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Policy / Big Tech

Opinion: Under the UK’s presidency, the G7 should take on Big Tech

The UK should grasp the opportunity to shape a global consensus on Big Tech, says Russ Shaw CBE, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates.

Over the past 12 months, businesses across the economy have faced major disruption and hardship. It has been a year of turmoil for the majority of firms, yet for the Big Tech giants, it has presented considerable opportunities to further cement their market dominance.

G7 big tech
Boris Johnson hosts a virtual meeting of G7 leaders. (Photo by Geoff Pugh/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

A society more digitised, remote and restricted from in-person contact has revealed just how central these technology companies are in our daily lives. While this is a story of tools that enabled mass remote working and for people to shop from the home – it is also a tale of taxation, privacy and policy.

Around the world, there is momentum gathering behind the notion that Big Tech must be regulated to a greater extent than ever before, and we might be about to call time on the unchecked rise of technology behemoths. But big questions remain, such as what role will the UK play, now outside of the EU? And how do we encourage the innovation, jobs and investment Big Tech offers while acting responsibly and ethically?

Earlier this week, the Financial Times reported that a series of leading technology companies are calling on the G7 to create a new ‘Data and Technology Forum’ to enhance cooperation and international regulatory alignment on issues spanning artificial intelligence to personal privacy. With the UK taking the presidency of the G7 group of nations this summer – alongside the EU and a series of guest nations – there is no better time for the UK to take a leadership position on Big Tech.

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Between the rising primacy of data in the economy and private organisations amassing unrivalled dominance across the internet, greater regulation is inevitable. But to do it successfully requires international cooperation.

The digital agenda: tax, privacy and competition

Take digital taxation: a prime example of where governments have failed to respond appropriately to the rise of internet giants. EU member states have promised to act unilaterally to tax Big Tech, as the OECD has stalled on implementing an effective solution. But acting individually has proved troublesome. France only followed through with its plans to tax the likes of Amazon and Facebook later in November, after the US suspended talks with the OECD countries in June.

In the UK, the chancellor has delayed imposing a digital tax while the Treasury waits for the OECD. Clearly, there is an appetite for multilateral frameworks but without major players like the US at the table and a collective consensus, the net is yet to tighten on tech giants. Achieving consensus on taxation for the global tech giants amongst the G7 nations would increase the likelihood of the OECD finally drawing a line in the sand.

When it comes to competition and data privacy, the problems multiply. In both Brussels and within the UK’s own Competition and Markets Authority, there are ongoing investigations into whether GDPR and other measures that have attempted to secure personal privacy have in fact given even more market power to the likes of Google. There are concerns that increased regulation has reduced competition in the digital advertising market, further entrenching the dominance of the Big Tech platforms.

Global alignment among the G7 countries on issues of taxation, data privacy, competition could inspire more collaboration among other states. A collective within the G7 such as the proposed ‘Data and Technology Forum’ would represent a multilateral body that’s better placed to understand the intricacies of regulating global companies, while also seeing the value these companies have in bolstering innovation, creating jobs and shaping the digital economy.

The upcoming G7 Summit will convene the most influential and advanced economies – all states that have already launched their own plans to take on the biggest technology companies. The UK’s presidency could be a powerful tool to capitalise on a unique opportunity and advance action on tech regulation.

Given the UK’s long-standing reputation as a centre for financial regulation, there is role UK to play in digital policy on the world stage.

The UK is primed to lead a progressive conversation on tech regulation, data policy and ethics within the G7. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the ministry responsible for domestic technology legislating, has played a major role in establishing the UK’s new deal on data flows with the EU. It now recognises that, given the UK’s long-standing reputation as a centre for financial regulation, there is a role for the UK to play in digital policy on the world stage.

By using the G7 summit to find consensus amongst the world’s largest economies, the UK could set in motion the necessary collaboration under terms that align with the country’s broader stance on tech. Never before has technology been placed so centrally in government policy – from driving recovery to delivering future jobs and transitioning industry to carbon neutral. There are several emerging verticals where greater collaboration across the G7 could dramatically enhance development. Quantum, spacetech, 5G and tech for net zero – all have great potential to positively impact the world but where combined resources and expertise, enabled by the right policy environment, could lead to more effective cross-border collaboration.

After all, the opportunity is not to stifle the rise of tech or put the brakes on innovation but to respond to the role that these organisations now play in the economy and society – and create the right progressive frameworks that protect people. With public sentiment rising on the need for greater curbs on the power of the world’s tech giants and welcomed uniformity in rhetoric from leaders globally, the timing could not be better for getting this done and for the UK to spearhead it.

Russ Shaw is the founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates.