Do political attitudes to tech need a 21st-century upgrade?

Plenty of politicians appear to be clueless about technology. But London mayor Boris Johnson took things a step further when he announced to reporters - at the opening of a new tech hub, no less - that not only does he “not have any cool apps” on his phone, but he’s “forgotten” how to download apps altogether.

Tech industry bosses were less than impressed at the mayor’s admission. “It was one of those head-in-your-hands kinds of moments and, unfortunately, when it comes to technology and politicians, there are too many of these to list”, says Lawrence Jones, CEO of Manchester-based cloud hosting provider, UKFast.

“We want to be able to take our politicians seriously and feel like they are on our side”, he says. “Ultimately, they are representing us on a global stage, so publicly announcing that you don’t know how to download an app doesn’t give the best impression of our tech state to the rest of the world.”

“If you say you’re pushing for Britain to become a global technology hub and then make an obvious gaffe, you become a laughing stock and you make us, the public, feel like our country is at risk of becoming one too.”

This summer, MPs left the tech industry dismayed once again after getting “confused” about “the basics” during a parliamentary software upgrade, Jones says, with reports that MPs were having problems signing in to their email accounts.

“There was even a debate about why Office 365 was used instead of free Gmail”, he says. “Can you imagine hosting our country’s leaders’ emails, personal and private information with a free email service?”

With the UK’s IT industry now worth £58bn a year and the global e-commerce market set to top £897bn, Jones says politicians really need to get a basic grasp of technology if they’re going to help the economy to grow.

But with so many businesses relying on online sales and social media, it isn’t just the technology sector that badly needs politicians to understand how these things work, he says. “It’s important to remember that digital [technology] and the internet are fast becoming a part of every business.”

“How can politicians drive change if they don’t have a grasp of the basic concepts themselves? Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we’re lagging behind when it comes to superfast broadband and connectivity infrastructure.”

Guy Levin, executive director of Coadec, a non-profit organisation representing tech startups to government on political issues, agrees. “It’s more important than ever that MPs understand and engage with technology”, he says.

“The UK has the potential to lead the world on digital innovation, but only if startups are able to hire skilled workers, access finance to grow, and operate without being tied down with regulations. We’re only at the start of the digital revolution and the next parliament will have to move fast to keep up.”

These concerns about many MPs’ ignorance of technology are shared by better-informed politicians, although Julian Huppert, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, says there are “only a handful of MPs who really get it” across all the parties.

“Technology forms a core part of our economy and over the next decades it will become increasingly important”, he says. “Ministers and MPs who do not understand technology will be less likely to take sensible decisions, damaging the sector and our economy overall.”

Huppert says a lack of understanding can have a negative effect on the way technology-related legislation is written.

“It’s hard to write good, effective legislation if you don’t understand what the technology is and how it works”, he says.

Jones says we’re now seeing the consequences of this lack of understanding in the form of legislation like David Cameron’s “porn filter”, which demands that ISPs filter explicit material - something they were already doing, Lawrence says - and imposes an “opt out” system for people who want to access it.

“As well as this leading to some educational material being unfairly blocked, the assumption that this measure prevents criminals from accessing illegal explicit material is naïve”, says Jones, pointing out that content on the Darknet – a largely anonymous file-sharing system, often described as the “hidden part of the internet” – can’t be found by major search engines anyway.

Industry leaders say that although they believe the UK is at the “forefront of innovation” when it comes to technology and the government is taking “some steps in the right direction” with research and development tax breaks, much more support is needed if Britain is really going to become a global technology hub.

On September 3 Coadec launched its Startup Manifesto, setting out its suggestions as to how the government can better support the technology sector.

Levin says the manifesto has been backed by 200 of the UK’s leading startup founders and investors and Huppert says he is already an advocate of many of its suggestions, which range from restoring the post-study work visa to introducing laws around Bitcoin.

Huppert adds that technology is very important to a “huge number” of people in his constituency, which has “a very large number of technology workers and entrepreneurs”.

“It also should matter more to other people, who may not work in the area but do benefit from and rely on technological advances”, he says.

Research by the TRUSTe Consumer Confidence Index earlier this year found that 89% of British internet users have concerns about their online privacy. And with issues like state surveillance, the right to be forgotten and the future economy on many people’s minds, Jones says politicians are badly in need of a change in attitude, and a skills upgrade, if they are going to provide leadership.

“When employees have a gap in their skills or understanding, it’s up to the company to provide the relevant training. Why should it be any different for politicians?” he says. “If our MPs are trying to become better leaders, it stands to reason that they should take an active interest in the areas they are encouraging others to get involved in.”

In the future, Huppert says, the stakes are high. “Technology will be increasingly important to every aspect of our lives, changing everything that we do and how we do it”, he says.

“It is hard to imagine what our world will be like in 2050, but I cannot imagine that technology will not be key to all aspects of our economy and our daily lives.”

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