British government ministers have been told not to peddle the idea that trade agreements are incompatible with continued compliance with European data protection laws.
As the country's ruling Conservative Party continues to grapple with Brexit negotiations and internal frictions, tech industry bodies have said that diverging from privacy laws could undermine the UK’s position in trade deals.
The warning came in a letter to international trade secretary Liam Fox, techUK boss Julian David and his counterpart from international Information Technology Industry Council, Dean Garfield.
It comes after suggestions from pro-Brexit ministers that the UK should diverge from European Union rules in certain fields, with data pitched as one area that might benefit from what they would brand as greater freedoms.
However, TechUK said that "UK tech companies are clear that this is not a view held by the sector", as they want to see the UK fully comply with the EU General Data Protection Regulation.
This is because, for a start, the UK helped to shape the regulation and companies are investing heavily in meeting the requirements, as it comes into force before Brexit will take effect.
It is also crucial for the UK to keep the same level of data protection as the EU if it wants to be in with a chance of gaining continued approval for EU-UK data transfers.
David and Garfield note that the UK is responsible for 11.5 per cent of worldwide data flows, and that its location between US and the EU makes it an attractive place for investment.
Shifting away from EU rules post-Brexit “would undermine this opportunity”, they say.
“We would caution against the misunderstanding that adherence to the EU data protection regime is incompatible with securing high quality trade agreements that promise open trade and investment, ensure free cross-border data flows and respect high levels of data protection.”
The intervention comes as Prime Minister Theresa May attempted to reassure the industry that the official government policy is to stay in line with – if not exceed – EU data protection standards.
Speaking at the Munich security conference on the weekend, she emphasised the importance of continued data flows for cooperation between law enforcement agencies and snoops.
She said that the Data Protection Bill – which is currently making its way through Parliament – would ensure it was aligned with the bloc’s GDPR.
“But we want to go further and seek a bespoke arrangement to reflect the UK’s exceptionally high standards of data protection,” she said.
“And we envisage an ongoing role for the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, which would be beneficial in providing stability and confidence for EU and UK individuals and businesses alike.”
This proposal has been pushed out by the government before, though, and May’s speech failed to provide any further specifics on the plan or its feasibility.
It also appears these negotiations have yet to begin, as May followed her bid for the increased role for the ICO with: “And we’re ready to start working through this with colleagues in the European Commission now.” ®