Skip to main content

Encoding values: Putting tech at the heart of UK foreign policy

8 July 2022

The Foreign Affairs Committee publishes its report “Encoding values: Putting tech at the heart of UK foreign policy”.

Shifting power and the battle for influence

Technology companies are occupying new spaces and forming new power centres, notably by being increasingly central to the design and delivery of diplomatic services and functions. For example, Amazon Web Services now provides much of the Government’s critical cloud infrastructure.

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.

The fight for a right-based future

This report finds that malign actors, including authoritarian states such as Russia and China, are trying to rewrite the rules underpinning our international systems and technology development, and technological standardisation provides them with the opportunity to do so. A battle between authoritarian and rights-based technological standards and values is being waged.

The report urges the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) to work with other states to ensure rights-based and human-centred technology standards are the global norm.

UK Government’s response “incoherent and muted”

The Government’s response to the challenges emerging technologies pose is incoherent and muted. The report found that the Government has yet to demonstrate that it understands the impact that technology has on foreign policy and global governance, and has so far neglected to develop and implement a global technology governance strategy.

The Committee recommends that the FCDO identifies a minister with clear responsibility for this work.

In particular, the Government’s stance on technological standards, such as data sharing and privacy, as well as its stance on private-sector regulation, is unclear.  

Multilateral co-operation vital

The report also finds that the FCDO has failed to sufficiently engage with relevant multinational bodies, states and private companies on the issue of global technological governance, risking the UK “becoming a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker”.

The Committee warns the UK is being left out of conversations on transatlantic tech cooperation between the US and EU. The report also urges the Government to open dialogue with “digital deciders”, such as India and Brazil, countries who may otherwise align with models of digital authoritarianism. The Committee found that the UK Government must offer an alternative to the “Digital Silk Road”, through trade and investment opportunities that support democratic values and human rights.

Foreign takeovers and the threat to security

The report welcomes the Government's recent measures to encourage growth and support start-ups within the UK technology sector.

However, the Committee identifies a disconnect between rhetoric and domestic policy. It found that economic support measures have been undermined by the Government's reticence to review and intervene in foreign investments that move strategically important UK businesses overseas. The report describes a “slow erosion of our domestic capabilities” with “implications for our ability to project influence internationally”.

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP, 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.

“Competing models of global technology governance have emerged; some of which protect the rights and liberties that underpin democratic values, and others, dictated by the interests of authoritarian governments, that seek to subvert these principles.

“From threats to individual rights and freedoms, to violent civic unrest and war, technology, in the wrong hands, has the potential to inflict serious damage.

“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.

“Our report, published today, urges the Foreign Office to set out a coherent strategy that clearly outlines how the Government will engage with countries and companies alike. It is vital that we work with like-minded allies to put forward our vision of the future, one in which human rights and democratic values are sacrosanct.

“As our reliance on technology has increased, so has the competition for access to critical technologies. Maintaining a robust UK technological industry base is crucial – it strengthens our domestic capabilities and shores up our 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.

“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. 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.”

Further information

Image: Parliamentary copyright