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Digital Business Lawyer
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Analysing the UK’s Digital Strategy

At the beginning of March 2017 the UK Government released its Digital Strategy, which addresses how the Government intends to develop the UK’s digital economy as well as looking at some of the UK’s weaknesses in this regard. The Strategy features seven strands, which include cyber security and utilising the power of data. While the Strategy discusses numerous initiatives, it has faced criticism for simply ‘refreshing’ some earlier proposals and for failing to provide enough detail, as Louise Eldridge, Partner at Bristows LLP, explains.

On 1 March 2017, the UK’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Karen Bradley, launched the UK Government’s Digital Strategy (the ‘Strategy’), setting out the Government’s ambition to build a digital economy across the UK that capitalises on the UK’s strategic strengths whilst tackling underlying weaknesses. It seeks to make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business and promises to close the ‘digital divide,’ ensuring that access to digital services and opportunities are available to everyone.

The Strategy comprises seven core strands:

• Building world-class digital infrastructure for the UK;

• Giving everyone access to the digital skills they need;

• Making the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business;

• Helping every British business become a digital business;

• Making the UK the safest place in the world to live and work online;

• Maintaining the UK Government as a world leader in serving its citizens online; and

• Unlocking the power of data in the UK economy and improving public confidence in its use.

Infrastructure and regulation

Unsurprisingly an up-to-date digital infrastructure has been identified as a critical component in the growth and success of businesses. It is therefore welcome news that the Government has pledged to work with independent regulators to ensure that the regulatory landscape provides the right conditions to promote growth, innovation and prosperity. Over £1 billion has been earmarked for investment to accelerate the development and uptake of broadband and mobile rollout, an area where the UK is often criticised for lagging behind other countries.

Digital talent and the skills gap

Another area of focus of the Strategy has been on talent and the importance of ensuring we have a workforce with the digital skills necessary to compete globally. Whilst the 2015 draft of the Strategy recognised the importance of digital talent from outside of the UK and gave consideration to a long list of proposals for new tech visas to encourage talent to the country, this is striking in its absence from the new Strategy: a post-Brexit shift, it would seem, to a more inward looking solution. Technology companies in the UK already report a serious skills shortage and whilst the Strategy makes much of the plan to upskill the UK workforce, this is likely to only provide medium to long term solutions to this problem. Following Brexit if the free movement of people is curtailed this shortage is likely to become more of an issue in the short term. Whilst the Strategy does acknowledge to some extent the ongoing need for access to international talent a major weakness is that it lacks any definite plan or initiatives.

This lack of detail is a criticism that has been heard from many quarters since the Strategy was published. Many of the initiatives are not in fact new and have been ‘refreshed,’ causing some critics to argue that the Government lacks the vision required to ensure the UK is at the forefront of the global digital and technology arena.

Digital Skills Partnership

Recognising the large number of private sector organisations that are already providing digital skills programmes, the Government has announced its intention to establish a new Digital Skills Partnership, working together with such organisations to close the skills gap. The Partnership will collaborate with local government, charities and the private sector to ensure that there is some coherence in the provision of programmes and to ensure it is provided where it is needed most. Some of the organisations that have pledged support include BT, Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group, Google and Cisco. Whilst this is a positive announcement there remains scepticism as to how long it will be before we as a country reap tangible benefits from these initiatives.

AI and robotics

The acknowledgement of the importance of AI and robotics and their likely impact on society is a welcome inclusion in the Strategy, underpinned by the creation of a fund of £17.3 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (‘EPSRC’), which aims to boost the development of new robotics and AI technologies in universities across the UK. As my colleague, Vikram Khurana, has previously stated in Digital Business Lawyer, this focus on robotics and AI is indeed very promising, and indicates that the Government is starting to match the level of support already being provided by other national governments in this strategic emerging technology.

Cyber security

Another key strand of the Digital Strategy is in the field of cyber security. The Government’s aim is to make the UK the safest place to work and live online. Businesses are increasingly under attack from various forms of cyber threat, and initiatives to defend and deter these types of threat and indeed develop the UK’s growing cyber security sector include:

• innovation centres for startups; funding Hutzero, an early stage accelerator programme that provides innovators with business advice to help them take their ideas forward to commercialisation;

• supporting innovators in UK universities to commercialise ideas through an academic startup programme; and

• helping UK-based early stage cyber security businesses grow through training bootcamps alongside the Digital Catapult.

The National Cyber Security Strategy published in 2016 aims for the UK to be secure and resilient to cyber threats by 2021. The Government will support this Strategy and make the National Cyber Security Centre the single point of contact for companies. Although the Government aims to make the UK the safest place to work and live online there is a large amount of criticism concerning the lack of detail and lack of definite plans to achieve the objectives. There may be a number of initiatives but once again they seem to be lacking in detail.

Given the skills gap that has already been identified and the serious concerns about how this is going to be addressed, how the UK is going to be able to defend against increasingly sophisticated cyber threats is a very valid concern that raises legitimate doubts about the likely success of the Strategy’s aim in this regard. The criticism about the lack of detail in the context of the cyber security aims in the Strategy echoes the broader criticisms levelled by the tech industry about the Strategy as a whole.

On the whole the Strategy contains some welcome initiatives but time will tell whether the substance of the Government’s Strategy matches up to its ambitions.

Louise Eldridge Partner

Bristows LLP, London

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