Politicians Talk Tech: Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland & Lonsdale

Are parliamentarians behind the times or tech savvy representatives? We chat to global politicians to discover how they view and use tech...

Are parliamentarians behind the times or tech savvy representatives? We chat to global politicians to discover how they view and use tech...

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Tim Farron MP

 Role: President

 Party: Liberal Democrats

 Constituency: Westmorland & Lonsdale

Are governments, political parties, and politicians in general embracing technology enough and in the right ways?

To give a proper politicians answer, yes and no! We’re getting better, you can finally register to vote online for example. However for a generation that live their lives online, public services are still very remote and distant.

There are some great initiatives, many of them from civil society, but we can do more and we should spread the best ideas that we hear. Look at the RAC as one example. They’ve released a new app for reporting potholes, so that you can immediately send information to local authorities. That’s great – but it will certainly change how local authorities need to operate and I’m concerned that politicians and institutions aren’t doing enough to anticipate these innovations.

Technology is beginning to embrace government, whether it’s reciprocated or not! We need to make sure we respond in the most constructive ways, as well as proactively promoting technology, so that our engagement with technology is genuinely constructive.

You’ve written about the need for politicians to “Get Tech-savvy or get left behind.” How would you describe the ideal Tech-savvy politician and how do we achieve that goal on a wide scale?

My ideal tech savvy politician is someone who is not scared to ask for help!  According to Policy Exchange's Technology Manifesto, the internet economy will account for more than 12% of UK GDP by 2016. Britain already has an online retail trade surplus of $1 billion - more than the USA and Germany combined.

Politicians must either understand technology, or not be afraid of seeking out the experts! But I think politicians must work collaboratively with business, especially our tech sector and involve them early in policy development and in decisions like intellectual property and web freedom issues at an earlier stage. Whitehall diktats of the past will not work in our increasingly globalised world.

What’s your opinion of the Startup Manifesto and its requests to do more in supporting the tech sector?

I agree with it. It’s the first report of this kind from the tech sector that got Westminster talking. I’d like to see this happen much more. Sadly many politicians are scared of looking like a tech dunce and being shown up. I believe you need to understand and if that means asking silly questions then so be it, because we must reach out and understand the sector to do our jobs properly. Laws and regulations need to be fit for purpose and in a fast paced world and an even faster tech sector, that can be hard. It’s obvious that there is incredible untapped potential here, but if the majority of politicians are behind the curve, it puts the country as a whole behind the curve. Every party’s manifesto should be a tech savvy – but we need to hear from the sector what they need.

What’s your view on making Coding mandatory for children? Will it help reduce skills shortages or will forcing it on kids turn them off to the idea?

I think digital skills are increasingly in demand and IT lessons have been transformed from the days when students were taught how to use Microsoft Office. Technology is a great liberating force. However for lots of people (and I include myself in this statement), we can use our devices but don’t have a clue how they work! This can create a fear of technology, but it also inhibits the innovation that will propel our economy forward.

Many of the children who are just starting school this already know how to use a tablet. They won’t need to be taught how to make a slideshow. Instead, we should teach them how the technology works.

Are you in favour of e-Voting in elections?

I do not support e-voting at the moment. The technology just doesn’t seem secure enough. I worry about DNS attacks and other ways the system could be affected. If we could offer this securely in future, alongside more traditional ways of voting, then we should return to it.

Should internet access be a human right?

I recently called for new legislation creating a universal service obligation of 100MBPs to every home in the UK by 2020. Just as every household has to be connected to the phone network, we should expect to have access to a high speed internet connection.

What are your views on the NSA/GCHQ revelations over internet monitoring?

Our current system of regulation is insufficient to give us the protections that we need in this digital age. The time has come for us to establish a digital bill of rights. I think that the laws governing surveillance are not for purpose. I've called for the appointment of a commission of experts to review the powers held by the state which has imposed blanket surveillance on us all.

I have been a big supporter within Parliament for a Digital Bill of Rights and I’m extremely glad that Julian Huppert and I have been able to get this into my party’s 2015 election manifesto. As for the contents of that bill of rights, ideally I’d like to explore whether this could be crowd-sourced, like Iceland’s recent constitution.

Are you concerned about the power/activities of internet groups such as Anonymous?

I am. I think internet groups like Anonymous take their agenda to the n’th degree, which can hurt the campaigns they are trying to run. There is also a wider issue here about power, relationship and accountability. In a good democracy, you vote for your representative, you know who they are and they know who you are. You have a politics which is rooted in relationship, community and accountability. Anonymous is almost the opposite – no responsibility, a lot of protest and lots of power to destroy without any obvious plans to construct – to do something positive. It’s the easy way out.

Do you think monopolies in the technology scene (e.g. search engines) are hurting the growth of smaller firms?

Yes I do. I think the big firms are hurting the growth and development of smaller start-ups. We’re seeing this with issues like net neutrality over in the United States. I believe in free markets, but the Government’s role is to act as a referee and make sure everyone is playing by the same rules.

How tech savvy would you say you are?

I think a 5/10. I could be a lot better, but I hope I’m better than most MP’s!

Do you use social networking for either your work or personal life?

I use Facebook and Twitter. Interestingly my posts about football get a bigger reaction than the ones about politics!

What devices do you use to access the internet/conduct work?

I use my phones (I have an iPhone and a BlackBerry) and my laptop.

Are you aware of Bitcoins?

Yes! My local university, the University of Cumbria is about to allow some students to pay their tuition fees using Bitcoin. Those attending two new courses examining the role of complementary currencies, run by the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS), will be permitted to use the units.

Do you know how to code?

I don’t. It’s something I’d like to learn about!

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