‘A Year to the Election: What should the tech sector be calling for?’

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On 13th May 2014 PICTFOR’s industry, parliamentary and academic membership attended a debate to discuss the variety of policy proposals that could emerge from the technology sector ahead of the formal drawing up of the political parties manifestos’.

John Burn-Murdoch, a data journalist at the Financial Times chaired the evening, whilst the panel consisted of Anthony Walker, Deputy CEO at techUK; Theo Bertram, UK Policy Manager for Google; Chi Onwurah MP, PICTFOR co-Chair and Shadow Cabinet Office Minister responsible for Labour’s Digital Government Review; Andrew Green, Chairman of the Connected Digital Economy Catapult and Guy Levin, Executive Director at Coadec, the policy voice of start-ups.

Following the Chair’s opening remarks Antony Walker began the discussion with an appeal for greater ambition across the sector suggesting that the size, scale, significance and strength of the UK technology sector is not yet fully recognised. He added that as a world leader, which is home to so much ingenuity and innovation, the oft quoted statistic that the technology sector accounts for 10% of UK GDP is likely to be an underestimation. Amongst calls for a prioritisation of immigration, skills and regulatory policy, he emphasised that the UK must strive to have the most connected and most secure digital environment in the world. On connectivity, Chairman of the Connected Digital Economy Catapult Andrew Green argued that 5G would dramatically enhance the UK’s digital infrastructure and that Governmental support for R&D into the “Internet of things” represented an easy win and would allow the UK to steal a march on her global competitors.

Chi Onwurah MP contrasted the technology sector’s relatively high profile status today with its apparent irrelevance within political discussions ahead of the last general election, and called for the increasing importance of technology to the UK economy to be adequately reflected in the wider political dialogue. The Shadow Minister, who is responsible for Labour’s Digital Government Review, argued that the sector must focus on active engagement with parliamentarians and prospective parliamentary candidates prior to and during the election period. Onwurah further reasoned that the technology sector, as well as the policy development process, needed to become more representative to properly engage the public and ensure that rapid technological change is a positive experience for the many.

Google’s Theo Bertram stressed that whilst the UK is one of the best regulatory environments in the world for technology there was no room for complacency. Amidst calls for stronger UK representation in Europe, Bertram discussed the cultural parallels and divergences between European nations regarding the behavioural norms and expectations surrounding privacy, data protection and online retail. On digital inclusion, he suggested that “the balance between pipes and people” was far from ideal and that connecting the unconnected should be at the top of the policy wish list.

Privacy and data protection issues were raised throughout the discussion, yet again highlighting their importance to the sector. Panellists spoke of the immense potential that technology has to improve public services for all but warned of the need to properly address widespread privacy concerns and work to create an environment of trust. Theo Bertram spoke on the topic in relation to healthcare data, suggesting that the NHS must focus on regaining public trust over their use of personal data – as picked up in a Times article reporting on the evening’s debate.

The development, maintenance and strengthening of trust was also a key issue for Andrew Green. He described the fantastic opportunities that new technology will afford but warned that such potential would not be recognised if industry loses public trust, particularly on data usage. Green called for greater cooperation across the industry on big issues of mutual interest such as data privacy. Panel wide recognition of the need for superior data protection measures ensured that a discussion on the regulatory framework followed. The executive director at Coadec, Guy Levin spoke of the need for regulation to protect consumers whilst not unfairly disadvantaging small businesses or stifling the innovating potential of start-ups. Levin articulated a vision of a regulatory system in which fast moving technological developments and experimental products and services were supported by an equally dynamic regulator at those crucial early stages of the business life cycle. He described the unfortunate current situation whereby tech is outpacing the regulators ability to regulate, creating high opportunity costs and damaging the innovative small businesses that are unable to fully realise their competitive advantage.

The panel answered questions from the audience on a range of topics including connectivity, tech clusters, spectrum management, digital inclusion, skills, and data protection. The discussion was wide-ranging yet the underlying focus on digital infrastructure, skills, regulation and security highlighted the growing consensus around the technology sector’s political priorities for the year ahead. This is welcome news but an emerging consensus needs to become a coherent, unified voice if the sector is serious about letting the parties know how they can transform Britain.

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