There are 220,000 digital businesses in the UK and yet, every conversation on how best to regulate the sector in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations have centred around one company – Facebook. This risks putting the UK’s position as a leading digital economy in jeopardy. Not just from the potential knock to public trust in the sector as a result of recent events, but just as significantly from politicians that overreact to them.
So far this year, we’ve had leaders across the globe queuing to offer up their own critique of the sector. From Theresa May’s speech at Davos in January, to last week’s commitment by DCMS Secretary Matt Hancock to “a new settlement” with big tech companies. From Donald Trump’s tweets bashing Amazon, to Tim Cook’s harsh words for Mark Zuckerberg.
Speaking as a representative of small tech firms in the UK, there’s no doubt that the industry needs to take a long hard look at itself. But it’s important to seek sense amongst this anger and frustration. Startup e-commerce businesses like the one I met in Sheffield last month aren’t to blame for this, nor is the entrepreneur I am speaking to this week that uses data to tackle fraud and money laundering. There is a huge risk though that they will be the biggest victims of the so-called ‘Techlash’ in the form of a hasty and ill-considered regulatory response.
A classic example is liability, and who is legally responsible for users’ contributions on platforms and products. Pushing legal responsibility onto firms might look politically appealing, but the law will apply across the board. Facebook and other tech giants have the resources to accept the financial risks of outsized liability – startups don’t. The end result would entrench the positions of those same companies that politicians are aiming for and instead crush competitors with fewer resources.
The same goes for data. We’ve had a barrage of legislation passing through Brussels and Westminster to address the important role companies play as guardians of personal data. It’s critical to the public, privacy advocates and businesses that we get this right. But a huge burden on implementation (like any poor sop currently working on GDPR implementation in any company now knows) will weigh more heavily on the small businesses Coadec represents, not the tech giants.
So what is it that we do need? A proper discussion – not an argument. Smart policy, not headline grabbing politics. This requires an open conversation between government, experts, the public, and the whole technology industry (not just the tech giants) about what privacy in the modern age looks like, and yes: what constraints are necessary to rebuild public trust. The government’s new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation announced earlier this year is a great first step to ensuring these debates are conducted in an evidence-based way, but we need more. This won’t happen in the current whirlwind of controversy. Everyone involved needs to stop, take a breath, and then set about planning for the future of the UK economy with tech at the heart. Tech startups are looking forward to it.
Dominic Hallas is the executive director of The Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec)