Tony Blair: we must regulate big tech properly and prepare for China’s AI threat


Leon Csernohlavek / WIRED

Former prime minister Tony Blair has called for a new regulatory system to hold Facebook, Google, Amazon and other big tech companies accountable to the public. New laws are needed as the government has failed to grasp the extent of incoming social change, the politician warned.

The ex-Labour leader, speaking at the WIRED Live conference in London, said the government’s approach to technology hasn’t worked. The current approach to technology – including chancellor Philip Hammond’s plans for a digital services tax (DST) on technology companies – “doesn’t reach the scale of the problem”.

“We’ve got a regulatory system designed for one age and we’re living in a different age altogether,” Blair says. “The government has to be engaged with this in a completely different way. It doesn’t understand the technology revolution, and doesn’t have the bandwidth to consider it.”

Citing the dominance of Brexit on Westminster, Blair said he was astonished by the relative absence of technology from political debate. “We need to rethink how companies operate, how businesses operate. There are going to be massive changes in the workplace. People are going to work differently and want to work differently, and you need a system of regulation to deal with that.”

However, the former prime minister stopped short in calling for the idea of universal basic income (UBI) – where everyone is given a payment by the state – to be introduced. Blair says governments should trial UBI but isn’t convinced that the system can be scaled.

In a report published today, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has called for “a new generation” of regulator to control the activities of big tech companies. In his forward to the paper, Blair called the issue of making tech firms accountable to their users is key for the centre ground of politics today.

Echoing that sentiment on stage, Blair says technology should be shaping all aspects of government policy, and a key part of that is greater regulation for aligning the activities of big tech with the public interest: “Is what’s happening with tech revolutionary? I think it is. Does the scale of the policy response match the revolution? No it doesn’t.”

We should all be worried about China

At the heart of the report’s recommendations is the call for a new transatlantic system of regulation between the United States and the European Union. When asked about the scale of this ambition, Blair said that greater cooperation in the West around technology was essential in the face of larger geopolitical shifts.

“We have to consider the single biggest challenge we’re going to face,” he said. “It’s going to be the rise of China. We’re really not understanding in the West just how big this geopolitical challenge is.

“China is going to have a power no western country has had in history. It’s going to challenge us not just economically, but politically, militarily. It’s going to offer a way for working that’s altogether different.”

In recent months China has been massively investing in its technological prowess. At the heart of this has been the development of artificial intelligence, with the country aiming to be a world leader in the field by 2030.

But Blair also warned of the social credit system being trialled in China, which assigns citizens a score based on their behaviour. “Is it possible to look at that and not feel anxiety? Fast forward. If China achieves what it wants to achieve, its powers will be enormous. Its AI in particular could challenge America’s dominance. What is the West going to do? It’s going to have to prepare itself for this change.”

“So when I say Europe and the United States have to work together, this is to me is common sense in the face of that threat.”

Politics and social media have been colliding. This year Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal and the revelations of Russian state-sponsored disruption have forced politicians to consider the impact of social media. The UK’s fake news inquiry has probed big technology companies. Separately, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has been hired by Facebook as its global policy chief.

Blair says he has no plans to join any big tech companies but added there is a danger of a public backlash against technology unless the government ensures people don’t lose sight of opportunities. Blair says that if he was in power now, technology would be the “single most important focus” of his government.

While Blair says he would “reorganise government radically” around new technology, he also expressed caution over the impact of social media on the current political landscape. “Social media is the platform for the loudmouth. If you’re not careful, it becomes an exchange of abusive headlines, not a platform for debate.”

The conventional media, Blair added, has split into polarised camps. “The media thinks the only way they can keep their commercial model is to take a group of people and keep them perpetually angry. Social media amplifies that and accelerates its impacts.

“And the problems aren’t just about preventing hate filled rhetoric, but also the more insidious problem of self-reinforcing views; the echo chamber where no one really listens to the other point of view.”

Addressing political polarisation, Blair says he saw a way back to a centre ground, but that it needed policymakers to do the “intellectual business” of asking fundamental questions about how society is changing: “We have to be the change makers not the guardians of the status quo. We have to rethink a whole set of questions: the nature of business today, the nature of capitalism today. There are big underlying questions. If we’re not careful we’ll polarise politics further, and we’ll end up with two versions of the past fighting for the present.”

“The single biggest risk is that the ignorance of the politicians over technology leads to bad policy. And that’s a very dangerous thing.”

Updated November 2, 2018 10:16GMT: This article has been updated to clarify Nick Clegg’s position at Facebook

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