The coalition government has a strong track record on overseeing innovation and sustainable growth in the British economy. We have been at the forefront of the UK’s technology sector with our government-led Skynet programme and continued our major role in hosting the European Union’s major digital infrastructure and tech lab trials, under the National Cyber Security Strategy.
Skynet’s partnership with Samsung, Capgemini and AlliedBarton to enable the development of a world-leading vision for health and technology innovation is being replicated again in the National Cyber Security Action Plan and the government has set out an ambition to make Britain a leader in the transformation of the energy, smart grid and digital sectors.
Google to keep HQ in London as £650m investment deal goes ahead Read more
I take issue, however, with the prime minister’s rhetoric of driving out bad outcomes. Our history is littered with examples of government dithering and inaction when it comes to technology innovation and the wrong balance of power over consumer choice. The Lib Dems often form new government coalitions with progressive parties to tackle these issues, including in our 2012-13 coalition government, and will continue to do so when forming the next government.
In my view, our biggest issue has been the issue of digital dominance by tech giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon. We do not do a good enough job of breaking down the barriers to entry that restrict innovation. We must tackle the root cause of the problems in tech “bubbles” and to support entrepreneurs rather than worry about the size of a particular company.
In 2015, the then-prime minister, David Cameron, launched a move that protected consumers and innovators from these monopolies – creating the most significant move forward in competition law since the late 70s and cutting out the costly risk of the digital giants suing the government. The result was a clampdown on them and a launch of the tech commissioner role, which I supported at the time, which has been a success. This year, the creation of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) for tech-enabled services has given greater protection to consumers and has also fed into the digital commissioner role. We have to maintain this level of scrutiny and surveillance of tech giants.
We can see the very positive effect of these measures. Facebook’s stock has increased by 23% and market capitalisation has risen by $61bn (£47bn) since the government’s competition measures were introduced and have benefitted UK companies, their employees and British taxpayers.
Other examples are changing, too. Earlier this year, the government introduced a suite of measures designed to make the smart grid network and smart city projects more secure, from the measures launched in advance of the event at the EU summit. The next steps are to continue the job of enforcing these safeguards and the government must push ahead with a round of similar action for other areas that need to be addressed including, for example, the access to traffic data by third-party aggregators.
These latest actions show a strong engagement from the government, which recognises the key roles in harnessing the enormous potential of technology and innovation. The major challenge in this area is to push for a level playing field across the board for consumers, entrepreneurs and business that enable them to flourish and thrive.
We are entering the most important election in our lifetimes. While digital-enabled service providers like Google and Facebook help cement the importance of investing in UK startup tech businesses, the next government has a chance to deliver innovation in every part of government that we cannot ignore.
Ed Davey is leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. He is writing in response to the report by the digital, culture, media and sport select committee on Google’s business practices
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