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Brexit data doubts risk digital growth

Brexit is happening. Whether we like it or not, the referendum has given a result and now we are left with a degree of uncertainty until at least March 2017, when Article 50 is triggered and we begin to get an idea of what leaving the EU actually looks like in practice.

There are some clear issues that are leading the conversation around Brexit – immigration and access to the single market in particular. Whilst data protection issues demand fewer column inches than other areas of the debate, it is an incredibly important question for the future health of the UK’s digital economy and one that’s often overlooked.

The general gist of the political conversation around Brexit (opens in new tab) has not given us much to go on when it comes to our digital economy, so when the new information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, set out her vision and mission statement for a UK data policy after Brexit last week, it was great to finally see something to applaud within her words.When Denham speaks of the need to talk “about proper protection for consumers, about certainty for business, and about strong independent oversight of the law”, I know that she is speaking the right language and sending the right message. She calls for us to align with the EU on data privacy, and hints that Brexit should not necessarily mean Brexit, in this particular case. I couldn’t agree more.

Some months ago, the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was outlined by the EU. GDPR is a (opens in new tab) comprehensive set of rules and regulations designed to protect EU citizens and introduce a progressive series of measures including the right of consumers to data portability, mandatory data breach reporting, higher standards of consent, and significantly larger fines when companies fail to comply.

It’s about time that we had these tougher measures in place to protect the greatest asset that businesses have, but the guidelines don’t come into play until May 2018 and, of course, the UK is now set to be outside of the EU. We have a number of essential decisions to make over the direction we take with data regulation. However, if we are to maintain our position as a leader in digital and in the exploding data economy, we need to adopt a similarly progressive and comprehensive regulation to the GDPR.

The opportunity is arising for the UK to establish itself even further as a leading player in data analytics, data centres and global data processing services. We’re in an incredibly strong position as we hold the highest privacy standards. Businesses are built upon confidence – confidence in suppliers, in each other and in the economy. Brexit has already caused a huge amount of uncertainty in the economy, so that last thing we need is confidence to fall in our abilities as tech leaders.

Strong regulations like GDPR help us to build confidence and to trade in the valuable currency of data, but the opportunity will only be realised if we maintain the same standards and inspire the same level of confidence in potential partners across the globe. We need to ensure the right safeguards are in place once we leave the EU in order to maintain and then strengthen our position.

The so-called Snoopers' Charter is already eroding confidence in UK data and now losing the influence of Brussels has the potential to have a further negative impact. That being said, we will always do all we can to protect the data of our clients and to be as secure as we can. It’s not an easy task in a world where cyber-threats are constantly evolving, and our government needs to step up to be able to keep up.

So, I welcome the words of the new information commissioner. If the UK’s digital economy is to compete with the United States and other major powers, we have to hold the high ground on data protection and privacy. Being ‘digitally enabled’, as Theresa May’s government insists we must be, relies on consumer buy-in and consumer confidence in the digital products and processes they use. Creating a digital market that is open for business does not only depend on attracting amazing talent and providing superfast broadband and other digital infrastructure; it depends on trust. Only a robust data protection regulation will provide that trust.

The UK’s digital economy has grown rapidly in the last five years. Tech and digital is consistently the fastest-growing sector in the UK economy and provides 1.5 million jobs, at the last count. Job creation in the sector has grown 2.8x faster than any other in the UK since 2011, and these are mostly highly paid jobs. Digital businesses need clarity on the questions raised so we can continue to plan and develop for the next five years in the incredible way we have in the last five.

Whatever our new trading relationship with Europe looks like, it is absolutely critical that there is no chance of disruption to our data flows, across the EU and beyond.

Lawrence Jones is founder and CEO of UKFast (opens in new tab)

Image source: Shutterstock/oatawa