Digital infrastructure, rights, and Brexit

One of the things that struck me at the G20 Consumers conference last month was that there is a big opportunity to build a shared, global infrastructure. This could be a huge support to consumers who own digital products and to the consumer rights organisations that help protect them.

In the UK, Brexit means that this should now become a priority.

Consumer rights organisations all need to do similar things - things like alert people to dangerous products, test digital products, agree on technical standards - and do this in the context of a global economy.

I think Consumer Reports' recent effort to develop a shared standard for internet connected products and our recent work with Consumers International shows there is another way. It's the kind of thing services like haveibeenpwned.com and the Restart’s wiki do too. It involves groups working together, in the open, and making what they've built available to everyone.

Global digital infrastructure

If there was a shared, open infrastructure it could support better services and ensure that that organisations can talk about digital products consistently.

So what would that look like?

  • An open register of products
  • An open register of components
  • An open register of software vulnerabilities
  • An open register of hardware vulnerabilities
  • A versioned database of terms and conditions
  • Shared software and best practices for testing connected devices
  • Standards for publishing test results
  • Shared software and best practices for understanding software supply chains
  • An open register of data breaches
  • Open standards for product recall notices of all kinds

Some of these things do exist in a nascent form but as independent projects rather than things that governments or consumer rights organisations rely on.

Programs from other sectors - like IATI, the open standards for publishing international aid - show that this is both possible and transformative.

Get this right, and whole new services could emerge - with supermarkets automatically notifying people of dangerous purchases if issues arise after-purchase, or home routers that better understand the risks of devices on a network.

Consumer rights organisations, working together, could achieve this.

The UK need this (and could build it)

So, what does this have to do with Brexit? Well, a move to shared infrastructure for consumer safety could come from consumer rights organisations, but it could also come from a national government leading the way - much at the UK's Department for International Development did with IATI.

Britain currently plugs into lots of EU notification systems for consumer protection - things like the RAPEX Rapid Alert System for product recall and the equivalents for medical recalls and probably lots of other (closed) intergovernmental systems.

These will change with Brexit.

As Britain becomes less able to access EU institutions, can it kickstart an open, networked alternative? I think so. Britain could show the way by using Brexit as an opportunity to build a new digital consumer safety infrastructure.

As Brexit progresses, MPs should be looking for the risks of losing access to EU consumer rights processes, but also for opportunities to create new ones based on globally agreed open standards and shared datasets.