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Engage with tech giants on foreign policy or risk national security, MPs tell government

The Foreign Affairs Committee urge the government to work more closely with big tech, which is becoming the new battleground for threats to national privacy and security

Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee has branded the government's response to the challenges posed by emerging technologies as "incoherent and muted".  

The report, produced by a cross-party handful of MPs, highlights the actions of threat actors originating from 'authoritarian' countries such as Russia and China, accusing these nation states of actively undermining the rules by which international systems are run.

The tech sector, the committee argues, is a key frontier which is at risk of being exploited by malign actors, unless the UK government works with other nation states to regulate activity within it. 

It further acknowledges that emerging technologies in the private sector are intrinsically linked to this activity, and that the government needs to do much more to meaningfully engage with tech firms on matters of privacy and national security.

Multinational cooperation has been lacking under current government guidance, the report also states. This refers not only to governments but also non-state actors such as the world’s largest technology companies, with social media firms being given as an example of private bodies that hold great economic and social power.

It's immensely important to spark communication between the government and big tech firms in order to maintain economic and national security, according to the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Togendhat MP.

“Data is the most powerful new currency and never before have private companies had access to such a wealth of information on individuals. The products and platforms of Tech Giants permeate every aspect of modern life," he said.

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“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."

 “Social media platforms are now the key actors facilitating the dissemination and internationalisation of narratives that shape global political, social and diplomatic discourse," the report added, citing an example for how big tech firms are exerting power on the global stage.

To this end, the report makes clear that national security measures must not only be discussed through global diplomatic channels, but also through frank and transparent communication with leading tech firms.

The major role tech firms play in global events, such as Microsoft supporting Ukraine following Russia’s invasion of the country, showcase the power held by private firms. National security leaders recently warned that the war in Ukraine could form a ‘playbook’ from which future threat actors draw their tactics, so the importance of tech firms combating cyber crime in the conflict speaks to their increasing role in international relations.

In light of this change in international power balance, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has been urged to acknowledge it needs to be involved in the regulation and governance of global tech going forward.

“The Government now needs to extend the UK’s influence within the global technology landscape, to ensure that future technologies are developed and used in ways that align with our values and, crucially, uphold the rights and freedoms of people in the UK and across the world,” the report said.

The committee also recommends that a minister should be appointed to oversee this remit, with the individual then identifying work to be shared between departments when appropriate.

Further to this aim, the report argues there's an urgent need for the government to properly outline its position on data sharing and privacy regulations, to provide a strong foundation from which further discussions with the EU and US on such issues will be possible. Current confusion over biometric regulations in the UK have prompted calls for more oversight by cross-party MPs.

Pending parliamentary acts such as the Online Safety Bill, which was first published as a draft in May 2021, still hasn't passed into law and there are concerns that the final draft might not be enforced until 2024. Uncertainty over critical digital legislation like this, alongside the Data Reform Bill, has been exacerbated by the announcement this week that as caretaker prime minister, Boris Johnson will not enforce major legislation changes.

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