Former European justice commissioner Viviane Reding sighed as she said: “I have stopped counting on the UK’s support for pushing through strong European data protection rules”, making clear her weariness to Westminster’s objections on a variety of ICT-related proposals coming out Brussels.
Just as the UK’s relationship with Europe is troubled politically, so too is the UK stand on European Commission (EC) plans concerning a range of technology issues, from toughening up data protection, through creating a pan-European cloud-computing strategy, to the controversial “right to be forgotten”.
Cloud computing is a good illustration of how wide the divide can be. In the UK, the G-Cloud programme provides public sector organisations with a mechanism to procure commodity cloud services more conveniently and cost effectively than by using traditional procurement processes. By the end of October, £345.6 million had been spent via the framework, up from £63.5 million a year ago. Unsurprisingly the initiative is regarded a success story by the UK government.
Brussels on the other hand disapproves of such national programmes. Until recently, Neelie Kroes, commissioner for the digital agenda, drove the EC’s cloud-thinking. “If we take a national approach, content ourselves with small clouds stuck in small markets, if we lock data within old borders, then we are limiting our cloud ambition,” she stated.
The EC’s cloud-thinking is that having standardised practices and centralised codes of conduct emanating from Brussels will remove barriers to cloud adoption, fuel a cloud economy of €200 billion and create 800,000 jobs.
The UK government sees it – in the words of chief technology officer Liam Maxwell – as a “tremendously retrograde step”. As such there’s currently no British involvement in the likes of the EC’s Cloud for Europe search for common frameworks for public sector procurement of cloud services.
It’s the same when it comes to data protection. Existing 1995 data protection regulations, written in a pre-internet, pre-cloud age, undoubtedly need updating. Where the UK breaks ranks with Brussels is over how draconian the new rules should be.
Again the UK is isolated, albeit with Ireland for company, with former-commissioner Reding telling the German media that discussions with the UK and Ireland were “not important” and an “unnecessary” waste of effort.
There’s currently no British involvement in the likes of the EC’s Cloud for Europe search for common frameworks for public sector procurement of cloud services
A flashpoint came earlier this year with the “right to be forgotten” controversy, when the European Court of Justice ruled that European citizens could seek to have historical content removed from search-engine listings. By mid-October, Google alone had received more than 135,000 requests to “conceal the evidence”, from individuals including paedophiles, politicians with scandals in their past and fraudsters.
The UK government has become the most vocal opponent of plans to enshrine the principle in data protection law. “The government, and governments of other member states with similar views, must insist on a text which does away with any right allowing a data subject to remove links to information which is accurate and lawfully available,” warned Baroness Prashar, chairwoman of the House of Lords Home Affairs, Health and Education EU Sub-Committee.
With a new set of commissioners in place from November, is there any hope of a thawing in relations between the UK and Europe over any of this? The signs aren’t good.
Ms Kroes’ replacement is Günther Oettinger, previously the energy commissioner. When asked about the recent iCloud hacking of celebrity photographs, the man now responsible for European citizens’ digital security responded: “Stupidity is something you cannot – or only partly – save people from.” His comments brought derision from all sides.
Meanwhile, Ms Reding’s successor as justice commissioner Martine Reicherts has no truck with opponents of the “right to be forgotten”. “They have got it wrong,” she says dismissively. “Just as work on the data protection reform has picked up speed and urgency, detractors are attempting to throw a new spanner in the works. I will not let them abuse this crucial ruling to stop us from opening the digital single market for our companies and putting in place stronger protection for our citizens.”
As for the UK’s stance, if the general election in May delivers any variant of a Conservative administration, nothing will change. If a Labour or Labour-dominated administration takes office, general relations with Europe might improve, but nothing much would move on the technology front. Plus ça change.