As of Wednesday afternoon, the UK will have a new prime minister in Conservative politician Boris Johnson. It’s a time in history when governments around the world are coming to terms with the increasing crossover between technology and politics. With the society moving full pelt into the era of 5G, deepfakes and new surveillance technologies, Johnson will have decisions to make in order to secure the country’s position as a tech leader in the world.
The new PM isn’t known for being particularly tech-savvy, but regardless, as leader of the country it will be his responsibility to tackle and solve a number of tech-related challenges, starting with those he has created for himself.
Full fiber nation
In his acceptance speech on Tuesday, Johnson promised “fantastic full fiber broadband sprouting in every home” in the country. This builds on a promise made last year by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that promised full fiber access for the entire country (up from 7 percent of households this May, according to regulator Ofcom) by 2033.
But the pledge Johnson has made to the people of the UK sees that deadline brought forward significantly. Instead, he said during his leadership election campaign, British citizens could expect access to fiber by 2025. Industry bodies have already criticized the lack of detail in Johnson’s plan.
“Boris Johnson’s ambitious commitment to achieve full fiber coverage by 2025 is welcome, but needs to be matched with ambitious regulatory change, including reform of the fibre tax,” responded the Internet Service Providers Association (Ispa).
The National Infrastructure Commission meanwhile estimates the cost of upgrading the entire country to full fiber will be £33.4 billion over the course of 30 years. We’re still waiting for Johnson’s own estimate plus the full breakdown of his plan, but given that he listed the rollout high in his agenda, it would be fair to assume this is a priority for him.
A week before he became prime minister of the UK, Johnson wrote at length in the Telegraph that if technology can put men on the moon, it could also help solve the “technical and logistical” problem of resolving the Irish border problems to help the UK leave the European Union.
“If they could use hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 1969, we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border,” he said.
Johnson has long been known for his penchant for an elaborate metaphor and tendency towards hyperbole, but this was one example that had experts in politics, technology and science scratching their heads. Just as with fiber, the plan was short on specifics.
Johnson, an ardent Brexit campaigner, is likely to want the UK’s exit from the EU to go ahead at all costs — even if that means crashing out without a deal. Tech industry body techUK is campaigning hard against a “No-deal Brexit”.
“TechUK’s members have repeatedly warned of the damaging impact that a No Deal Brexit would have on their business and we would urge Mr Johnson to put all the talent and resources at his disposal to the task of avoiding this outcome,” said TechUK CEO Julian Alexander. “This will be vital if we are to succeed in securing many of the opportunities that lie ahead for the UK beyond Brexit.”
With the major exception of James Dyson, tech leaders in the UK remain underwhelmed and unconvinced that Brexit will be a positive thing for the country’s tech industry. It’ll be up to Johnson to try and prove them wrong.
How do you solve a problem like Huawei?
While the US has vocally and proactively discussed how it will deal with potential security threats posed by Chinese tech giant Huawei to the country’s telecoms infrastructure, the UK has done exactly the opposite.
Over the past few months, it has continued to stall on deciding whether Huawei equipment should be used in the country’s 5G network, until it kicked the decision into the long grass on Monday for the next prime minister to deal with. 5G and Huawei are Johnson’s problem now.
Being a leader in 5G is a key part of the government’s economic strategy for the UK, and ensuring next-generation networks can rollout without delay is an essential part of making this happen. Two carriers, EE and Vodafone, have both already launched their 5G networks, both using Huawei equipment. You might think that makes it too late for the government to decide to place a ban on the company, and yet it’s not.
Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee released a statement last week, urging the next leader of the country to tackle the decision as soon as possible for fear of causing serious damage to the UK’s relationships with its allies.
“The new Prime Minister will no doubt have many issues to deal with in his first days in office,” said the statement. “Nevertheless, this Committee urges him to take a decision on which companies will be involved in our 5G network, so that all concerned can move forward.”
Logging on and stepping up
It’s also not as if Johnson comes to the job with a fresh slate, as he would if the Conservative party had won a General Election and found itself thrust into power. He is preceded by the legacies of two former Conservative prime ministers. As we can see in the case of Huawei, he’ll have some tidying up to do.
He’ll also be expected to enter into the debate on police use of facial recognition technology. His government will need to decide if and when the UK’s controversial online porn block and the associated age-verification technology will come into play, after it was once again delayed in June.
Then there’s his own digital legacy to consider. On one lonesome occasion, Johnson also indicated that he might like to introduce a digital tax for tech giants operating in and out of the UK. “I think it’s deeply unfair that high street businesses are paying tax through the nose… whereas the internet giants, the FAANGs — Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google — are paying virtually nothing.”
Meanwhile he faces competition on the tech leadership front from France just across the water, which already introduced its own digital tax in January, and has shown itself to be adept at wooing Silicon Valley CEOs in a way that the UK government hasn’t even attempted to replicate.
In the era of deepfakes, fake news and increased regulation of tech across the board and across the world, this is only the beginning for Johnson. Will the man of the meandering moon-landing metaphors be able to understand and explain the fine intricacies of his Brexit tech solution? Will he follow through on his vague digital tax hint? Will he ensure that even as it leaves the EU, the UK remains a leader in the tech and digital industries in the region for years to come? Over to you, prime minister.