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More than rules: why the Conservative manifesto could be right on data | Liz Brandt, CEO

This election has been one of the most turbulent in memory. For the Conservative party, it has been dominated by furore around the ‘dementia tax’, Theresa May’s abstention from the debates and repeated claims of strength and stability – not to mention the terrible attacks on Manchester and London.

It is unsurprising, then, that little attention has been paid to the party’s thoughts about how we approach data. However, despite the lack of love, the Conservative Party has put forward some ideas that need to be heard.

As Jim Waterson has noted, the manifesto sets out an unprecedented ambition for Internet interventionism. The manifesto states that “our starting point is that online rules should reflect those that govern our lives offline” and May repeated this idea in response to the recent atrocities, saying that we must “regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning.” This is fine as a starting point, but rules cannot be the only basis on which a safe, sensible and dynamic digital environment can be created.

The manifesto commits to a new ‘Digital Charter’, which will be formed through working with industry and charities to establish a balance between freedom and protection. Although vague, this Charter is sensible and sets out a vision that the Internet cannot be a one-way street for business – yes, enterprise needs to be encouraged, but we as individuals have a right to protection.

This idea is built upon by the promise of a ‘Data Use and Ethics Commission’. This has been set up to provide advice to regulators and parliament on how to understand data and protect users, with a focus on developing principles and rules.

This is a smart idea, particularly the Commission’s focus on principles. Regulating data is already difficult and is only going to become harder. Technology is moving at such a rate that regulation risks being outdated before it’s even implemented, as may be the case with GDPR. We therefore must take a ‘softer’ approach, one that appreciates ethics and principles and accepts that regulation can only ever be part of the answer. Specific rules create something for companies to innovate against, whereas clear, widely accepted principles set effective parameters for business behaviour.

That said, it is crucial that business leaders are part of the Commission. For data to be handled properly, the Government needs to work closely with the commercial world which collects and uses it. Doing this helps inform Government as to the opportunities around data and engages business, meaning that rules are not just placed on the commercial world but are developed in partnership.

The manifesto has a stated ambition to be the create “the world’s most dynamic digital economy”, something which many would argue demands a free market. This is an argument that is flawed and, when it comes to data, simply encourages lazy practice. Yet too many rules will not only stifle innovation but also prove ineffective.

Whoever the next Government is, they must look to create clear guidelines and ethics for the use of data. Doing so will enable a post-Brexit Britain to flourish as an innovative, forward-thinking data economy, while staying within the limits of what is acceptable for individual privacy and protection.