The 14th annual Conference took place on 27th February, please find the main takeaways below.

Panel Session 1

Working together to build and deliver world class communications infrastructure

Openreach opened the panel outlining their plans to build gigabit capable networks across the UK and the significant barriers they were experiencing, including business rates.

Overall, the main takeaways from the panel included:

  • A clear sense of urgency is needed in the face of such a huge ambition, the clock is already ticking down to 2025
  • A coordinated approach from central and local Government is integral to address the widespread challenges. Network build should also be a cross-sector effort, where coordination will be key and partnership models could be more sustainable.
  • The impact of changes to the skills pipeline could be an important factor where a watching brief will need to be kept on access to talent.
  • Government is open to creative ideas for how to tackle the challenges ahead

Keynote 1

Matt Warman MP, Minister for Digital Infrastructure

Minister for Digital Infrastructure, Matt Warman gave an overview of the Government’s current thinking around broadband infrastructure and the skills agenda. He was clear that a strong digital economy is the foundation for wider economic success and that protecting these networks is crucial. He noted the increasing use of IoT devices and the focus on ‘secure by design’ in technological development to secure the growing “critical domestic infrastructure”.

He noted that to take advantage of the opportunities coming our way, the UK must get the skills challenge right, and indicated that this is an ongoing focus area for Government. In response to a question on the new immigration system, Warman highlighted the long- and short-term problems, the need to get the new points system right, as well as training more people locally.

Keynote 2

Dr Kieron O’Hara, University of Southampton, ‘Four Internets’

Dr Kieron O’Hara asked the audience to consider whether the world was moving towards a 'splinternet' and outlined the four archetypes of how the internet is being governed and structured across the globe.

  • The internet’s original architects envisioned an open internet that favoured interoperability and persistent innovation with low levels of regulation. While there is still strong support for this model, particularly in Silicon Valley, a number of alternatives have emerged to counter real and perceived problems with the “Silicon Valley” model of openness.
  • The “Bourgeois” response is led by European countries and in particular the European Union and seeks to balance demands for individual freedom with the need to protect society from harm. As a result, it favours stronger regulation around issues such as data protection.
  • The “Paternal” response, is particularly developed in China and above all seeks to support and protection social cohesion which in turn can lead to restrictions around liberty and privacy.
  • The “Economic” response is another US approach to internet regulation and organisation with a focus on the protection of economic rights and contracts, thus favouring winner-takes-all or walled garden approaches at the cost of interoperability.

With global internet penetration at below 50% and countries like Russia starting to developing their own approaches to the internet, O’Hara closed his keynote by pondering what model will prevail on the African continent or in countries such as India with the latter seeming to follow the Chinese approach but with slant towards entrenching nationalism.

Panel Session 2

Regulating the digital world of the future

Chaired by Lord McNally, the panel debated the future of internet regulation with the Government’s recent announcements around the Online Harms White Paper a  key focus of the discussion:

  • Adam Kinsley, Sky, pointed out that in contrast to offline content a lot of progress had been made in terms of developing a policy response. He expressed general support for the Government’s approach and highlighted the need to provide the regulator with a sufficient level of discretion to ensure that the new regime can keep pace with innovation.
  • Vinous Ali, tech UK, principally supported the Government’s approach but highlighted the potentially significant impact on business and the clear need to protect freedom of speech. She also called for pre-legislative scrutiny to ensure that the UK continues to promote digital innovation.
  • Richard Wronka, Ofcom,  stressed that Ofcom did not want to become a censor and that there was a need to adopt a genuinely new approach to online content regulation. He suggested that this could be based on the current rules around broadcast regulation where Ofcom has a lot of experience. He further called on Parliament to provide a framework that is evidence-based, proportionate, effective (flexible), consultative, properly resourced and provides effective enforcement mechanisms.
  • Ben Lyons, CDEI, highlighted the impact and influence that algorithms and targeting have on the online experience and cautioned that the lack of information about how these systems operate poses a serious challenge to policy makers and regulators. He underlined the need to build a strong evidence base and suggested that it was important to provide regulators with strong information gathering powers and to consider whether researchers should be provided with better access to relevant data.

 Keynote 3

Steve Wood, Deputy Commissioner, Policy, ICO

The Deputy Commissioner (Policy) at the ICO spoke about the future of data protection and the desire to find a balance between protecting and prohibiting. He expressed that the future of AI has the potential to bring many benefits but that it simultaneously poses challenges and risks. Together with regulators, the ICO is investigating how to ensure there is compatibility between continued access and use of AI systems with protectory measures, such as GDPR. He emphasised that fairness and transparency were at the heart of this process and that it was important to develop a new approach to ensure that necessary safeguard were integrated at the beginning of business processes.

He also highlighted that children’s privacy was a key focus and that the recently published Age Appropriate Design Code was striving to facilitate children using the internet, but in a safer manner. He also clarified that distinguishing between ages on the same devices and among question of how to distinguish between children would be left to the assessment of individual companies.

Panel Session 3

Securing networks and adapting to emerging cyber threats

The panel discussion on cyber security was chaired by Ruth Edwards MP who was previously the Head of Commercial Strategy and Public Policy at BT Security. The unified conclusion of the panel was that approximately 80% of cyber security problems could be solved through basic security hygiene. This includes correcting the most basic processes, such a password security.

Nick Davies, Raytheon, highlighted that a key cause for lacking basic security was human error and indolence emanating from the complexity of systems. He maintained that this was a problem which can often be resolved though basic technology, whilst Naomi Gilbert, DCMS, suggested that the responsibility should be taken off the shoulders of end users and put on the providers. Les Anderson, BT, also referenced the cost of technology such as Password Manager, as a factor in reducing technology take-up. He also called on technology companies to do more in this area, such as embedding two factor authentication into systems from there initiation.

Looking ahead, Nihal Newman, Ofcom, urged that it was important to start investing in the future of security and that clarity should be sought after in terms of standards and regulatory frameworks. Sneha Dawda, RUSI agreed, and with the support of the panel, pressed for strategic objectives to be set across society, utilising the lessons learned from the last review.