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UK response to China’s tech ambitions labelled ‘incoherent and muted’

The UK’s response to China’s well-publicized efforts to use technology standards to shape the world in its image has been “incoherent and muted” according to report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

Published last week, the report, titled “Encoding values: Putting tech at the heart of UK foreign policy”, follows up on previous policy work that recommended the UK ensure that its foreign policy recognize the value and importance of shaping technology industries and standards.

The need to do so – and do it well – is prompted by two key forces: China’s efforts to gain global influence; and Big Tech’s emergence as “non-state multinational actors” that provide infrastructure on which states rely, while also providing the spaces in which critical social and diplomatic discourses take place.

But the report finds that – despite complementary policies that call for the UK to become a “science and technology superpower” – British efforts to engage in existing dialogs that define the future of tech are hard to identify.

The UK is being left out of conversations on transatlantic tech cooperation

The document identifies China, the US, and the EU as each working toward strategies for regulation of technology, but notes that the UK’s involvement in discussions between the US and EU is “limited”. Some of China’s efforts are in plain sight – the report notes a “multitude of Chinese-driven internet standards going through different ITU working groups at any one time” – but the report points out that China is mustering votes for its standards among like-minded autocracies, sidelining technical merit as the driver of standards processes.

But in some areas, the UK just isn’t ready to join the conversation. The report calls for the nation’s government to “clearly articulate its position on data sharing, privacy and private-sector regulation, so that it can establish a starting point for discussions on deeper cooperation with the US and the EU.”

But without well-developed positions on such matters, the report’s authors assert “The UK is being left out of conversations on transatlantic tech cooperation between the US and EU.” Bilateral and ad hoc arrangements with other nations, the report adds, will not be enough.”

Without a change, the report fears the UK will become “a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker”.

And that may be bad not only for the UK, but for the rest of the world. The UK’s weak engagement in such matters means the nation’s undoubted expertise won’t be present during important discussions.

“The Government now needs to extend the UK’s influence within the global technology landscape, to ensure that future technologies are developed and used in ways that align with our values and, crucially, uphold the rights and freedoms of people in the UK and across the world,” the report concludes.

If only the UK had a functional government, rather than being led as it currently is by a caretaker prime minister whose tech policy legacy is a shambles. ®