The future of data has higher stakes than Brexit

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Addressing West Berlin in 1963, 22 months after the Berlin wall was built, US President JF Kennedy famously declared “Ich bin ein Berliner”, reaffirming the support of the free world to the capitalist enclave isolated in Communist East Germany. In a digital world, the UK will become an isolated data-island, surrounded by European data walls, only if Theresa May’s government persists with its current data policy. More than the weight of the words “I am a Londoner” may be at stake here.

The past few months has seen a heated, tense debate regarding data. New data privacy regulations, such as GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act, A.B. 375, come at a time when the world produces increasingly more data, businesses need to be data driven for any chance of success and large organisations are failing to protect and are misusing user data more than ever.

Amongst this debate the UK government has been sedentary and silent. Although the future may see more fines for breaching data privacy laws, what is most needed is a change in standards, practices and behaviours that reflect a genuine effort to protect customer data, whilst reaping benefit from the value of data - often said to be today’s equivalent to oil.

The UK’s silent approach to the data debate

The EU recently reached an historic data agreement with Japan. Meanwhile, little progress has been made between the UK and the EU to reach a data agreement. On the contrary, the government’s recent squabbles over the Prime Minister’s Brexit blueprint seems to have hindered progress on reaching any agreements. 

In May, Mark Zuckerberg ignored the UK summons asking him to testify in London regarding Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. However, he did answer EU summons and appeared before EU representatives, making a strong statement with his choice. It seems as though the UK’s silent approach has made it lose any authoritative voice in the matter.

Most recently, the EU fined Google £3.8 billion, as it begins to claim authority over FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) and US tech giants. Yet again, the UK government remained silent in the debate. 

Part of a school teacher’s role is classroom management, addressing any misbehaviour and setting standards. Similarly, the UK needs to make clear its stance on the use data. As Europe’s leading country in tech investment, the UK’s silence and inaction cannot continue. The government needs to make its data policy clear and widely heard by both European partners and Silicon Valley investors. It needs to lay out a clear plan to ensure the next generation of data talent will be fostered and nurtured in the UK.

Fines are not enough to address the misuse of data

Of course that is not to say the UK has done nothing at all. Following a heavy investigation of fake news and the misuse of data in political campaigning, The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee is suggesting tougher regulations for social media companies or a new tax in its report leaked recently. Philip Hammond has also promoted a panel established by the government to position the UK as a thought leader in the digital technology space and examine how the UK can “harness the benefits of data, while maintaining a secure system in which people can be confident their information is protected”. 

In early July this year, Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office issued Facebook a £500,000 fine as part of its report accusing Facebook of failing to protect user data and condemning its obscurity on how it shares data with third parties. 

This was in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed in May, involving around 87 million Facebook users (about 44% of total Facebook users), one million of which were from the UK, who had their data leaked and apparently also accessed by Russia. Given Facebook can generate £500,000 in just over seven minutes and that under GDPR Facebook could potentially see a fine of up to £1.2 billion in case of a future breach, the ICO’s half a million pound fine is barely a slap on the wrist.

Whilst it is commendable the UK has shown a measure of eagerness to take action against the data privacy violations by large technology companies, fines are not enough if the UK truly wants to take a clear stance in the issue of how data is used.

Britain to lead the way with a strong data strategy

A principle idea behind GDPR is to encourage organisations to truly value and protect user data, and demonstrate this through business standards, practices and behaviours. A clear message to US tech giants needs to come from Britain’s oddly silent government, which is currently being drowned in its EU counterparts’ message, a subtle mix of publicity stunts and words of caution to tech CEOs. 

The government could appeal to Silicon Valley capital by promising less restriction than in EU countries. Or it could decide to lead the debate in regulating “lawless” tech giants, by setting its own rules. Regardless of the outcome of Brexit, a strong data strategy from the government is needed to showcase the UK’s world-class assets in data expertise and tech in general.

UK businesses can take an initiative to make Britain data-driven 

Interestingly, despite the government’s silence, UK businesses have voiced clear views on Britain’s future in data. An optimistic view concerning Brexit resounds as 51% of UK businesses believe it will make it easier to recruit talent into the company, 44% believe Brexit will boost innovation through better data utilisation and 32% predict the UK will create its own world-class data legislation. 

Although UK companies are taking the initiative in driving business forward through wise use of data and placing standards to protect customer data, in order to get ahead in the competition against their European and US counterparts they need clear direction from the government. In order to make its data position transparent with both Silicon Valley and the EU especially, the government needs to engage with data experts and businesses, currently in the dark regarding the UK’s data future. 

Bill Hammond, Event Director of Big Data London

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