Tech industry 'too shy and retiring' - Lord Allan
The UK's IT industry must make a better case for government to boost its development including more investment in broadband infrastructure, or risk falling behind other sectors in the struggle for public support, one of Parliament's technology champions said this week.
Lord Allan of Hallam (Richard Allan) was speaking at a pre-Budget priority-setting meeting of the Parliamentary Internet and Communications Forum (Pictfor), an all-party group which aims to form a bridge between the technology industry and Parliament.
Allan, a former ICT contractor and tech-friendly MP who is now both a Lord and European Director of Policy for Facebook, is himself a unique one-man bridge between Silicon Valley innovation and British politics.
Social media businesses have generated large amounts of economic activity, though this is rarely recognised in government, Allan said. According to research commissioned by his company from Deloitte, Facebook alone supports £2.2 billion a year worth of business and 35,000 jobs in the UK alone, and other companies are similar. Yet networks like Facebook are often viewed in the policy world simply as platforms for entertainment, he said.
The key to presenting stronger messages to government is to build a united front, Lord Allan said. "We need to think about what it is we're looking for - in many areas like privacy we end up fighting each other."
Policy areas where the government could be pushed to do more include in creating the broadband infrastructure to support the digital economy; in cutting regulation of new media businesses to allow new models to develop; in introducing measures to help small businesses access venture capital; and in boosting ICT skills, as the government had begun to consider in consulting on an overhaul of computer science teaching in schools.
"We have been shy and retiring bunch of geek and anoraks, and I talk as someone in the sector," Allan said. Representatives of other sectors are better at putting their views across to government, he suggested, presenting politicians with "glossy, shiny, well-packaged data on why that sector needs special protection and exceptions made for them."
Some sectors have even heavier weapons: "When the film or music industry puts on a reception here, they can turn out far more glamorous people than this sector - again including myself," he said.
Pictfor's treasurer, Lord Harris of Haringey (Toby Harris), sounded a sceptical note on the need for large technology companies to fight for special treatment, however, when he suggested that part of the motivation might be that companies such as Facebook feel threatened by the draft EU data protection regulations unveiled on 25 January to consolidate data protection law across Europe.
Lord Allan accepted that governments "can be reasonably cautious and sceptical of business, but can do so in a way that doesn't destroy services." He cited the "infamous" European cookie directive, "which UK government is quite rightly sitting on", as an example of an unnecessarily destructive approach.
In response to a question from the floor on how the government could become a better customer of the ICT sector, encouraging growth in that way, Lord Allan said it needed to be faster and more innovative in its procurement methods. Above all, he said, there was a good example of how not to do it: "They could look at the NHS procurement programme and do it completely differently."