Another toothless wonder? Why the UK.gov's data ethics centre needs clout

Budget confirmed its creation, but where does it fit in?


Amid myriad bodies offering advice, opinions and rulings on the use of data springing up all over the shop, the government used the Budget to announce plans to create yet another.

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation is described (PDF) as "a world-first advisory body to enable and ensure safe, ethical innovation in artificial intelligence and data-driven technologies".

Its budget is to come from the £75m earmarked for artificial intelligence, but the Ministry of Fun* has offered precious little else about where the body will sit in the landscape, who will run it and whether it will have any real powers.

Given the impression that we already have plenty of bodies thinking about data, you'd be forgiven for wondering why government felt the need to add this to the list – but it is the result of a fairly concerted effort from MPs, lobby groups and academics.

The Commons Science and Tech Committee last year called for the creation of a council of data ethics (PDF), while the Royal Society and British Academy this summer recommended a data stewardship body. And the Conservative Party manifesto had already proposed a Data Ethics and Use Commission.

The Nuffield Foundation took more direct action and decided to set up a data ethics commission, which quickly became the Convention on Data Ethics to avoid clashing with the Tories' commission.

The government appears to have dropped the "commission" bit to prevent any (real or perceived) confusion with the UK's regulator, the Information Commissioner's Office.

What's in a name?

Although this sort of wrangling isn't unusual in the political world, the naming negotiations are instructive because it demonstrates just how many bodies have been proposed, set up and brought under the data umbrella of late.

The centre will have to choose its path carefully: the last thing the UK needs is another quango throwing its weight around and issuing missives that drown out considered work under way elsewhere. Neither should it waste time and money reinventing the wheel.

Crucially, the centre needs to avoid becoming yet another voice that organisations feel they need to listen to, or diluting what the regulators themselves are saying.

"At the moment there is space for confusion, especially in the policy world," said Hetan Shah, CEO of the Royal Statistical Society, which has been lobbying for this kind of body for some time. "The ICO is public-facing, so this centre should be quieter and work in the background – it wouldn't be another voice."

Shah's hope is that the centre will fill in the blanks left by the other bodies, identifying regulatory gaps, advising regulators on how to fill them, and the "dull but important work" of setting standards.

In addition, it needs to be responsive, keeping up with academic and industry research so the ethics don't get superseded by technological advances.

Done right, the centre will also benefit the regulators by giving them a space to share knowledge and expertise, and access skills they don't have, especially as data and algorithms become increasingly commonplace in legal discussions.

"It's important it doesn't overlap with the ICO's work, but the ICO doesn't have the resources (in money or staff) to really dig into the future-looking technological stuff," said Michael Veale, a University College London academic.

More broadly, Veale said, the UK will benefit from a body that has the time and space in its responsibilities to "carry out in-depth foresight work, focusing on synthesising work, identifying challenges and figuring out how to tackle them".

Although the announcement of the centre was broadly welcomed by observers, some did question where it fit into the jigsaw and want to make sure its clear what its role is.

Nuffield's statement, which welcomed the creation of the centre, also took the opportunity to make it clear what its own body was up to. "The Convention will create a space, upstream of government and regulation, for different perspectives and interests to anticipate emerging issues arising from data use," it said.

Another toothless talking shop?

But the centre can't afford to be too cautious; it does need to carve out a niche and it does need to be allowed some teeth, or it risks being nothing but another well-intentioned but ultimately side-lined body.

Veale summarised the concerns:

The main worry is that this will descend into one of many talking shops, producing a series of one-off reports looking at single abstract issues – like "the future of consent" – rather than creating a centre that has the teeth to be critical, engage broadly, or suggest things to government at opportune moments that must be responded to seriously.

It will need full-time staffing (ideally with a recruitment process that extends beyond pulling over a few fast streamers from Double-DCMS), and the ability to toe the line between working with, and being pushed around by, big corporates.

As ever, choosing the right leader will make or break the body. The chair, or leader, will need to have good standing with regulators and businesses, and be adept at effecting change from a position of soft power.

Again, aside from the fact it would be refreshing to see the government choose someone who isn't a white man pushing 50 for this kind of role, it would breathe a bit of life into the body, and increase its reputation among those watching, if the government looked outside the usual pool of suspects.

"There are a lot of examples of similar, private, bodies in the US, many of which are led by female tech execs," said Veale, such as danah boyd's Data & Society. "It would be good to have that kind of fresh person, rather than a senior civil servant or a one-day-a-month academic."

Because fundamentally, it doesn't matter how well the centre's piece fits into the data reg jigsaw if no one listens to what it says.

If it ends up as just another fusty academic unit lacking the requisite backbone to speak truth to power, it will have been a wasted effort and a wasted opportunity. ®

*Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport – as the name suggests...

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