Tell me a bit about yourself, what it is you do and what drove you to join the advisory board?
I was a Member of the UK Parliament for 14 years (2005-2019), and during six of those years, I served as the Minister for Telecommunications and Technology (2010-2016). After I left office in 2016 under the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, I maintained my interest in telecommunications policy. While I was telecommunications minister, I oversaw the roll out of rural broadband, the launch of 4G, attempts to improve mobile coverage in rural areas and debated consolidation in the industry. I also maintained close connections with telecommunications and tech industries. It will be interesting and enjoyable for me to work with Access Partnership to bring my expertise in regulatory areas to bear, but also to keep myself well informed about developments in the industry.
At the moment, I work with an M&A advisory firm called LionTree which is based in the US and Europe and is involved with technology and telecommunications. They recently advised Liberty Global on the merger with O2. I also work for US non-profit group called Common Sense Media, on campaigns to make the Internet safer for both children and adults. I support a start-up called Digital Theatre that provides educational material on theatres online for school and universities. Finally, I also work with an online reputation management company called Digitalis. So, I am basically a consultant who advises 4-5 organisations on telecommunications and tech policies.
What are the most pressing issues in tech for 2020-21?
It is a fast-moving sector. In telecommunications, the issues of consolidation never go away, so we’ve seen the merger of Virgin Media and O2 get on the way and I think it’ll be interesting to see how much more consolidation happens over the next few years in the industry. I am personally in favour of consolidation, I would like to see a few bigger European players able to compete with the big telecom giants in the US and I still think they would give value for money to the consumer. Related to this is digital access: I think the pandemic has shown how essential it is to be able to be online and therefore, how pressing the need is to ensure that every citizen in every country has access to good quality broadband and an element of digital education.
In tech, the problem is arguably in reverse, there are few big tech companies that dominate their respective areas, whether it’s search, e-Commerce, social or advertising. I personally do not favour break ups with these companies, but I have always been a proponent of tech regulation. Thus, I support measures that would make it easier for people to get redress in terms of how they’re treated on social media platforms and certainly to ensure that e-commerce and search is as competitive as possible.
With the exponential growth in data-driven technologies such as AI, 5G and IoT that we have seen over the last couple of years, how important is it that organisations and governments make the right decisions when it comes to adopting these technologies?
I am always in favour of governments as far as possible being on the front foot of these technologies and you can do that in several ways. The UK government has been pretty good at this. First of all, by ensuring that you have a group of experts available to advise government so they can establish, for example an Advisory Council on AI, to inform them about AI and developments but also addressing the ethical issues surrounding AI. Similarly, you have several different government organisations looking at the Internet of Things and in 5G and involving universities as well. So, there is a whole ecosystem that government needs to coordinate in order to ensure that it is as informed as possible.
Secondly, government should act as a practitioner. Therefore, it is a good thing if government takes risks and gets ahead in terms of providing digital services, and that can involve the use of AI for example. It gets ahead in terms of looking at regulatory barriers that stop the deployment of new technologies such as the Internet of Things, or indeed the kind of planning barriers that exists which put a break on the roll out of 5G. Clearly, we now have an element of geopolitical concern that is now overlaid (which was not there 2 or 3 years ago), but it is being brought about because of the US’s new relationship with China. Personally, I do not have a massive problem with Huawei working with UK companies but clearly sourcing technology partners across the globe now comes under greater scrutiny than before.
What do you think about the EU’s digital sovereignty approach?
This is a part of the whole debate about globalisation. When it comes to, for example data, the US has always taken a digital sovereignty approach and I think that’s short-sighted. I would much rather see a coordinated approach between the US and the EU and other like-minded countries to ensure that data like any physical object that we try and trade across the globe moves as easily as possible between countries. But I do not have a problem with the EU taking the lead on data protection and setting an example. I agree that some people think the data protection regulations are too onerous and clunky, but I do think that they have at least put in place a data protection system that takes account of the needs of citizens’ privacy. If that means to a certain extent that it asserts digital sovereignty to implement that, I think that’s potentially a good thing, it’s nothing that the US wouldn’t do either. But if I were to take a step back, I would wish blocks to cooperate more closely and see the benefits of free digital trade.
After Brexit, do you think the UK would take more of a US-friendly approach or would it still lean towards EU policy?
I think the current administration would like to be closer to the US in terms of trade, but they are going to find it difficult in terms of public opinion. Even though the UK has voted for Brexit, the great irony is that the sentiment of the average British voter is much more closely aligned to European attitudes. So, for example on environmental standards, you would find the average Brit supports European type regulation as opposed to US regulation. I think as well that the UK has always been a bridge between America and Europe, and because we share a language with America, we are more comfortable with using the services of big American companies. But the same issues concern our European partners, whether it is the tax that big tech pays, or all the power that big tech has. So, as I said, I think we have a government that would like to get closer and be more pivoted towards the US, but may find that the public want them to maintain this British relationship with the EU. It is going to be a difficult path for government to navigate and not as straightforward as they think it is going to be.
Regarding regulation – what are some of the key obstacles when finding a good balance between innovation and protecting citizens?
Well, if you talk to anyone who is involved in the world of start-ups, they want as little regulation as possible. When I talk to investors in the start-up community about whether we should regulate companies like Facebook, they are overwhelmingly opposed to it. The obvious reason behind this is that Facebook has the resources to comply with any kind of regulation, and has the resources to shape that regulation in its favour. Start-ups rely as much as possible on a level playing field. So, that is one balance to be struck: the minute you add a regulatory layer; you effectively end up giving additional protection to the incumbents.
Thus, I think the short answer is that to a certain extent, government should do two things: first, it should be vigilant about getting rid of old-style regulation (always use Uber as the example). If technology, by definition, is going to disrupt the way we access goods and services and if there are analogue regulations that prevent companies providing that service to people, they should be amended or abolished. At the same time, we should be careful when we regulate new companies that we do not inadvertently erect a new barrier, and prevent the next wave coming through. There is a very careful balance to be struck, and I think that not enough government officials spend time thinking through the actual practical effects. Any politician should really be thinking it: how much is this regulation, while it looks good on paper, going to cost the company to implement? What are going to be practical outcomes? What is the cost benefit analysis of bringing in this piece of regulation?
What is the role that Access Partnership plays when it comes to finding the right ethical and regulatory solutions for these technologies?
I think Access Partnership is going to act as a bridge between regulators and businesses. I think that one too often assumes that each side understands the other, when in fact that is very often not the case. In my opinion, government often makes up policy in a vacuum, and business also operates in a vacuum and does not pay enough attention to the regulatory risks. A company like Access Partnership needs to educate both sides on the risks posed by the other. Politicians need to understand that businesses are not simply out to make a profit at any cost. Similarly, businesses should not simply sit back and operate without any regard to government, and then run around like headless chickens when government suddenly arrives with a new draft regulation, having not built any relationships or sought to understand what is motivating government.
Finally, how do you like to spend your free time?
As I was the Culture minister as well as the Tech minister, I love going to the theatre (which is obviously something I cannot do at the moment), listening to music and watching films. Culture is my hobby and my profession. Since lockdown, I have also used it as an opportunity to get fit. So, I now do a lot more exercise and it is bizarrely becoming a hobby of mine.