The Brexit culture wars have come to tech

You don’t hear much about data in the Brexit debates, but, for the government, it’s a crucial factor in the UK’s ongoing relationship with the EU.

In her Mansion House address in March, Theresa May made it one of her five tests for a future trading relationship.

“The free flow of data is also critical for both sides in any modern trading relationship,” she said, announcing her determination to secure a deal that keeps data flowing after the UK leaves the EU.

Back then, the UK was determined to have its own special deal, which went far beyond the standard arrangement known in the jargon as data adequacy.

Since that time, horizons have narrowed.

In Mrs May’s deal, the EU has committed to grant the UK adequacy status by the end of 2020 “if the applicable conditions are met”.

The government was so proud of this achievement, it made it the second item in its political declaration on 22 November 2018.

The trouble – as the wording suggests – is that the UK is dependent on the EU’s assessment of its data protection and data security practices.

Image: Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright discusses the impact of Brexit on the technology sector

That’s why, when I asked Jeremy Wright, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, about the arrangement, he couldn’t give a guarantee.

“We are waiting for their assessment but we have every reason to expect that we will be found adequate,” he told me.

Mr Wright was visiting a co-working space, attempting to reassure the tech sector that the prime minister’s Brexit deal answered their concerns.

“On some of the most important concerns that businesses in the tech sector have got this deal answers those,” he said.

“I think people are starting to recognise that that’s reassuring and the alternatives are far, far worse.”

It was a tough crowd for Mr Wright. This week, almost 2,500 tech investors and entrepreneurs signed a Best for Britain and Tech for UK letter calling for a People’s Vote – including the CEO of the co-working space Mr Wright was visiting.

“There are some people who want to see if we can reverse the decision, because obviously that would be ideal, and they should push for it,” Natasha Guerra told me.

The Tech for UK letter is part of a growing movement within the tech sector, placing itself in opposition to the dominant lobby group, TechUK.

“Anyone claiming out there that they’re the voice of tech aren’t,” said Reshma Sohoni, co-founder of Seedcamp. “They might be the voice of IT, or big companies, but it’s not tech.”

Could the newly-awakened movement succeed? With nine in 10 startups dying before they ever get funding, the entrepreneurs say they’re used to impossible odds.

“That’s what startups do, try and break things,” Ms Guerra said.

More from Science & Tech

That is, if Brexit doesn’t break the tech scene first.

One thing’s for sure: after years of dodging political controversies, the Brexit culture wars have come to tech.

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