Why Theresa May Mustn’t Get Digital Wrong

Post-Brexit decision Britain must retain its place as a tech leader


It’s been well over a month since the UK’s historic Brexit decision and, at least on one side of British political discourse, the dust has somewhat settled. On a day on which his resignation was the third most important news story of the day, David Cameron left as Prime Minister after some six years leading the government, leaving a squabbling rabble behind to elect a new leader. Out of the ashes of any semblance of reality rose Theresa May, not quite a phoenix but bringing with her some calm in a country threatened with the prospect of Michael Gove at the helm.

As the Labour party eats itself, May has been reshuffling the cabinet and giving hints as to what a Britain under her leadership will look like. One of the key areas of concern - and, indeed, with more justification than many - is May’s plan for the future of digital. After all, her name is synonymous with the Snoopers’ Charter, and according to those within parliament, the new leadership is putting the Government Digital Service (GDS) under threat.

In Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson’s piece for the Huffington Post, he claims the government is looking to undermine the body, a move that threatens to undo ‘a decade of digital progress in central government.’ Watson goes on: ‘The Home Office has already quietly removed its most senior digital leader and similar positions in the Cabinet Office, DWP and HMRC are reportedly under threat.’ But the GDS’s work has been positive, streamlining government services and making legal or administrative matters both cheaper and more straightforward for the user.

Watson uses the example of the DVLA, the digitization of which has made it easier for drivers to pay their road tax bills and has removed the need for paperwork with driving licences. The Gov.uk website, too, ‘enables users to download all the relevant legal documents, saving them up to £1,000 in legal fees’ when giving power of attorney to a family member. It’s small but significant changes like these that make the GDS such a vital development in UK governmental digitization.

In fact, the GDS - which was put together by the coalition government shortly after the 2010 election - has been such a success that the Wall Street Journal wrote in 2014 that it was ‘the gold-standard in the global world of digital government.’ Its strive toward a citizen-centric digital future has been admirable, and Watson somewhat grandiosely describes it as having ‘flung open the heavy curtains of Whitehall and allowed sunlight to illuminate the workings of Government.’

One major concern, though, is that this unveiling, will be heavily reflected back onto those the GDS is supposed to make life easier for. The GDS and the Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill) are entirely separate, I should point out, but May’s interest in technology’s ability to surveil the populace is concerning. For more than one reason, too. However troubling or otherwise you find the Snoopers’ Charter to be on a personal or moral level, it’s also bad for business - calls for Britain to become a digital home for the world’s data post-Brexit are crippled by the fact the country has one of the most intrusive privacy regimes in the world.

‘Some of what she's said about immigration is concerning. The tech community is full of wonderfully smart people,’ said entrepreneur and investor Brent Hoberman, speaking to City A.M.. ‘Hopefully she has a more nuanced approach than she's been quoted as having said before and an understanding of the debate in greater detail.’ Particularly in the aftermath of Brexit, it’s important the government don’t place too much of a technological priority on immigration issues at the expense of other sectors.

Co-founder of the Open Intelligence think tank, Loz Kaye, said: ‘Prime minister May is bad news for technology, business and rights in the UK. The progress of the Investigatory Powers Bill shows she has simply not been interested in the objections and practical advice of tech experts. Her pet project risks saddling British communications service providers with a burden running into billions of pounds. These are not good qualities for our country's leader.’ There is, unfortunately, an overwhelming opinion that May’s time as Home Security did little to further digital rights.

It’s vital she takes a more effective stance as Prime Minister, though. For Britain to keep its place as a tech hub, a go-to for international tech companies, it relies on May getting it right. Overt focus on snooping would be a waste of resources, and any kind of dismantling of the GDS would be a major step back for tech in Britain. As May looks to drag Britain out of its post-Brexit decision slump, it’s vital she makes decisions perhaps not entirely in line with her previous beliefs. 

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