Home » POLITICO Pro Morning Tech UK: Spotlight on disinfo unit — CMA eyes Big Tech algos — The challenge of AI policy

POLITICO Pro Morning Tech UK: Spotlight on disinfo unit — CMA eyes Big Tech algos — The challenge of AI policy

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— The government’s secretive disinformation unit faces scrutiny from MPs today.

The CMA is turning its attention to Big Tech’s algorithms.

— How do you make policy for new tech like AI? A top civil servant has spoken of the challenges they face.

Good morning and welcome back,

This is Tom, it’s the second day of spring and I’ve just put another jumper on. 

Send your news, tips and views to the team: Annabelle Dickson, Mark Scott and me on email. You can also follow us on Twitter @TomSBristow @NewsAnnabelle @markscott82

QUESTION TIME: The government’s work on disinformation will come under the spotlight in Parliament today. MPs on the DCMS committee are set to ask DSIT officials about the government’s secretive Counter Disinformation Unit (CDU), which was launched in 2019 to counter disinformation in elections and then re-engaged during the pandemic.

Counter, who? Little is known about the CDU’s work and the government has largely evaded questions about its size and staffing. MPs from all parties have asked 26 questions in Parliament related to the unit’s work in the last couple of years, including around its staffing, budget and accountability, but government answers have avoided specifics.

Big Brother: An investigation by Big Brother Watch, which was also published in the Daily Mail in January, claimed the unit was monitoring posts of politicians and journalists which were critical of government Covid policy. Asked about it in the Commons, DSIT minister Paul Scully said it didn’t monitor individuals but the content it reviewed “may incidentally include personal data.”

On the agenda: The committee is also likely to scrutinize the government’s communication strategy during the pandemic, the Online Safety Bill and the role of National Academies in tackling misinformation.

Last sesh: It is the final hearing of the Misinformation and Trusted Voices inquiry, which is looking at how to ensure the public has access to authoritative information on matters of national debate. 

Who’s up? The committee will question DSIT minister Paul Scully, Cathy Alexander, deputy director for research talent and European programs at DSIT and Talitha Rowland, deputy director for security and counter disinformation at DCMS from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

AI CHAT: AI UK starts today at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster. Organized by the Alan Turing Institute, the two-day event explores how AI and data science can be used to explore the world’s problems. 

SUPERPOWER ALERT: TechUK explores how the country can meet the government’s ambition of becoming a “science and tech superpower” by 2030. The event is online or you can attend at TechUK’s offices from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

LORDS: The Lords’ Communications and Digital Committee is quizzing council and bank bosses at 2.30 p.m. on whether the move to put services online is making digital exclusion worse. 

**A message from Google: What do parents really want to know about online safety? Google and Mumsnet invited the 8 million-strong Mumsnet community to share questions for experts and MPs at a recent roundtable. The takeaway? Helping families start conversations is key. Learn more here.**

WATCHDOG EYES AI: Scrutinizing Big Tech companies’ algorithms will be a key priority for the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) when the watchdog gets new powers under reformed competition law.

Self-preferencing: The CMA is already looking into how Amazon uses recommender systems — a type of machine learning algorithm that uses granular data to recommend products to users they might not have found otherwise — to see if it is self-preferencing by nature.

Remedies: “Any work that helps us to understand the impact on competition of recommender systems is clearly going to be important when we are designing remedies in the online world,” Mike Walker, the CMA’s chief economic adviser, told a panel during a workshop at the enforcer’s Canary Wharf headquarters. 

New powers: The CMA has previously investigated how recommender systems potentially favor “endemic” fake online reviews, Walker said. Understanding how to implement those remedies will be key when the CMA’s Digital Market Unit gets more responsibility “at some point in the near future,” he said. The U.K.’s Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill will give the enforcer’s digital unit more regulatory power when it comes into effect, and “this area of work is only going to become more important for us,” he said.

Where’s the bill? The legislation is due to land in this parliamentary session, Science and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said when quizzed by MPs last week. Two industry stakeholders have told POLITICO it is slated for April.

GIVE US YOUR DATA: The private sector should be granted access to more public sector data, Australia’s Productivity Commission has recommended.

BIN YOUR PHONES: Russian officials have been told to throw away their iPhone or “give it to the kids” because of hacking fears, POLITICO’s Antoaneta Roussi reports.

PRIME TIME: Washington is preparing for war with Amazon as several regulatory investigations come to a head, POLITICO’s Josh Sisco reports

**Jeremy Hunt, chancellor of the exchequer will headline POLITICO Tech U.K. Launch event that will take place on Wednesday, April 19 afternoon. Register today to follow the discussion online.*

POLICY’S PROBLEM: Government faces several problems trying to come up with policy for burgeoning technologies like generative AI, Alison Kilburn, director of analysis at DCMS, told a panel last night.

In the dark: Speaking at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy in Cambridge, she said sectors like AI were “very different” in look and feel to the industries government was traditionally used to working with. She also said there was a lack of evidence and data to inform policy decisions. “You are making policy in a world that is changing and evolving and doing it in a world with less data than we usually do,” she said. The economist added that it was hard for the government to measure the scale of new technology as it crossed so many different sectors. “We are probably underestimating how big they actually are,” she said.

Open up: Those problems mean, Kilburn told the panel, that policymakers need to be “much more open” and talk to other professions like coders and solicitors.

The biggest concern: Asked what worried her most, she said people’s lack of understanding about what companies could do with their data. “The thing that worries me most is the issue of consent,” she said. “As we go further into the technical abilities to match this data, it is how much that is understood.”

MEDIA FOR MICHELLE: Laura Wright will be starting as Science and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan’s media adviser on April 3. Wright has been a journalist at Bloomberg since 2017 where she has covered tech, markets and politics.

ICO: More than 20 NGOs have written to the ICO today to ask them to end sharing data about children between the Home Office and Department for Education for immigration enforcement. A spokesperson for Defend Digital Me, one of the organizers, said: “Society needs the regulation of personal data to protect people from being dehumanized and treated simply as numbers.”

LAYOFFS: Amazon is sacking another 9,000 workers worldwide, City A.M. reports, but it is unclear how many staff in the U.K. are affected.

GOVERNMENT LOVE-IN: A weighty piece in the FT explores how Silicon Valley learned to love the U.S. government after it helped it in its hour of need. 

Morning Tech wouldn’t happen without editor Oscar Williams, Emma Anderson and Grace Stranger.

**A message from Google: Parents understand the joys and pitfalls of family life online better than anyone. So Mumsnet and Google invited parents from the Mumsnet community to share their most pressing questions about online safety, for MPs and experts to discuss at a policy roundtable event. Experts including Paul Scully MP, Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy, Internet Matters CEO Carolyn Bunting, and broadcaster and “Honest Mum” author Vicki Broadbent looked at how policy can help protect children online. One of the main takeaways from the discussion was the shared responsibility of government, schools, and parents. Legislation can help create the right conditions for a safer internet, and teachers can help support good habits, but only parents know the right balance for their family online. Google offers tools to help parents start the conversation with their children. Learn more here.**

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Tom Bristow