UK prime minister Boris Johnson and its foreign secretary Liz Truss have made no secret about their desire for Britain to wear Europe’s technology crown. However, when it comes to digital governance, the UK increasingly finds itself out of the room when the big decisions happen.
The most obvious example of this post-Brexit isolation is the new EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC) from which the UK is noticeably absent, despite many topics championed by the UK in intergovernmental forums – such as digital technical standards or artificial intelligence (AI) governance – now being debated in the TTC.
The declared goals of the TTC are to coordinate US and European approaches to critical challenges such as artificial intelligence, data flows, cyber harms, and global supply chains, as well as to strengthen transatlantic ties and promote democratic values.
So it strongly overlaps with UK government aspirations, and also echoes Johnson’s speech at the Summit for Democracy event which outlined the UK’s collaborative efforts to ensure emerging technologies safeguard ‘shared values of freedom and openness’.
The TTC is largely seen as an attempt to re-establish the transatlantic partnership to confront global concerns, particularly China’s ascent and expansionist digital ambitions, crystallized in its Digital Silk Road Initiative. Its latest iteration included notable initiatives such as the creation of a US-EU Strategic Standardization Information (SSI) as well as a joint roadmap on evaluation and measurement tools for trustworthy AI.
Coordinating policy is nothing new
But it is unclear if the TTC can align divergent interpretations of cross-border data transfers and digital sovereignty. And it is not the first initiative trying to coordinate policies across the Atlantic, as it follows the New Transatlantic Agenda (NTA) in 1995, the Transatlantic Economic Partnership (TEP) in 1998, the Transatlantic Economic Council (TEC) in 2007, and most recently the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
All the previous attempts were thwarted by long-standing regulatory divergences as well as domestic sensitivities. So, within the context of heightened technological competition and perceived misalignment around values such as privacy, it is unclear whether the TTC can be the dominant forum for transatlantic digital governance.
Meanwhile, the UK is opting for a nimble, sector-specific approach combining new deals, soft laws, and convenings. Since Brexit the UK has prioritized bilateral relations, making new or upgraded trade deals with Japan, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand on digital technology.
The AUKUS agreement with the US and Australia includes AI and data sharing, as does a more recent defence agreement with Japan. And technology policy was also a key part of the UK’s Integrated Review of defence and foreign policy, stating the UK must ‘embrace innovation in science and technology to boost national prosperity and strategic advantage’.
The UK has shown a pragmatic approach to the sensitive issue of data flows, with the recent CLOUD Act agreement between the US and UK providing a framework for how necessary data transfers can take place for critical law enforcement purposes. The US Justice Department describes this as a landmark agreement, saying it makes citizens of both countries ‘safer, while at the same time ensuring robust protections for privacy and civil liberties’.
The G7 Digital and Tech Presidency, led by the UK, oversaw a meaningful ministerial declaration from the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the US and the European Union (EU) on the importance of a global digital ecosystem upheld by principles of freedom, open innovation, and trust. G7 digital ministers committed to ‘industry-led, inclusive multi-stakeholder approaches for the development of digital technical standards in line with our core values’.
In other policy areas such as climate change and global taxation, the UK has worked to convene countries to develop shared objectives, principles and regulations. Chatham House director Robin Niblett suggested Britain should aspire to be a ‘global broker’ for dialogue to tackle the world’s biggest problems. And a recent Chatham House paper called for the US, EU, and UK to expand their strategic cooperation to states undecided on the direction of their technology governance, including developing countries.
These efforts are important and illustrate a level of regulatory agility, as well as extend attempts to coordinate technology governance to a broader group of like-minded democracies and states which could be crucial to countering China’s digital model expansion in neighbouring Asian countries and across Africa.
The UK is also attempting to become one of the world’s science and technology powerhouses with a tech industry, now valued at $1 trillion, which should benefit from a series of exemptions and incentives to attract entrepreneurs and boost technical innovation.
The UK government plans to create new ‘freeports’, special economic zones where goods can be moved in and out with little cost or hindrance as well as a series of ‘regulatory sandboxes’ on financial technology.
Be agile on regulation and champion innovation
To remain an attractive partner and global broker, the UK must continue to build agile regulatory approaches and champion innovative policy mechanisms for the effective implementation of responsible and ethical technology.
It should invest in and use its unique diplomatic reach to forge inclusive coalitions and to enforce a normative framework for the digital space. And then use these advantages to connect liberal democracies and collaborate with other countries prepared to constructively address shared technology concerns.