Numpty Dumpty – can new technology put the UK together again?

(Image by Tom Burgess from Pixabay)

The UK’s data economy grew at double the rate of the national economy over the last decade, according to Steven Almond, Director of Technology and Innovation at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). That’s good news, though the economic story of the last ten years was one of a fragile recovery between two calamitous falls: 2008-09’s 4.1{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} decline, and 2020’s 9.8{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} collapse.

Chairing a recent Westminster eForum on capitalising on emerging technologies, Almond said:

Realizing the enormous growth potential [of the digital economy] is going to rely on trust in technology, and trust in innovative business models, in new ways of doing things. […] So how can we create that trust in new technology? At the ICO, that’s something that we think about very carefully: supporting innovators in the data economy in testing and trialling new ideas through our sandbox.

It’s a worthy initiative. And there’s more good news, said Almond: from 2018 to 2022, the global volume of data is predicted to double, then double again by 2025, so capitalizing on its economic potential is key to the nation’s future prosperity. Part of that process will be smart regulation, the focus of the first conference session.

Capitalizing on data’s potential is one reason for the government’s stated desire to give the ICO a more commercial, enabling remit than its core role to date of protecting the citizen. However, this is a policy that appears to signal the beginnings of a planned shift away from GDPR, which would seem to be at odds with any plan to engender public trust. Wasn’t GDPR designed to protect us from Big Tech?

So, is Britain going to throw caution to the wind by deregulating to let business capitalize on the digital world, and focus less on protecting citizens’ data? If so, then it urgently needs competent adults in the room, because Britain’s critical data adequacy agreement with the EU risks being sacrificed alongside the Northern Ireland protocol, freedom of movement, research alliances, supply chains, and other casualties of No 10’s lack of strategic forethought.

Does Downing Street no longer see regulation as an enabler for trade on mutually agreed terms, but as an obstacle to it? Does the Prime Minister even understand the issues, given that the UK supposedly left the EU to escape red tape yet has been drowning in it ever since?

In this context, the eForum set out how the UK aims to capitalize on new technology and booming data, in the wake of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Spending Review. While investing modestly in the future, Sunak rowed back on some timescales for supporting the digital economy.

Nudge nudge, wink wink 

Keynote speaker was Simon Parnall, Programme Director of Broadcast, Media, and Gaming Technology at Ofcom. The communications regulator has found itself in a Westminster whirlwind of late, as debate rages about who should chair it. Former Mail supremo Paul Dacre could be said to embody the binary world, but only by being on, off, on, then off again as No 10’s preferred candidate.

Parnall, who is also a Conservative councillor in leafy Surrey (presumably in his spare time), said:

It’s not just businesses that need to evolve and adapt; we as regulators do, too. We’re having to look very carefully at how we work and, in particular, how we can work at a pace that keeps up with how our stakeholders are evolving. Now more than ever, it’s important for us to work across disciplines, ensuring that our technologists are working closely with our economists, our strategists, and of course, our policy colleagues.

An important part of this is ensuring that we do not inadvertently impede the pace of innovation, that our policies and regulations are appropriately robust in the face of technology change. But increasingly we have a role in regulating for innovation. That is enabling and encouraging innovation, to the benefit of the citizens and consumers – those two magic words.

But in this area in particular, our role is more about soft regulation; it’s enabling, encouraging, and – this is my favourite word – nudging; showing people the way and encouraging them to change. But to date, we’ve had quite an inward-focused view of innovation.

The message that this government sees regulators’ role as nudging the UK towards preferred conclusions that benefit business is clear as it seeks to usher these organisations deeper beneath ministerial coat tails.

This has long been a tension in the role of regulators: on the one hand, they are a tool for monitoring the enforcement of policy objectives, but on the other they are supposedly independent bodies with a remit of protecting the consumer. Arguably, GDPR sought to balance those competing priorities in law, but this administration isn’t a fan.

A day at kindergarten 

So how does Ofcom now see different elements of digital regulation interacting – privacy, competition, online safety, and other areas? And how does it view the digital regulatory landscape? In short, how might a more cohesive, joined-up approach benefit the UK? Parnall said:

That’s a really good question. One of the key things that we really, really need to do now is build much stronger links between our technologists and other colleagues who work in the organization, particularly policymakers and economists, because this helps us understand how these pieces fit together.

But then things turned bizarre. He continued:

I have a particular passion for Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty, as you know, in Alice in Wonderland – actually I think it’s Through the Looking Glass – said, ‘When I use a word, it means whatever I want it to mean’. And when we use a word very much, such as ‘algorithms’, it means different things to different regulators, because it has different applicability.

So, one of the things that we’re trying to do is to make sure, as we group together [sic], that we understand the common themes, and we also understand our diversity. That we can actually build upon that effectively to get a more comprehensive picture of how all these pieces fit together.

A passion for Humpty Dumpty? Leaving aside the vexed issue of words meaning whatever a policymaker wants them to (we’ve had enough of that in the UK), not to mention regulators grouping together, someone urgently needs to explain to policy spokespeople that the urge to use childish metaphors doesn’t play well with grown-ups.

From Boris Johnson’s fondness for Kermit the Frog and Peppa Pig downwards, it fails to instil the sense of nostalgia, comfort, and stability they think it does. It just makes everyone feel that it’s the last day of term at a private kindergarten, but there’s no one left to pick up the infants.

But if you are going to invoke childhood characters in a public speech, at least ensure that they don’t represent plucky incompetence (as Kermit does) or that the one thing we know about them is that they had a great fall, and no one could put them together again (Humpty Dumpty). In Brexit Britain, these aren’t the metaphors we need. What next, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher as a model for safety online? Pinocchio as a paragon of honesty in public office?

So, what does Parnall believe will be the major transformative technology for the UK, the one that will enable it to seize the glittering prize of digital success, rather than be left hugging the consolation teddy bear? He said:

I’m going to go for 5G, because one of the things we’re looking at is climate change. And we also appreciate that technologies offer new, enabling opportunities for other sectors. For example, in power generation, the communications that optimise the use of the network are terribly important to load shedding [protecting the power grid from blackout], and so on.

And [5G is also critical for] farming, with the advent of mobile communications at field level, while the capacity to deliver real-time video communications allows drones to manage farming processes. 5G is going to play an enormously important role in all of this.

OK, but there’s the small matter of the UK’s supply chain challenges, which Parnall acknowledged in his presentation. Not all of these are down to the perfect storm of Brexit and pandemic disruption; some are a hangover from other political manoeuvres, such as trade hostilities with China. And 5G is at the centre of these. He said:

The government’s decision to limit certain companies’ involvement in telecoms networks [a reference to Huawei] has led to further work to increase and diversify the supply of network equipment. UK operators have limited choice when selecting equipment suppliers to create the wireless portion of their mobile networks, known as the radio access network or RAN.

Let’s not beat around the bush: on announcing the 2020 directive to ban Huawei equipment from the UK’s 5G networks by 2027, the then Digital Minister Oliver Dowden told Parliament that the move would mean “a cumulative delay to 5G rollout of two to three years and costs of up to £2 billion pounds [$2.69 billion]”. How’s that for capitalizing on digital opportunity!

Parnall continued:

The government has published a plan to diversify global telecoms market supply to support incumbent suppliers, to attract new suppliers into the UK market, and to accelerate open interface solutions and deployment. And we’re working with government, industry, and other stakeholders to improve diversity and encourage the development of open and interoperable ecosystems.

The SONIC (Smart Open Network Interoperability Centre) Labs, based in London and broadband not-spot Brighton*, are part of the government’s strategy, a Whitehall-funded programme between the Digital Catapult and Ofcom, overseen by DCMS. It aims to create a commercially neutral environment to evaluate a range of open, software-centric networking technologies. These will play a leading role in finding solutions to the UK’s supply chain challenges, said Parnall.

Let’s hope SONIC wasn’t modelled on the hedgehog. But who can say anymore?

My take

Welcome to the UK: a nursery for new ideas, innovations, and science and technology superpowers? Or a room full of infants throwing toys out of prams? With this administration it is increasingly hard to tell.

*: Most of the city seafront between Brighton and Hove lacks fibre/cable broadband and relies on ageing copper connections, as our writer can attest firsthand.

Marcy Willis

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