A parliamentary select committee report has said the UK government’s response to threats posed by authoritarian states exploiting technological developments has been “incoherent and muted”.
The government’s stance on technological standards, such as data sharing and privacy, as well as its stance on private sector regulation, is particularly unclear, the report said.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report Encoding values: putting tech at the heart of UK foreign policy said the government has so far failed to show it understands the impact that technology has on foreign policy and global governance, and has no strategy to counter this.
It said tech companies such as Amazon Web Services are providing technology that underpins government departments, including the design and delivery of diplomatic services. “Companies such as Google and Meta not only provide access to information, but their algorithms determine which information is seen and how foreign policy issues are perceived by people across the world,” said the committee.
The report warned that “malign actors”, including authoritarian states such as Russia and China, have the opportunity to rewrite the rules underpinning international systems and technology development because of technological standardisation. “A battle between authoritarian and rights-based technological standards and values is being waged,” it said.
The committee called on the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) to work with other states to ensure rights-based and human-centred technology standards are the global norm.
The report recommended that the FCDO identifies a minister to do this work to prevent the UK “becoming a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker”.
“So far, the FCDO has failed to sufficiently engage with relevant multinational bodies, states and private companies on the issue of global technological governance,” it said. For example, it reported that the UK is being left out of conversations on transatlantic tech cooperation between the US and EU.
It added that the government should be talking to what it called “digital deciders” – countries such as India and Brazil – because they may otherwise align with models of digital authoritarianism.
Tom Tugendhat MP, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “Authoritarian malign states, such as Russia and China, are exploiting technological developments to further their geopolitical agendas. But the same technology can also be used for good.
“This is no dystopian fantasy, but a current reality, and one that the government has so far neglected to address. By not claiming our seat at the table, we give foreign states permission to make critical decisions that affect the daily lives of UK citizens.”
Tugendhat said it is vital that the UK retains a “robust” tech industry to strengthen domestic capabilities and shore up the UK’s ability to influence technology governance globally. “However, we are struggling to retain home-grown tech capabilities and the government has been sparing in its use of new legislation to intervene in foreign takeovers,” he added.
The tech giants must also be part of the conversation, said Tugendhat. “The products and platforms of tech giants permeate every aspect of modern life. Major tech companies have geopolitical influence that vastly outstrips many nation states. If the UK is to shape the future, the conversation can’t just be with other states. We need to bring in input from tech companies themselves, both big and small.”