Government surveillance policy is having a chilling impact on UK tech firms

Emma Carr
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Cameron’s intervention risks having a chilling impact on innovation
Does the digital economy matter to this government? If this question were asked anywhere in Whitehall, the answer would be a resounding yes. After all, the government has prided itself on being the most digital friendly yet; setting up Tech City, pouring in millions of pounds of investment, and leading on a digital-by-default agenda.
Yet in recent months, government rhetoric and policies have directly undermined the work that has gone into making the UK an attractive place to base a technology-focused firm.
Take David Cameron’s call to limit the use of encryption in the UK. On the eve of his visit to the US, he and President Obama wrote in a joint article that “our ability to defend our freedoms is rooted in our economic strength and the values that we cherish – freedom of expression, the rule of law and strong democratic institutions.” Yet hours before the article was published, Cameron stated that he wanted to weaken encryption and for certain well-established communications platforms to be eradicated in the name of national security. Number 10 was quick to clarify that he simply wanted communications providers to comply with existing laws, rather than remove them from the equation completely. But regardless, several London-based tech firms have since warned that Cameron’s intervention risks having a chilling impact on innovation in the UK.
Further, writing in the Financial Times in November on the first day of his role as head of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan stated that technology companies needed to get on board with the fight against terrorism or – the implication being – get out of the way.
I argued at the time that it was wholly wrong and dangerous for Hannigan to state that internet firms are failing to help in investigations. The article didn’t even allude to the official and voluntary channels in place to provide access to users’ data and to have extremist content removed. The government and its agencies have also failed to provide evidence that internet firms are being actively obstructive.
In fact, any information we do have in this area is from internet companies themselves. Their transparency reports set out exactly how many requests for information or content removals have been submitted, and how many are adhered to (the vast majority).
How would these interventions make a chief executive of a tech firm feel? Would the vibrancy of the capital’s technology hub still pull them towards establishing their European headquarters in London? Or would the continuous anti-technology company rhetoric – pitting these firms as enablers of terrorism, rather than key players in establishing economic freedom – temper their enthusiasm? With the internet economy generating approximately 8 per cent of GDP, can the government afford to scare away businesses with loose rhetoric and incomplete arguments?
As part of Big Brother Watch’s fifth anniversary celebrations, we have launched a manifesto which aims to articulate a way of providing the necessary balance between privacy and security, solidifying our fundamental freedoms and liberties for at least another five years. We agree with Cameron that economic strength is key to defending our freedoms. We only wish that he would act on this.

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