On 29 July, the Access Partnership Advisory Board met to discuss key vectors that will shape policy for the technology sector in the coming 12 months.
The Future of Work
As COVID-19 continues to demonstrate the global economy’s reliance on the Internet, governments will begin to stimulate investment in local companies that offer to build out coverage and reduce the cost of broadband. The goal will be to enable people in every part of the world to enjoy the benefits of the Internet in their professional and personal lives.
The virus’s impact on working methods will lead to further deployment of automation and cloud solutions in the workplace. Data storage will be increasingly decentralised (it no longer makes any sense) to support remote working, and companies and governments of all sizes will speed up cloud adoption. However, this reliance on remote access will
- create greater cybersecurity risks and
- governments will be challenged to have a coherent strategy democratising the use of these tools rather than concentrating power and wealth in larger businesses.
COVID-19 has other side effects: the virus will cause a retreat from globalisation and a repatriation of manufacturing from China, resulting in the rebuilding of local production and more manufacturing jobs in the medium term.
As increased automation puts some people out of work (while creating new jobs), the technology sector will need to place a bigger emphasis on how it supports the upskilling of workers. This could include creating qualifications for “bite-sized” jobs, which are affordable and accessible, such as user interface design, web administration and database management.
COVID-19 has driven a resentment-fuelled overlay to a pre-existing techlash, as tech firms are perceived to have fared relatively better out of the pandemic compared to other industries. This will compound distrust of Big Tech, increasing perceptions that it is unethical in its approach to data protection and the spread of misinformation. There remains a strong suspicion of the technology ecosystem: its pillars (too big), its bosses (too reckless), its services (too intrusive) and business models (too exploitative), and its commitment to local communities (insufficient). This has already resulted in data residency requirements, heftier taxes, and more stringent data protection rules. These policy choices risk driving disparities between countries by dint of the regulatory barriers they raise.
G7 resistance to Huawei switches in their core national networks and effective Chinese efforts to ensure the emergence of an alternative – non-TCP/IP – Internet will force third countries to make uncomfortable choices about which orbit to choose. The latter (Chinese) camp will gain additional currency across Internet users and participating governments of the Belt-and-Road Initiative. These adherents will not be limited to Asia and will sit uncomfortably between two Internet systems for a long period.
Winner Take All Regulation
With regulators looking globally for best practices, there is the potential for a “winner takes all” regulatory framework to gain currency worldwide. GDPR has quickly become the gold standard for data protection (though copycat versions appear across the world). California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), with many similarities to the GDPR, may drive the US and EU closer together in a bid for shared understanding of best practice in global data protection. More likely, however, the EU’s growing confidence in its ability to set global standards for technology regulation will see the EU move forward alone.
One of the outcomes of COVID-19 is a vastly reduced global carbon footprint for 2020 – a defining moment in the fight against climate change. Before and since, tech companies have made many promises to address their impact on the environment, but sustainability will cut both ways.
Data centres and cryptocurrencies rank among the world’s largest users of electricity, so companies using these vehicles will need to ramp up efforts to use more (and better) renewable energy while improving electrical efficiency. This will be reflected in more government calls for sustainability audit and reporting. The technology industry will need to reduce its own energy footprint by creating stimuli for energy efficiency through design, advancing energy-efficient technologies. We will also see more business-led efforts, such as industry-generated codes of conduct and best practices, to get ahead of the decarbonisation curve. If the sector is unable to do this, the techlash will continue to intensify.
Digitization and Decarbonisation
Data and connectivity technologies, such as mobile Internet, video conferencing, cloud computing, AI, and the Internet of Things are accelerating decarbonisation and sustainability. Moreover, solutions fuelled by AI can also offer environmental benefits beyond decarbonisation, such as waste management, cleaning up oceans, and preserving biodiversity. As leadership in these areas is absent from many countries, the technology industry will take a central role in shaping international and national regulatory frameworks in a way that links climate solutions to technology.