The Data Protection Bill, which focuses on the processing of personal data, enters its third day of report stage in the House of Lords on 10 January. During committee stage last year, an amendment proposing the creation of a Personal Data Ethics Board was debated.

This amendment draws on our recommendations for a body to steward the evolution of the data governance landscape as a whole. Since we made our recommendations, the government has announced plans to establish a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. This amendment has been re-tabled, including proposals for an ethics code of practice. This debate is an opportunity to seek further details on the government’s plans and discuss how we can take a connected approach to the ethical and moral issues that are raised by new big data-enabled technologies.

The proposed personal data ethics board

The proposed personal data ethics board sets out to address ethical and moral issues raised by new big data-enabled technologies (see Lord Stevenson’s outline of the rationale for this during Committee stage). Uses of data-enabled technologies promise benefits, from improving healthcare and treatment discovery, to better managing critical infrastructure such as transport and energy. But they also raise significant choices and dilemmas that must be successfully navigated if we are going to realise these benefits with public trust.

The Data Protection Bill alone will not provide a new governance framework for the 21st century

The Data Protection Bill focuses on the processing of personal data. The definition of personal data is itself under unprecedented strain in the face of new big data technologies that render ever more information personally identifiable. Due to its focus on personal data, while it is important to ensure that the Bill does not create unnecessary barriers to unlocking the benefits that uses of data-enable technologies promise, the Bill alone is not the vehicle to provide a new governance framework for the 21st century. Data protection law is only a small portion of the relevant legal landscape for data-enabled technologies. The broader relevant governance landscape includes regulators with mandates touching on aspects of data governance, such as the Competition and Markets Authority, Ofgem, Ofcom and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).

Many of the benefits of new data-enabled technologies may come from finding ways to link personal data, covered by the Data Protection Bill, with data that falls outside this definition, and the aggregation of data sets from different sectors. These technologies are developing faster than the law, and the pace of change can create uncertainty within which organisations have to operate and can also erode public confidence. Regulatory regimes lack the agility required in a rapidly changing world.

Current systems appear to require individual grievances about new technologies to reach a critical point before uncertainty can be addressed and clarification sought. Without agile governance frameworks, in addition to legislation, that can give researchers, entrepreneurs and decision-makers sufficient confidence about acceptable uses of data (in the eyes of the law and the public), applications that would have been widely welcomed may be missed

That is why we recommend a connected approach to the governance of data and its use across sectors with a set of high-level principles and a body to steward the evolution of the governance landscape as a whole in our joint report last year with the British Academy, Data management and use: Government in the 21st Century. We have also clearly made the case that effective governance should focus on the uses of data driven technologies, not the technologies themselves. The exact form and functions of this body should be subject to political and public debate.

A new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation

In the 2017 Budget and Industrial Strategy that closely followed it, the government outlined plans to create a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to enable and ensure safe, ethical and ground-breaking innovation in AI and data-driven technologies, reflecting our calls for a stewardship body.

They will consult widely in due course on the detailed remit for this new centre. We are encouraged that the Government is investing in a body on AI and data use. We believe that this body should have a firm focus on the future challenges that new technologies present and not seek to replicate existing governance structures, which already provide a great deal of what is necessary for the here and now. It is vital that this body works transparently and through open dialogue, so that it addresses public trust and confidence, which is needed to enable the safe and rapid uptake of data-enabled technologies for the benefit of all in society.

This debate provides an opportunity to seek further details on the government’s plans to establish a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, to begin debating the exact form and functions of such a body and discuss how we can take a connected approach to the ethical and moral issues that are raised by new big data-enabled technologies.