“It was difficult to maintain a poker face when the leader of a big US tech firm I was chatting to said there was a definite tipping point at which the firm would exit the UK,” writes a BBC technology editor:
Many of these companies are increasingly fed up. Their “tipping point” is UK regulation — and it’s coming at them thick and fast. The Online Safety Bill is due to pass in the autumn. Aimed at protecting children, it lays down strict rules around policing social media content, with high financial penalties and prison time for individual tech execs if the firms fail to comply. One clause that has proved particularly controversial is a proposal that encrypted messages, which includes those sent on WhatsApp, can be read and handed over to law enforcement by the platforms they are sent on, if there is deemed to be a national security or child protection risk…
Currently messaging apps like WhatsApp, Proton and Signal, which offer this encryption, cannot see the content of these messages themselves. WhatsApp and Signal have both threatened to quit the UK market over this demand.
The Digital Markets Bill is also making its way through Parliament. It proposes that the UK’s competition watchdog selects large companies like Amazon and Microsoft, gives them rules to comply with and sets punishments if they don’t. Several firms have told me they feel this gives an unprecedented amount of power to a single body. Microsoft reacted furiously when the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) chose to block its acquisition of the video game giant Activision Blizzard. “There’s a clear message here — the European Union is a more attractive place to start a business than the United Kingdom,” raged chief executive Brad Smith. The CMA has since re-opened negotiations with Microsoft. This is especially damning because the EU is also introducing strict rules in the same vein — but it is collectively a much larger and therefore more valuable market.
In the UK, proposed amendments to the Investigatory Powers Act, which included tech firms getting Home Office approval for new security features before worldwide release, incensed Apple so much that it threatened to remove Facetime and iMessage from the UK if they go through. Clearly the UK cannot, and should not, be held to ransom by US tech giants. But the services they provide are widely used by millions of people. And rightly or wrongly, there is no UK-based alternative to those services.
The article concludes that “It’s a difficult line to tread. Big Tech hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory with past behaviours — and lots of people feel regulation and accountability is long overdue.”