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It's about power

vampire-squid-flickr-2111032672_db268e72d9_c.jpgIt is tempting to view every legislative proposal that comes from the present UK government as an act of revenge against the people and institutions that have disagreed with it.

The UK's Supreme Court undid Boris Johnson's decision to prorogue Parliament in the 2019 stages of the Brexit debates; the proposes to limit judicial review. The Election Commission recommended codes of conduct to keep political advertising fair; the Elections Bill, as retiring House of Lords member David Puttnam writes at the Guardian as one element of a long list of anti-democratic moves, prioritizes registration and voter ID, here as in the US, measures likely to disenfranchise opposition voters.

The UK government's proposals for reforming data protection law - the consultation is open until November 19 - also seem to fit this scenario. Granted, the UK wasn't a fan, even in 2013, when the EU's General Data Protection Regulatioon was being negotiated. Today's proposals would roll back some aspects of the law. Notably, it suggests discouraging individuals from filing subject access requests by introducing fees, last seen in the 1998 Data Protection Act GDPR replaced, and giving organizations greater latitude to refuse. This thinking is familiar from the 2013 discussions about freedom of information requests. The difference here: it's *our* data we want to access.

More pervasive, though, is the consultation's general assumption that data protection is a burden that impedes innovation and needs to be lightened to unlock economic growth. The EU, reading it, may be relieved it only granted the UK's data protection regime adequacy for four years.

It is impossible to read the subject access rights section (page 69ff) without concluding that the "burden" the government seeks to relieve is its own. In a panel on the proposed changes at the UK Internet Governance Forum, speakers agreed that businesses are not calling for this. What they *do* want is guidance. Diverging from GDPR makes life more complicated by creating multiple regimes that all require compliance. If you're a business, you want consistency and clarity. It's hard to see how these proposals provide them.

This is even more true for individuals who depend on their rights under GDPR (and equivalent) to understand the decisions that have been made about them. As Renate Samson put it at UKIGF, viewing their data is crucial in obtaining redress for erroneous immigration and asylum decisions. "Understanding why the computer says no is critical for redress purposes." In May, the Open Rights Group and the3million won this very battle against the government - under GDPR.

These issues are familiar ground for net.wars. What's less so is the UK's behavior. As in other areas - the widely criticized covid response, its dealings throughout the Brexit negotiations - Britain seems to assume it can dictate terms. At UKIGF, Michael Veale tried to point out the reality: "The UK has to engage with GDPR in a way that shows it understands it's now a rule-taker." It's almost impossible to imagine this government understanding any such thing.

A little earlier, the MP Chris Philip, had said the UK is determined to be a scientific and technology "superpower". This country, he said, is number three behind the US and China; we need to get to "an even better position".

Pause for puzzlement. Does Philip think the UK can pass either the US or China in AI? What would that even mean? AI, of all technologies, requires collaboration. Is he really overlooking the EU's technical weight as a bloc? Is the argument that data is essential for AI, AI is the economic future of Britain, so therefore individuals should roll over and open up for...Apple and Google? Do Apple and Google see their role in life as helping the UK to become a world leader in AI?

After all, "the US" isn't really the US as a nation in this discussion; in AI "the US" is the six giant multinational companies Amy Webb that all want to dominate (Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, IBM, Amazon). Data protection law is one of the essential tools for limiting their ability to slurp up everyone's data.

Meanwhile, this government's own policies seem to be in conflict with each other. Simultaneously, it's also at work on a digital identity framework. Getting people to use it will require trust, which proposals to reform data protection law undermine. And trust in this government with respect to data is already faltering, because of the fiasco over our medical data back in June. It's not clear the government is making any of these connections;

Twenty years ago, data protection was about privacy and the big threat was governments. Gradually, as the online advertising industry formed and start-ups became giant companies, the view of data protection law expanded to include helping to redress the imbalance of power between individuals and large companies. Now, with those companies dominating the landscape, data protection is also about restructuring power and ensuring that small players have a chance faced with giant competitors who can corral everyone's devices and extract their data. The more complicated the regulations, as European Digital Rights keeps saying, the more it's only the biggest companies that can afford the infrastructure to comply with them. "Data protection" sounds abstract and boring. Don't be fooled. It's about power.

Illustrations: Vampire squid (via Anne-Lise Heinrichs, on Flickr, following Michael Veale's comparison to Big Tech at UKIGF).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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