Main content

The UK (once again) says digital is important and (once again) has a plan to be world leader

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 6, 2021
The British Government is this week telling the world that it’s going to be a really good place for digital to thrive. And it has some principles (?) to make that happen.

Image of two people, one shouting at the other
(Image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay )

When I received a press release under embargo yesterday from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) with the headline ‘New plan to make Britain global leader in innovation-focused digital regulation' - I took a deep breath and thought, here we go again. But, the release was sparse on details, so I think I'd reserve judgement and wait to read the full document, which was published today. 

Now that I have read it in full, I can safely continue with my eye-rolling and judgemental tone. Don't get me wrong, there isn't anything particularly outrageous in the document beyond the whole ‘we are going to deregulate digital markets' thing. The issue is that the British Government continues to tell us that it knows digital is important and that it *will* be a world leader, without actually clearly laying out how it is going to make that happen. 

If you think I'm maybe being a bit hyperbolic, do yourself a favour and head over to GOV.UK and do a search for ‘digital world leader' and see how many press releases are thrown up that contain similar sentiments…

The problem is that the release today is just full of buzzwords that ultimately don't make it any clearer how the British Government is going to use regulation (or the lack thereof) to foster digital markets in the UK, whilst also protecting citizens and businesses from online harm. 

(Side note - the document says that "one of the UK's strengths has been a business environment predicated on stability and trust in public institutions", which I find objectively quite funny given the past few years of Brexit and the handling of the pandemic.)

Underpinning the entire document published today is the Government's three principles for digital regulation. These are going to be the backbone of how it approaches regulation to ‘seize the benefits of the digital age'. 

Let's take a look at each of these principles, which I will copy directly from the document itself. 

Principle Number 1 - Actively promote innovation 

Right, because other countries hate to promote innovation. Anyway, this principle states: 

Digital technologies and their applications drive innovation across every part of the UK economy, and the way we regulate them should encourage this. We will seek to remove unnecessary regulations and burdens where possible. Where we judge intervention is strictly necessary, we will first consider non-regulatory measures like technical standards to reduce burdens. 

Where regulation is needed, it should be designed to minimise unnecessary burdens on businesses. To do this, it should be outcomes-focused, backed by robust evidence, and consider the effects of proposed policies on innovation.

Right, so more innovation, less burden, more outcomes, some regulation, but not too much regulation…..and robust, of course it should be robust. WHAT ARE YOU SAYING? 

Principle Number 2 - Achieve forward-looking and coherent outcomes

The document states: 

The fast-moving, cross-cutting nature of digital technologies means that previously distinct regulatory regimes may become increasingly interconnected - for example in content, competition and data protection. As the landscape develops quickly, policymakers must make sure that new regulation minimises contradictions, undue burdens, or overlaps and gaps with existing frameworks. 

Regulatory interventions should address underlying drivers of harm rather than symptoms, in order to protect against future changes, and new regulations should be designed with a clear understanding of the links to our wider regulatory regime and goals. Regulators will take a collaborative approach through engagement with businesses and other regulators, as well as by making space for businesses to test and trial new business models, products and approaches.

Any wiser? Lots of burden being removed in this cross-cutting, quickly changing, contradictory, framework-riddled landscape - obviously. 

Principle Number 3 - Exploit opportunities and address challenges in the international arena

I'm tired…but here's what principle 3 says: 

Digital technologies present global solutions and global problems in a way rarely seen in other sectors. Our international commitments (including trade deals, principles and norms) and our domestic regulation heavily influence and shape each other. Policymakers will therefore build in international considerations from the start, taking account of our existing international obligations, likely future agreements, and the impact of regulations and standards developed by other nations. 

This includes consideration of how digital technical standards can support domestic rulemaking as a complement or alternative to regulation, and how they can facilitate international interoperability. International Regulatory Cooperation should be a first order consideration for digital regulation.

The international arena! Sounds fun, doesn't it? I mean I have no idea what any of this actually means beyond working with other countries in some shape or form, but I do like cooperation, so I'll be a bit kinder about this one. 

Less noise, more action

The document does go on to provide a little more detail than the puff paragraphs outlined above. For example, it says that regulation should ensure "digital markets are competitive" and that "consumers trust they are treated fairly" or that "we have a vibrant digital economy". 

Or, for example, where it discusses GDPR and says there have been "lively debates about the future of data protection in the UK", one being the "use of artificial intelligence to automate parts of the financial advice process". The document's take on this adds:

The right governance or regulatory frameworks for the development and deployment of systems for automated decision-making will help to build trustworthiness and consumers' confidence in their use.

Right, well that's settled that lively debate then! 

This is all just so exhausting. Once again it's a top level ambition with little detail, evidence or plan in place to do the actual hard work of getting this right. We don't need grandiose statements about being world leaders in digital - show us what you're doing on the ground, give us the data to measure how it's working, get some excellent teams in and let us speak to the people that are involved. 

The Government also doesn't need to have it all figured out. Ambitions are good, but if that's all we have then it all feels a little pointless. It's tantamount to the UK beating it's post-Brexit chest and shouting into a void, whilst the European Union, the US and China battle it out for digital greatness. 

There are plenty of exciting digital projects happening across government, and there are some excellent people in central and local government that are putting in the grunt work to make some of this possible for the UK's future. We have particularly seen evidence of this during the COVID-19 pandemic at a local level where authorities took it upon themselves to do what needed to be done and are doing some positive work around data use, working with local communities. 

I've got a feeling that what the government is doing here is putting plans in place to just deregulate and flowering it in consultancy language that will get some people excited. But that's not a recipe for sustainable success. 

A grey colored placeholder image