Any of us who suspect that the so-called ‘oligopoly’ of tech vendors is back in favour in UK government circles might have raised a knowing eyebrow yesterday as Prime Minister Theresa May became the latest senior Tory to pop into Microsoft HQ in Reading.
Her visit follows an earlier trip to the campus by Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond, while he and Digital Minister Matt Hancock last week kicked off the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), alongside execs from sponsor Microsoft, at the House of Commons. The government also used Microsoft’s Future Decoded conference to kick off its cyber-security programme, complete with commentary from Microsoft in the accompanying press release.
The reason for May’s visit was to talk to apprentices, but also generally to big up Microsoft:
I have seen the amazing work going on at Microsoft and all of you have hugely exciting and interesting careers ahead of you. You are shaping people's everyday lives with what you do with artificial intelligence and HoloLens. This is an amazingly exciting place.
The timing of her visit was of course 48 hours after triggering Article 50 and beginning the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. The government has made a lot of hay out of investments by tech firms such as Apple and Google in post-Brexit Britain, so it was hardly surprising to hear the Prime Minister declare:
Companies like Microsoft are important for the future of the UK economy. In the UK we have a lot of clever people who can do technology well, and that's an area we want to push as a government. We have a valued relationship with Microsoft and I'm sure we will continue to work with them for years to come.
An ironic, and I imagine left unspoken, co-incidence of the timing of the visit though was that it took place on the same day that Home Secretary Amber Rudd summoned the likes of Google, Twitter and Facebook into her offices for a dressing-down over their supposed lack of co-operation in the war on terror by refusing to provide the mythic ‘back door’ to allow government access to data and communications.
It might have escaped the PM’s attention, but Microsoft has been taking a bold and defiant stand against Rudd’s counterparts in the US. The US Department of Justice (DoJ) is still trying to force the company to hand over data held on a server which is physically located in Ireland.
The battle has rumbled on for a long time and the next move is the DoJ’s after Microsoft succeeeded in the Court of Appeals in defying the Feds demands.
Microsoft wasn't at the Rudd meeting, but I'm not seeing that as the sort of behaviour the Home Secretary is likely to approve of, based on her round of the TV channels last weekend demanding the right to access data from the likes of WhatsApp and Twitter.
May could have made this point had she chosen to, as the Microsoft exec on the front line in the battle against the DoJ was standing right next to her for the photo opp yesterday - see above.
She probably wouldn’t have liked the answer she got, mind you. After all, earlier in the week Brad Smith, Microsoft’s President and chief legal officer, told ITV News that:
We will not help any government, including our own, hack or attack any customer anywhere.We will turn over data only when we are legally compelled to.
When we get those kinds of requests, or warrants and when they are lawful, we act quickly, we can do so in a matter of minutes. But when governments go too far we will say no.
As a [global] company we need to be trusted everywhere and the only way that we can be trusted everywhere is if we put interests of our customers globally ahead, frankly, of individual interests of any single government.
We’re used to seeing photo opps and rountable debates between tech leaders and their political counterparts in the US. Most recently, we saw the pre-inauguration gathering between in-coming President Trump and assorted CEOs, while earlier this month IBM CEO Ginni Rommety and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff met with Trump and his team to discuss workforce development issues.
It’s not been something that’s been as common in the UK, even if Google’s access to Team Cameron caused some fevered concern to the headline writers of some of the more excitable mainstream media. In reality, the demonising of the ‘oligopoly’ over the past few years has meant that most tech/government minister meetings have been more angled towards the vendor being told to mend its ways, typically by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude!
But that’s all changing. I noted last year my disquiet at the sight of Civil Service Head John Manzoni keynoting at Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Discover conference in London, where he cheered the heart of many a ‘big ticket’ public sector provider by declaring:
We need some of the best companies to help us.
Then there was that day that sticks in mind when Digital Minister Hancock actually tweeted out a press release from BT with a direct link to its press office. Who needs a PR person when you have a government minister with digital responsibility to help out?
And now it almost looks as though current government ministers have a security pass to the Microsoft canteen! It’s all good for encouraging tech industry investment in the UK as a digital economy I suppose, but still, it’s a sign of the changed times and not one that fills me with particular cheer.
Final thought -sending the Prime Minister out to praise Augmented Reality 48 hours after kicking off the Brexit process? Did that messaging really get thought through thoroughly?