Britain needs digital free trade

Across the globe, regulating Big Tech is all the rage. Facebook recently backed down against the Australian government’s new law requiring the Silicon Valley giants to pay for news they link to on their sites. India has already introduced a 2% digital services tax on non-resident companies. And even in a highly divided US, Republicans and Democrats agree on one initiative: stopping Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon from ripping democracy and competition to shreds.

With a lot less heat but far more substance, the European Commission has gone ahead and drafted several highly ambitious pieces of legislation that are meant to set direction for the next decade. The provisions in the Digital Markets Act (DMA) stand out the most. The act seeks to regulate out of existence the monopolistic practises of the data giants. No longer, for example, will Amazon be able to use it’s god’s eye view into its marketplace, to allegedly copy and then outcompete the offerings of its mid-sized retailers who depend on Amazon to reach millions of buyers.

Imagine, with a few clicks, being able to send Fitbit data to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) for vital research, instead of it being siloed with Fitbit’s owners, Google.

The EU hasn’t stopped there. Another piece legislation, the Data Governance Act, seeks to give legal standing to neutral data brokers. They will now have a legal duty to represent users when they sell their personal data. Like doctors, accountants or lawyers, these neutral data brokers will be stopped from exploiting the people they depend on. This will bring much needed trust to the data brokering and analytics industry, an industry that has otherwise tarnished itself with scandal after scandal by leaking information or spying on users.

Combined, these new laws will remake European’s digital environment. It doesn’t take much to imagine a European world in which every time you interact with a platform like, say Spotify, that data will be immediately sent to a trusted third party organisation to be monetized on your behalf. Or imagine, with a few clicks, being able to send Fitbit data to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) for vital research, instead of it being siloed with Fitbit’s owners, Google.

Of course, Britain’s NHS won’t benefit because these are European laws. So where is Britain in this debate? Yes, the UK has been subsumed by the twin tumults of Corona and Brexit but even if those issues are not yet in the rear view mirror, ignoring technology is not something a major economic power can do.

The UK government says they are nearing publication of a digital strategy, even though it was meant to be out in the autumn. In the Financial Times last month, the Secretary of State for Digital Culture Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, wrote about data no longer being a risk to be managed being but instead as “the great opportunity of our time” adding that a newly appointed Information Commission will be given a new mandate to “ensure people can use data to achieve economic and social goals”. Bold yes, but still all too abstract.

From a purely policy perspective, simply copying the EU might be a quick, decent fix but it would hardly fit with the idea of a ‘Global Britain’, newly independent from Brussels and in charge of its own destiny. The sad irony about that is Europe’s new policies around data governance and portability have mostly been drawn from British institutions like the Open Data Institute. But the idea of opening up data fits snuggly within the UK’s long history of Ricadrian economic liberalism — that ending (digital) protectionism and freeing up assets to trade (like data), will create economic benefits for all.

So perhaps this philosophical alignment between economic liberalism and open data points the way, and what the Conversarvative government should do is follow this distinctly British school of thinking to its logical conclusion by establishing a new, internationally defining standard for digital free trade.

It’s a bold idea. Big enough for Global Britain. But what would digital free trade entail?

Make all devices and platforms from Uber to Ocado, Alexa to Tesla, open their information pipelines to their users

Firstly the UK should go one step further than the EU and enforce real-time portability on not just the select giants at the top but on all platforms with more than 1m active users as well as data producing gadgets like washing machines, cars and smart watches. Make all devices and platforms from Uber to Ocado, Alexa to Tesla, open their information pipelines — information which ordinary people create — and allow anyone to port their personal data, in a flash, to any other third party they want.

Just think how easy it would be to switch from WhatsApp to Signal, Telegram or another chat room under this new Digital Free Trade provision? Or maybe users will decide to support a new more innovative start-up map application by clicking a few consent buttons allowing their Google location data to be continuously streamed to the new app. Or what about cheaper home appliance maintenance by connecting data from your fridge and washing machine directly to insurers? Innovation and competition flourish when protectionism ends.

If you’re wondering what this would do for the UK economy, a 2018 Department for Culture Media and Sport commissioned report found real-time data mobility would add £27.8bn to GDP. That’s a vital boost the Chancellor can’t afford to pass up.

Secondly the UK should bring data brokers — those companies that quietly retail our data to other businesses — into the light. Standards created by the MyData Global and the US think-and-do-tank RadicalxChange point the way towards creating a less shadowy and more sober industry that serves the interests of people who create data as well as those that want to buy it. Witness the failure of Cambridge Analytica, a UK company who created cutting edge data products, to see what happens when regulations aren’t in place to support transparent businesses practises.

If Britain does this fast enough, bring open trade and trust to information technology, the nation would undoubtedly become the global hub for data science and analytics. The UK could tame the Wild West of data brokering by making it as transparent and sober as health, engineering or architecture. It could end Silicon Valley’s data protectionism and show the world what digital free trade looks like. The UK has the talent, capital and expertise. It just needs its government to show some ambition.

With thanks to Lawrence Lundy-Bryan and Gilbert Hill

CEO of Pool Foundation instigating Data Unions. Author. Broadcaster. Former investigative journalist. Passionate about economics, decentralization & mutualism.