Baroness Lane Fox of Soho, or as she’s better known, Martha Lane Fox, is promoting some new research today that has been released by think tank doteveryone, which she created in response to the need to better understand our digital society – not just the digital economy.
Martha Lane Fox rose to prominence after co-founding Lastminute.com during the 1990s, but has since taken on a broader role working with the government to advise on the impact of digital technologies. Her influence led to the creation of the Government Digital Service and she has since spoken about the need for Britain to create a “new national institution that would lead an ambitious charge – to make us the most digital nation on the planet”.
This is the first piece of major research released by doteveryone and is a nationally representative survey of 2,000 people online and 500 by phone, backed by in-depth conversations in focus groups.
The report makes a number of recommendations that look “beyond internet usage and explores how the British public thinks and feels about the internet technologies shaping our world and changing our lives”.
It highlights that whilst people find the internet and digital tools broadly useful to their everyday lives, they are also less convinced about the positive impact it has on society as a whole. There is particular discomfort – or misunderstanding – about how internet giants are using personal data.
One of the key recommendations that stands out from the report is that the government should have a single place for the public to turn to when tech goes wrong, or when they have concerns.
The key findings
Listed below are some of the more interesting stats from the report:
- 50% say it has made life a lot better for people like themselves, but only 12% say it’s had a very positive impact on society.
- There is a major understanding gap around technologies. Only a third of people are aware that data they have not actively chosen to share has been collected.
- A quarter have no idea how internet companies make their money.
- People feel disempowered by a lack of transparency in how online products and services operate. 89% want clearer terms and conditions, half would like to know how their data is used but can’t find out.
- There is a public demand for greater accountability from technology companies. Two thirds say government should be helping ensure companies treat their customers, staff and society fairly.
The report’s first recommendation is for increased investment in new forms of public engagement and education. It states that whilst people “love the internet”, they don’t love it at any cost. For example, when asked to make choices between innovation and changes to their communities and public services, people found those trade-offs “unacceptable”.
The doteveryone research shows the need for:
- The creation and maintenance of a rigorous evidence base about public understanding and attitudes toward technologies.
- Increased public digital understanding for everyone—not just children—and identifying potential harms to individuals and to society.
- Training public leaders in digital understanding—making sure those at the top of public services and institutions are able to take advantage of technology for the benefit of everyone and mitigate possible harms and unintended consequences.
The second recommendation from doteveryone calls for shared standards for understandability and transparency. The report states that “people are fed up with online products and services which many feel are deliberately designed to obfuscate” and that “89% of people want clearer terms and conditions”. It adds that more than half would like to know about the use and security of their data but can’t find this out.
Doteveryone argues that our digital society cannot operate if no one understands what they have signed up to. It calls for technology companies to collaborate on and adopt:
- Clear, plain English terms and conditions that make it explicit how services operate and how personal information is used.
- Transparent, trustworthy design patterns that show how services work and decisions are made.
- Accessible ways for people to report concerns.
Finally, and I would argue most interestingly, doteveryone wants independent regulation and accountability for society. The report states that people are not sure who they should turn to when they have concerns and are sceptical about how committed technology companies are to taking action when things go wrong. It calls for:
- A single place for the public to turn to. The report states that “many different government departments or regulators already cover different aspects of technology—that’s partly why it’s hard for the public to understand who’s in charge”. This body can direct the public towards the help they need and make sure that they get real accountability.
- Maintenance and upholding of standards and best practice.
- Incentivising responsible innovation that is good for society, not just good for business.
Martha Lane Fox is hugely influential and is taken seriously by the government. Let’s hope it listens. This report is entirely sensible and sums up the ambiguity that people feel towards using their digital services. They want to use them, but not at any cost.
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