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Facebook and Google's 'vexing' data monopolies must be investigated, inquiry says

Margi Murphy
Google, Alibaba and Tencent have amassed huge amounts of information about Britons, putting them at an advantage when it comes to building AI - AP

Competition watchdogs should investigate US tech giants “vexing” data monopolies, a House of Lords inquiry has said.

The Lords Artificial Intelligence committee called on the Competition and Markets Authority to launch a study of the sector after receiving complaints that the likes of Google and Facebook had too much control over global, digital data which is critical for academics and scientists developing artificial intelligence.

The government has estimated that AI could add an additional £630bn to the UK economy by 2035 and presents an opportunity to improve productivity and improve quality of life, particularly for its potential in aiding healthcare.

But the industry may struggle to take off if home-grown startups are unable to benefit from digital data needed to train smart algorithms. Several of the US tech giants, most of which are building their own AI, have been harvesting the personal information of Britons and its global customer base for several years, putting developers at a distinct advantage.

The committee said: “While we welcome the investments made by large overseas technology companies in the UK economy, and the benefits they bring, the increasing consolidation of power and influence by a select few risks damaging the continuation, and development, of the UK’s thriving home-grown AI startup sector.

Facebook shares some of its data with developers through its API scheme, which recently got it in hot water over the Cambridge Analytica scandal Credit: Reuters

Lord Clement Jones, chair of the committee told the Telegraph: “We are calling on the Competition and Markets Authority to look into the big question: whether the abuse of dominant positions is applicable to data.”

In an ideal scenario smaller companies would be given access to some of Google or Chinese tech giant’s Alibaba or TenCent information if it is being collected in the UK.

“We think there will be a competition issue if we are not careful,” Lord Jones added.

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The Information Commissioner described the data dominance of technology giants as “a vexing problem”.

One colossal dataset that could soon be up for grabs is the patient information held by the NHS, if the Lords recommendations come into play.

The NHS holds data on nearly everyone in the UK; some of it going back decades. The committee said that this data could be of immense value to artificial intelligence researchers and recommended that NHS England outline plans to share this data by the end of 2018.

“To release the value of the data held, we urge the NHS to digitise its current practices and records, in consistent formats, by 2022 to ensure that the data it holds does not remain inaccessible and the possible benefits to society unrealised,” the report found.