vans) could be either.

That, of course, overlooks myriad “where” issues: where to source the hydrogen and electricity, where to obtain battery metals, where to plug in. And that’s just one future scenario: the automotive industry is feeling highly uncertain with autonomous (self-driving) technology set to ultimately consign driving and car ownership to history. Furthermore, Covid-19 might fundamentally alter travel patterns, with greater flexibility replacing rush-hour madness.

Here in ConHome last month, Ruth Edwards MP proposed bringing forward the cut-off to 2030 whilst accelerating electric vehicle (EV) roll-out. Although I can’t violently disagree with that, EVs still aren’t an option for everyone yet. Meanwhile, others who could switch remain confused about technology and are wary of legislation changes. So, in the absence of a clear roadmap, how best might the Government help transportation to support the economy – and the environment?

Short-term: all about EVs?

Last year, I made some tentative EV queries. At one leading manufacturer, the UK’s annual allocation had long been snapped up on-line. At another, the dealer had plenty more customers than cars. Whilst I chose to hang back, EVs are fast becoming a practical, affordable proposition for many: it’s supply that can’t keep up until battery production ramps up and new models hit the market.

An increased purchase grant or scrappage scheme would offer manufacturers a much-needed short-term boost. But, as per Norway, could these become largely subsidies for the well-off? There’s only one thing I might contest in Edwards’ article: even Jeremy Clarkson isn’t berating EVs any more, it’s the dearth of plug-in facilities that infuriates him. To tackle the public’s fundamental concerns, government support might be better directed towards the charging network. (And, for that matter, energy storage.)

For many, however, EV prices and charging headaches remain a deterrent for now. But commuting on a small battery backed-up by a petrol engine whenever required might offer a near-seamless transition. So, rather than focussing solely on EVs, let’s see the Government recognise the value of plug-in hybrids and support these also.

But the biggest short-term improvement in urban air quality might be via an early switch towards zero-emission public transportation. Whilst the Government has provided urgent sector support during the current crisis, the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) still favours diesels over FCVs and EVs: an obvious candidate for review.

What does the long-term future look like?

Environmental concerns and new technology put transportation into a state of flux long before Covid-19 did. And no-one seems more uncertain than the automotive industry itself. In Germany, Mercedes-Benz abandoned hydrogen cars just as deadly rival BMW announced its own FCV. Over in Japan, Toyota has long backed hybrids allowing Nissan to forge ahead in EVs, including Sunderland’s top-selling Leaf. Whilst in the States, GM’s Volt competitively-priced plug-in hybrid flopped (Vauxhall Ampera to us) – yet the public just can’t enough of upstart Tesla’s super-pricey EVs.

But there is growing acceptance that autonomous technology will prove a game-changer. Responding to the threat of sector entrants Google and Uber, Volkswagen’s vision of the future is a self-driving, shared-use ‘pod’, summoned up via an app. (So the next time you hear “I’m never buying an EV” or “you won’t catch me driving one of those plug-in things”, you’re probably listening to an enlightened futurist, not a frustrated Luddite.) This is a reality government needs to contend with in years to come, not decades.

Self-driving is often seen in a purely urban context but its opportunities could go much further. In rural areas, bus operators often ditch lightly-used routes uneconomic for a large, manned vehicle. Here, the Government might encourage early adoption of autonomous mini-buses operating in response to real-time demand: the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is a welcome first step in this field. As well as a lifeline for the elderly and the socially-isolated, as we work from home in remote locations or commute at different times, it’s economies with flexible transportation that will emerge the strongest post-Covid.

And what shouldn’t the Government do?

Gone are the days when you could freely drive any vehicle down any street at any time. But let’s not make the future any more complicated than it needs to be. In addition to addressing infrastructure bottlenecks and supporting new technology, the smartest thing the Government can do is not confuse or antagonise motorists.

ConHome regulars will recall my satisfaction at trading an ageing gas-guzzler for an eco-friendly hybrid – quickly followed by indignation at the withdrawal of its Congestion Charge exemption. Clobbering folks nudged into doing the right thing might prove highly counter-productive, creating uncertainty and provoking resentment. Similarly, the Scottish government’s Workplace Parking Levy (a hastily thought-out concession to the Greens) penalises those lacking a public transport alternative, whilst in itself doesn’t reduce emissions.

No-one can predict precisely how the future of transportation is going to pan out. But it’s critical for the Government to consult consumers, industry and experts alike before taking the big decisions. The consequences for getting it wrong are significant. Remember, diesels were once touted as the clean future. And why rolling out smart motorways before the advent of smart vehicles was never going to end well.

The latest developments in contact tracing – and why the Government is not alone in having problems with its system

11 Aug

Yesterday there was uproar over the fact that the Government has made another change to its contact tracing strategy. “Troubled test and trace system to be scaled back”, read one headline, and The New York Times was particularly unflattering. “England’s flawed virus contact tracing will be revamped”, began one of its articles, which also accused the system of “faltering” and being “one of many missteps that have contributed to Britain’s having the worst outbreak in Europe.”

These reports followed a press release from the Department of Health and Social Care, which was generally worded in quite a positive way, but whose opening text was taken as an admission of failure. It said that “NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England (PHE) will extend its partnership with local authorities in order to reach more people testing positive and their contacts”.

Previously the companies Serco and Sitel had been managing a centralised version of the UK’s contact tracing process. The Government, however, changed its approach after new research came in showing that only 56 per cent of close contacts had been reached online or through call centres.

In comparison, it was found that local teams managed to contact 98 per cent of contacts, with there already being successful council-led trials for contact tracing in Leicester, Luton and Blackburn with Darwen.

Going forward, councils will be much more involved in contact tracing, with workers knocking on doors to follow up contacts. Clearly this will make a difference, as one of the main reasons it was suggested that call centres failed to get through is that people believed they were receiving cold calls (as the number started with 0300) and did not answer.

As is so often the case in the Coronavirus crisis, the latest move will no doubt lead to accusations that the Government is chaotic, and the rest, as it had already come under huge criticism in its approach to contact tracing. Having wanted to use its own app to carry out the process initially – while shunning Apple and Google technology it has since been forced to try theirs out after running into difficulties.

There’s also the fact that the move is expensive, meaning that 6,000 of the 18,000 call handlers will be axed) from a system that cost £10 billion.

Speaking about the NHS Test and Trace system, Boris Johnson has previously said it was “world-beating” and that the UK is “now testing more per head of the population than virtually any country in Europe”; words which were not readily believed.

The truth, however, is that even if the system has had issues, the UK is strong in regards to testing, with capacity at 338,413 since August 2.

One of the best metrics for understanding a country’s ability to test is “positive rate”, which is described as “the level of testing relative to the size of the outbreak”. In May, the WHO said that a positive rate of less than five per cent is an indicator that Covid-19 is under control in a country; the lower the better, in essence.

As of August 8, the UK’s figure stands at 0.60 per cent, a better rate than that of Belgium, Greece, Italy and Sweden, among other countries.

There’s also an element of realism missing around the contact tracing debate, with Keir Starmer giving the Government “a month” to fix its programme and teaching unions deciding that schools need the system to be completely fixed before a return to classrooms – despite the fact that children seem to have some of the lowest transmission levels.

The country is not alone, however, in having difficulties implementing this technology. Singapore’s app, as one example, was only used by 35 per cent of the population, and its government admitted the tech hadn’t been as successful as it had hoped. Australia’s system, which reportedly cost $2.75 million, has also had serious flaws, and there have been other problems and adaptations elsewhere

Clearly rolling it out is a logistical challenge of unprecedented levels, and there needs to be some patience and expectation management – not ideological point-scoring, as so often is the case in the media.

With the UK’s testing capacity having gone up so rapidly, far from being “faltering”, it may be the case that the country has more of a headstart than we think.

Facebook, Liz Truss and future challenges with the internet giants

3 Jul

In recent weeks, Facebook has been up against huge pressure to control hate speech and groups on its site. Much of this increased after President Donald Trump posted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, in response to protests in Minneapolis, on both Twitter and Facebook. The aftermath exemplified, among many things, that the two dominant social media sites had taken very different strategies to tackling inflammatory content.

Twitter went for the cautious approach. It added a warning label for the post to say that it had glorified violence, and hid the content unless it was clicked on. Facebook, on the other hand, kept Trump’s post up, on the basis that it was not an incitement of violence, but an announcement of state use of force.

Facebook’s “hands-off” approach to Trump only changed when a number of powerful companies pulled out of advertising with the site, such as Coca-Cola, Verizon and Ford, in a campaign co-ordinated by Stop Hate for Profit. Some have called these organisations opportunistic – Covid-19 has eaten into advertising budgets, and surely any company will jump on the chance to look socially righteous – but it’s still an expensive wobble that Facebook no doubt wants to avoid.

As a result, the social media has said that it will add a label to tell people that content may violate its policies; it’s a watered down version of what Twitter is offering. Even so, Zuckerberg has been fairly resilient in dealing with Stop Hate for Profit, which has set out a list of content it wants gone from Facebook and other sites. Zuckerberg said that he would not change Facebook’s policies; that he thinks advertisers will be back “soon enough”, and that he remains committed to democracy and free speech.

In spite of this, one strange area Facebook has increasingly delved into is political affairs, especially in anticipation of the upcoming US election. Some of this is to right the wrongs of 2016, in which there was foreign interference, with Russia attempting to “undermine the voting power of left-leaning African-American citizens, by spreading misinformation about the electoral process”, among other activitiesFacebook has since spent “billions of dollars in technology” and hired “tens of thousands of people” to fix this. (Incidentally, the UK is still waiting for its report on the alleged Russian interference in politics to understand the extent of it here.)

But more strikingly, Facebook has ventured into interventionist territory, with the new aim to “help 4 million people register to vote”. In doing this, Zuckerberg is taking the organisation much further away from its initial design. Many users, like myself (aged 17 when it first came out), will think of it predominantly as a tool for making friends online and posting photographs; a type of social peacocking, in many ways.

Zuckerberg, however, clearly has more profound visions. He says he wants to boost “authoritative information” for voting that he expects “160 million people in the US to see”. The goal sounds altruistic on the face of it, but it also poses big questions, like, who gets to categories “authoritative”? And should social media giants be involved in democracy at all?

Increasingly there’s been accusations from conservatives that in delving into the political realm, social media sites tend to show biases in favour of liberals, most notably Trump, who said “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH” after it fact-checked one of his Tweets. 

One writer suggests that out of “22 prominent, politically active individuals who are known to have been suspended since 2005 and who expressed a preference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, 21 supported Donald Trump”. In UnHerd, the author and commentator Douglas Murray goes further, revealing his own suspicions that Twitter is penalising right-leaning writers, such as hiding “likes” (a way of showing support for posts) from their posts.

Some say that there is no evidence of social media biases, with Kevin Roose, a tech journalist, noting yesterday that the best performing accounts on Facebook are all conservative. A tech expert tells me that the “exact opposite viewpoint (of social media bias) is shared in various countries, where the view is that the anti-capitalist left is censored by American tech giants”.

None of this has reassured Trump, however, who is proposing a bill to make social media giants take legal liability for material that their users post. But this could crush free speech, to a certain extent, making companies more likely to remove content to protect against litigation.

Even if there is not algorithmic censorship, many people were concerned last week after Google UK launched into Liz Truss, the Conservative MP, on social media. On June 18 it posted a petition trying to lobby her on the Gender Recognition Act.

This event should have rung serious alarm bells; a tech giant coming for a Conservative politician is seriously bad news, although – tellingly – there was a dearth of news stories about it. One suspects if Google UK had attacked a Remainer politician on refusing to leave the EU, it would have received the proportion response. This was, after all, perhaps the world’s biggest holder of personal information interfering in UK democracy.

One concern that has been pointed out repeatedly about Silicon Valley, and its companies, is that the demographic make-up of its tech talent could influence the ways in which content is censored. Even Zuckerberg has called it “an extremely left-leaning place”, and many will wonder how this affects their role in deciding the terms of “offence” on social media sites, and otherwise. 

In the UK, perhaps the most significant issue is that we are just so removed from these authors of our (online) reality, even if they have domestic offices. We know little about the algorithms they use – and it suits tech companies this way, limiting others’ abilities to get into the sector.

Here brings us to the biggest question: how should UK politicians deal with Facebook and other tech giants? Much of the focus on these companies has been on their involvement in elections, but they also have an impact on Joe Bloggs’ income, too, as one report by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) elucidates on.

It points out that Google has “more than a 90 per cent share of £7.3 billion search advertising market in UK, while Facebook has over 50% of the £5.5 billion display advertising market”. The report suggests that by dominating the market, these organisations control the default prices for advertising, which are arguably higher than they need to be – and in turn effect the consumer, as advertisers keep their product costs high.

CMA sets out numerous ways in which the Government can start to break up these giants and encourage competition. It is quite alarming in the ways in which it highlights tech giants’ control over many things – from prices, to regulation. And all of this has to change.

Ultimately, along with the current 5G issues the Government is dwelling on, they are going to increasingly need the knowledge, and foresight, to intercept some of these tech powers before they become so dominant as to make their powers irreversible.

Already the Government has found that Apple stifled the approach it wanted to take to contact tracing, and this is just a taste of what’s to come – as the tech giants, sometimes working in conjunction, block out competition. There is a mammoth amount of information to take on board, changing all the time. Along with Brexit and Coronavirus, Tories will have their work cut out.