According to Steven Almond, director of technology and innovation at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the UK’s data economy has grown twice as fast as the national economy over the past decade. That’s good news, even though economic history over the past decade has been marked by a fragile recovery between two catastrophic slumps: the 4.1% decline in 2008-09 and the 9.8% plunge in 2020.
Almond recently chaired a Westminster eForum on harnessing new technology, saying:
Recognize the enormous growth potential [of the digital economy] relies on trust in technology and trust in innovative business models to break new ground. [ ] So how can we create this confidence in new technology? At the ICO, we think about it very carefully: Supporting innovators in the data economy in testing and trying out new ideas through our sandbox.
It’s a worthy initiative. And there’s more good news, Almond said: From 2018 to 2022, global data volume is expected to double and then double again by 2025. Part of this process will be intelligent regulation, which will be the focus of the first conference session.
The use of the data potential is one reason for the government’s declared wish to give the ICO a more commercial character that enables more tasks than its previous core task of protecting citizens. However, this is a policy that seems to signal the beginning of a planned move away from GDPR that appears to run counter to any plan to build public trust. Wasn’t the GDPR designed to protect us from big tech?
So will the UK ignore caution by deregulating so businesses can take advantage of the digital world and focus less on protecting citizens’ data? If so, then there is an urgent need for competent adults in the room, as Britain’s critical data adequacy agreement with the EU risks being sacrificed along with the Northern Ireland Protocol, freedom of movement, research alliances, supply chains and other victims of the lack of strategy No. 10 to become foresight.
Does the Downing Street regulation no longer see the way for trade on mutually agreed terms, but rather an obstacle to it? Does the Prime Minister understand the problems at all, given that Britain supposedly left the EU to avoid bureaucracy but has since drowned in it?
In this context, the eForum set out how the UK wants to benefit from new technologies and booming data following Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Spending Review. While investing modestly in the future, Sunak rowed back some time scales in support of the digital economy.
Nudge, wink, wink
The keynote speaker was Simon Parnall, Program Director of Broadcast, Media and Gaming Technology at Ofcom. The communications regulator has been in a Westminster whirlwind lately as debate rages over who should take the chair. Former Mail supremo Paul Dacre could be said to epitomize the binary world, but only by being on, off, on, and then off again as the preferred candidate of # 10.
Parnall, who is also a Conservative councilor in leafy Surrey (presumably in his spare time) said:
Not only companies have to evolve and adapt; so do we as regulators. We have to examine very carefully how we work and, above all, how we can work at a pace that keeps pace with the development of our stakeholders. Today it is more important than ever for us to work together on an interdisciplinary basis and to ensure that our technologists work closely with our economists, our strategists and, of course, our political colleagues.
An important part of this is making sure we don’t inadvertently slow down the pace of innovation and that our policies and regulations are reasonably robust in the face of technological change. But we are increasingly playing a role in regulating innovation. This enables and promotes innovations for the benefit of citizens and consumers – these two magic words.
But it is precisely in this area that our role is more gentle regulation; it enables, encourages and – this is my favorite word – nudges; Showing people the way and encouraging them to change. But to this day we have had a rather inward view of innovation.
The message that this government sees the role of regulators in pushing the UK to preferential conclusions that benefit business is clear as it seeks to push these organizations deeper under the ministerial skirts.
This has long been a tense relationship in the role of the regulatory authorities: on the one hand, they are an instrument for monitoring the implementation of political goals, on the other hand, they are supposedly independent bodies with the task of protecting the consumer. The GDPR tried to balance these competing priorities in law, but this government is not a fan.
A day in kindergarten
How does Ofcom see the interplay of different elements of digital regulation – data protection, competition, online security and other areas? And how does she see the digital regulatory landscape? In short, how could a more coherent, interconnected approach benefit the UK? Parnall said:
That’s a really good question. One of the most important things that we really, really need to do right now is to build much stronger connections between our technologists and other colleagues who work in the organization, especially policy makers and economists, because that helps us understand how those parts are match.
But then it got bizarre. He continued:
I have a particular passion for Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty, as you know, said in Alice in Wonderland – actually, I think it’s Through the Looking Glass – “When I use a word, it means what I want”. And when we use a word like “algorithms” very often, it means different things to different regulators because it has different applicability.
One of the things we try is to make sure we band together [sic]that we understand the common issues and also our diversity. That we can effectively build on that to get a fuller picture of how all of these pieces fit together.
Passionate about Humpty Dumpty? Aside from the annoying question of the words that mean what a politician wants from them (we have had enough of them in the UK), not to mention the regulatory grouping, someone urgently needs to explain to political speakers that the urge to use childish metaphors to use, not not to play well with adults.
From Boris Johnson’s penchant for Kermit the frog down, it doesn’t convey the sense of nostalgia, comfort, and stability they think it does. It just makes everyone feel like it’s the last day of the semester in a private kindergarten, but there’s no one left to pick up the babies.
But if you conjure up childhood characters in a public speech, at least make sure that they don’t represent a brave incompetence (as Kermit does) or that the only thing we know about them is that they had a big fall and no one could reassemble (Humpty Dumpty). In Brexit Britain, these are not the metaphors we need. What’s Next, Chitty Chitty Bang Bangs Child Catcher as a Model for Internet Safety? Pinocchio as a role model for honesty in public office?
So what does Parnall think will be the main transformative technology for the UK that will allow it to grab the glittering price of digital success instead of hugging the comfort teddy bear? He said:
I will choose 5G because, among other things, we are dealing with climate change. And we also appreciate that technologies offer new opportunities for other industries. In power generation, for example, communication that optimizes the use of the grid is extremely important for load shedding [protecting the power grid from blackout], and so forth.
and [5G is also critical for] Agriculture, with the advent of field-level mobile communications, while the ability to provide real-time video communications enables drones to manage agricultural processes. 5G will play an enormously important role in this.
Okay, but there is the small thing about the UK supply chain challenges that Parnall acknowledges in his presentation. Not all of these can be attributed to the perfect storm of Brexit and the pandemic; some are holdovers from other political maneuvers, such as trade hostilities with China. And the focus is on 5G. He said:
The government’s decision to restrict certain companies from participating in telecommunications networks [a reference to Huawei] has led to further work to increase and diversify the supply of network equipment. UK operators have limited choices when choosing equipment suppliers to build the wireless portion of their cellular networks known as the radio access network or RAN.
Let’s not get around the bush: when announcing the 2020 directive banning Huawei devices from the UK’s 5G networks by 2027, then-Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden told Parliament the move was “a cumulative delay in the 5G rollout takes two to three years and “would cost up to £ 2 billion [$2.69 billion]”. How’s that for taking advantage of digital opportunities!
The government has published a plan to diversify the global telecommunications market in order to help incumbents to attract new providers to the UK market and to accelerate open interface solutions and their deployment. And we work with government, industry and other stakeholders to improve diversity and promote the development of open and interoperable ecosystems.
The London-based SONIC (Smart Open Network Interoperability Center) Labs, based in Broadband Non-Spot Brighton *, are part of the Government Strategy, a Whitehall-funded program between the Digital Catapult and Ofcom overseen by DCMS. It aims to create a commercially neutral environment in which to evaluate a range of open, software-centric network technologies. These will play a leading role in finding solutions to UK supply chain challenges, Parnall said.
Let’s hope that SONIC is not based on the hedgehog. But who can say more?
Welcome to the UK: a nursery for new ideas, innovation and science and technology superpowers? Or a room full of toddlers throwing toys out of strollers? With this administration, it’s getting harder and harder to tell.
*: Most of the city’s seafront between Brighton and Hove lacks fiber / cable broadband and relies on outdated copper connections, as our author can confirm firsthand.