Now is the time for UK tech businesses to help shape a better European Digital Single Market

That was the message from Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe, the Minister overseeing UK policy on the EU Digital Single Market (DSM) strategy.

At a Brands2Life roundtable attended by a range of leading tech businesses, the Minister explained that the Government believes the DSM package is key to the European competitiveness agenda. The Government sees delivering a light-touch, pro-growth set of measures to support digital growth as key to future prosperity, as well as its wider renegotiations ahead of the forthcoming EU referendum.Key to this will be building up blocs of support with other European partners and allaying fears some countries, notably France and Germany, have over disruptive technologies.

To support the Government’s push on this, the Minister said she was proactively engaging with UK tech businesses and encouraging them to share examples and evidence to help her make the case.

According to Baroness Neville-Rolfe and her team, the European Commission especially wants to hear from outside the group of large established players, the ‘usual suspects’.

Online platforms: a key battleground

One of the most contentious elements of the DSM strategy is its review of online platforms and the sharing economy. With the consultation due out soon, and currently few specifics on what it will involve, there are real fears it could turn into a protectionist measure insulating established incumbents against disruptive innovation.

The Minister and her team suggested they thought specifically targeted competition policy measures may ultimately be a better means of avoiding a knee-jerk intervention and addressing some of the concerns about online platforms inviting contributions to the review once it opened up to argue for this position.

Helping bridge the skills gap

The consensus was that collective action involving the public, private and academic sector more in plugging gaps in STEM, coding, and foreign languages would help the wider economy, enabling consumers and businesses to benefit from disruptive technologies like cloud computing and big data.

The European Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs was highlighted as a successful multi-stakeholder model that had encouraged innovation and investment from the private sector. Supported by a range of public, private and academic stakeholders, it could be rolled out here in the UK too to pool resources and incentivise private sector investment. Others thought connecting their graduate trainees to SMEs would be the best way to drive innovation and create value.

Unlocking data to drive growth

Baroness Neville-Rolfe stressed data was the lifeblood of the new economy, and was key to powering developments like the Internet of Things.

But businesses working with the public sector highlighted problems with data sharing at home here in the UK.  The lack of clarity around security classifications that affect what you can do with different data sets was hampering data sharing and stifling innovation. Clearer guidance from central government would help overcome resistance towards data sharing seen by many different parts of the public sector. Plus the public sector needs to get far better at explaining the benefits of data sharing to citizens. Ironically, attendees felt the benefits were best understood in health, which happened to be the area where the barriers were highest because of the sensitivity of the data. While European Commission Vice President for the DSM Andrus Ansip has hailed the importance of data in driving growth, attendees felt that the free flow of data was still a long way off.

An opportunity for positive engagement

The overall takeaway from the roundtable was one of positive opportunity. Inevitably with anything as broad as the DSM, the tech sector will not be able to achieve all its goals. They, and the UK Government, will need to work hard to build alliances with other countries and stakeholders to overcome the concerns of powerful Member States like France and Germany, who are more cautious about the role of tech. But, with an attitude of positive engagement with European policy makers, there are good reasons to think that the sector can secure support for measures to drive growth and innovation and competition to benefit consumers, businesses and wider economy.

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