Interview: UK’s senior official in Silicon Valley and Seattle talks Brexit, drones, net neutrality and more

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Andrew Whittaker, British Consul General based in San Francisco, records an interview for the GeekWire Podcast on a recent visit to Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Andrew Whittaker is the British Consul General representing the United Kingdom in Northern California, Oregon, Washington and other portions of the Western United States. He has a particular interest in the technology industry, serving previously as Deputy Director of CERT, the UK’s national cybersecurity team.

On a recent visit to Seattle, he sat down with GeekWire to answer questions about many of the pressing issues of the day: the impact of Brexit on U.S. companies doing business in the UK; the divergent regulatory approaches in the US and UK on issues including drones and net neutrality; the changes coming next year through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe; the UK’s approach to drone regulation; and other key tech topics.

Listen to a podcast of our discussion below, and continue reading for an edited transcript.

Todd Bishop: Andy, thank you for being here.

Andrew Whittaker: Thank you very much indeed for having me.

TB: Explain what you do as British Consul General based in San Francisco.

Whittaker: Certainly. As you say, I’m the British Consul General based in San Francisco, and I’m part of the UK government network across the whole of the US. We report into the embassy in DC, and the Ambassador is ultimately my boss there. I have a geographic responsibility that covers the Pacific Northwest region, so Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. I’m the senior British government representative for that region.

Then, if you look at the type of work we do, I break it down into four areas. By far, the largest is our trade and investment work, so supporting British companies that want to come this way, but also then getting US investment, US firms going to the UK and supporting them to set up in the UK. The second area that we look at is around science and innovation collaboration. We have a fabulous team based out of San Francisco but covering that same area, so working very closely with groups like UW, go Huskies, or Washington State. Go Cougars.

TB: Then, Stanford, so go Cardinal. You’ve got to get all the mascots in here.

Whittaker: Definitely. We look at the science innovation, collaboration, how we do research, academic collaboration. The third area is the bit that all the British nationals know us for. If you lose your passport, you’re arrested, you find yourself in hospital, then we can step in and help and support those people in those sort of circumstances. Then the final bit, part of the reason I’m here today, is all the political press and public affairs work, so the chance to talk publicly about issues affecting the UK and, for the region I cover, to talk about the policy issues around tech. There’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on there. I hope we’ll get a chance to talk about some of those today.

TB: Absolutely. As you said, you are immersed in clearly the largest tech market in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, and people in Seattle would argue, the number two market in Seattle. What are the major tech issues on your agenda right now?

Whittaker: If we go back to the different roles, there’s the commercial aspect. Obviously we’re working with the whole range of companies that people know and love, from the very, very biggest names — Amazon and Microsoft and Facebook and Apple and Google — all have got very big investments in the UK and we continue to work with them to make sure that the UK is a great place to invest. But also looking at the other end of the spectrum, so the startups, so how do we help them grow and develop, and when they’re looking internationally, have the UK right at the top of their agenda of places to go. We obviously think the UK is a great place for tech companies to invest and develop their businesses.

When you look, then, at the really fascinating science and research collaboration, AI, artificial intelligence, machine learning is at the top of everyone’s list at the moment, but you also look at how it applies into robotics, into drones, into healthcare, into fintech. Pretty much every vertical these days has got a technology component. So we’re really interested in the cutting edge, whether it’s on quantum computing, whether it’s on big data and machine learning, because there’s a lot of fascinating and amazing study going on in all those areas in the UK and in the US, and we want to tie up those links and help that mutually beneficial collaboration and development work.

Then you start looking at some of the policy questions. The UK is a very big fan of the internet. We think the opportunities there in terms of digital business, moving services online, moving how government works online, there are some phenomenal opportunities. We also recognize there are some challenges that come with that. On one hand, you’ve got things like, well, how do you make sure that we’ve got the digital skills and training in place at all levels?

Whether that’s introducing coding in primary schools, which we did several years ago, making sure that we’ve got support and development at all stages of people’s career to develop and grow their tech skills, looking at things like cybersecurity. My own personal background, I was the number two in the UK’s national cybersecurity team looking at the critical national infrastructure. This is a growing area, and something we have to take very seriously to underpin people having confidence in using the internet.

Then, finally, you look at some of the very challenging policy questions that are out there, so for example, terrorists’ use of the internet. What is it that we can do working collaboratively with other governments, but also with the tech companies to make sure that terrorists do not have free use of the internet, making sure they can’t use it for their propaganda, making sure they can’t use it for attack planning? How do we make sure that we disrupt that sort of activity?

Then you look at things like the future of work. This is a fascinating topic. How is that going to change the world we live in, and how do we make sure that we get ready for that, that we support the innovation that’s coming and support the technological development, but make sure it’s done in a way that is fair across society and that all can benefit from it?

Drones in the UK

TB: On the policy topic, there’s one really concrete example that we’ve followed very closely here: The UK’s policies on drones in particular are much more favorable to companies like Amazon. In fact, we’ve seen Amazon make its first real-world deliveries by drone in the UK, not in the US, as a result. When you’re talking to these companies, how much is it about getting them to make those kinds of investments in the UK? And to what extent, as part of that case that you’re making, do you talk about the regulatory environment?

Drone landing in England
Amazon’s delivery drone comes in for a landing over an English field near Cambridge. (Amazon via YouTube)

Whittaker: Absolutely, you’ve hit on a really important area there. Drones is one of those areas that we’re really proud of the approach that the UK is taking. I just want to make really clear that it’s not about having a no regulatory environment. We’re not saying, “Come to the UK, do whatever you like.” We’re saying, “Come here to the UK because our regulators are very open to spotting the technological changes coming and thinking with the companies.”

It’s not just Amazon, but they’re obviously one of the biggest high-profile companies that are doing this, but there’s a range of companies in the drone space. And saying, “Right, how do we actually frame this in a way that is safe, allows you as businesses to be innovative and to develop what you want to do, offer better services to your customers, but also in a way that makes it safe, that makes people feel comfortable with how it operates?”

The way we’ve taken to doing that is having very forward thinking regulators. I don’t just use the drone space with our civil aviation authorities, but also looking at the fintech space where an institution as old as the Bank of England is at the cutting edge of how do you regulate the fintech space with innovative startups in that area.

Our approach is two parts. One is that we don’t know the answers immediately, so let’s try and put down some parameters as to what the basic safety requirements are, but then learn iteratively over time, as we work with the companies, to allow them to develop and identify the issues and then work out what we need to do about it.

Secondly, let’s think about what makes sense from all the different perspectives. You’ve got to think about it from a consumer’s perspective, you’ve got to think about it from an industry perspective, you’ve got to think about it from a broader societal perspective and bring those together to make sure that the benefits really accrue to all, but in a way that is forward-leaning and allows these developments to take place.

We’ve got a number of different areas, so there’s drones, but also the work we’re doing on autonomous vehicles. Again, we want to make sure that the UK is at the forefront of a place to develop autonomous vehicles and develop electric vehicles, as well. We’ve just announced in our industrial strategy, which is the big document that has come out very, very recently, is how do we try and prepare the framework for what we call these grand challenges. We’ve identified four of these grand challenges. The theory behind the grand challenges is bringing together government, academia, industry, and civil society in a partnership model to say, “Well, what are the different issues, and how do we shape the framework?”

The four grand challenges that we’ve identified: One is around artificial intelligence and data and how that can be gathered and exploited, but in a way that also protects data security and individual privacy. The second area is around clean growth. The UK is very heavily committed to our Paris Accord agreement principles. We want to be at the forefront of developing clean energy. We’re very proud of the work. Not many people might know this, but the UK is a world leader in offshore wind, for example.

The third area is about what we call the future of mobility, so really about autonomous vehicles, whether on land or in the air, or indeed, undersea in due course as well. Then the fourth is recognizing the aging society. We know, in the UK, as well as many other countries around the world, we’re getting older. That brings different healthcare issues. That brings different questions around how the funding model needs to work. So these are the four grand challenges that we’ve identified where we want to bring together that partnership to take on those challenges and really look to the future.

Preparing for the GDPR

TB: On the policy front, it’s interesting because you’ve got a couple of different pushes, one in the US with net neutrality, and then another in Europe with the General Data Protection Regulation, the GDPR, as they call it, which is coming up next year. Of course, with Brexit the UK goes away from that, but there’s been an effort to normalize the GDPR from Europe in the UK. It’s my long way of asking, how do you decide, or how did these two large geographic regions decide what the norms are when they’re acting independently on a lot of these different issues, with those two being an example?

Whittaker: It’s a great question, and maybe I’ll just try and provide a little bit of detail, particularly on the GDPR. We are currently taking through the Data Protection Bill in the UK, and the intention is that that will gain royal ascent early next year, early 2018. That will be implementing GDPR in the UK. Although you are right that the UK is leaving the European Union, at the moment we’re still a full and totally active member.

That means that the rules across the EU apply equally to the UK and GDPR, as your listeners may know, comes in May next year, May 2018. So we’re making sure that UK legislation and regulations are ready for that, and we want to make sure that that parity continues to exist as we leave the EU and making sure we’re in the right place — that companies that do business and are compliant in the UK are also compliant across the EU around data protection.

TB: We should point out that the GDPR is, essentially, a way of extending data protections in the EU to foreign companies and making sure that they’re treating user data in the way that European laws would require.

Whittaker: It’s about recognizing that today data is a really important commodity, but we do need to make sure that consumers’ privacy, individual data is protected appropriately. It does recognize that you can have different levels of protection, depending on exactly what sort of data that you’re talking about. But, as you say, there should be consistency and application wherever the company is from, wherever it’s operating. The question slightly earlier was about how do we think about these policy questions.

TB: Right. Across borders.

Whittaker: Across borders. There are a number of different ways that we come together on this. For the UK, there are two areas I think I’ll just draw out. When we look at it first of all in the context of Brexit, for the UK our very, very clear ambition is to have the fullest, most ambitious future relationship with the EU. We want the rest of the EU to be successful and to continue to be successful, and we want the UK to have a very full, ambitious free trade agreement with the EU, so making sure on issues like data we’re in compliance and the regulatory environment is the same.

I stress across a lot of the issues that we’re going to be talking about as we leave the European Union, we’re starting from an unusual place for trade negotiations, which is that our regulators have got 40 years of experience of working together. All our laws and regulations today are absolutely 100% EU compliant. It’s different from when you’re trying to remove trade barriers between countries or trading blocks. But that’s a negotiation that needs to happen, and we’re very confident that that will happen and we’ll get to an excellent future relationship with the EU.

Then you look at the global questions. This is where we’re very heavily involved in a number of multilateral fora, as well as having very strong bilateral relations with all the biggest countries that you can imagine that are important of this, of which absolutely the USA is top of that list. We’re very proud of the deep and special relationship that we have that allows us to have the very frank but very useful conversations in terms of where we see the future and where we see things going.

But if you look at how some of these questions are being tackled, for example, amongst the G7 grouping or the G20 grouping, which brings together the major economies of the world, I take the example of tackling terrorist use online. Both at EU level and at the G7 level, which is the group of the seven biggest economies in the world, there’s a very strong coordinated efforts in terms of how do we make sure that terrorists can’t use online activities to promote violence, to promote hatred, to try and be divisive, and how do we make sure that tackling them is a coordinated effort. Because if you look at how the internet works, just trying to shut it off in one place or shut their access is not an effective means. We need to work very closely, not just with other countries, but also with the tech companies to tackle that.

Internet regulations across borders

TB: Just to be specific on net neutrality, assuming as the rules are rolled back here and net neutrality changes here, what prevails? US? UK? EU? How should companies look at that?

Whittaker: It’s a global phenomenon. There are different rules and regulations in different areas of the world, and companies need to comply with the local rules as they apply. It’s not for the British government to take a view on net neutrality discussions in the US. We obviously watch with interest in terms of broader applications. In the UK, we have a very dynamic and very competitive environment between the major broadband providers in the UK. That’s been the focus of our effort, making sure that we’ve rolled out things like rural access, rural broadband, to allow everyone across the whole country to get the benefits of fast data access, fast internet access.

But looking at this point about how do companies operate across borders, that’s one of the areas where the British government, the Department for International Trade, is absolutely here to help companies, to make sure they understand where there are differences between our laws and requirements, but also where there aren’t and companies can operate quite quickly. We’re also here to advise in terms of how companies can expand. For example, needing to get visas or needing to find office space or access to talent in the UK, those are absolutely the areas that our Department for International Trade teams can help companies on. We really encourage you to come to us so that we can help you with those expansion plans.

TB: Obviously, there would be a big focus on London for a company that’s looking to expand from Seattle or San Francisco to the UK. And Cambridge, of course. Are there other hot tech hubs there that you would point folks to, and where you’re seeing people go?

Whittaker: Absolutely. People know London. It’s an absolutely fabulous city. It’s got many brilliant places. The great thing about the UK is that, actually, we’ve got a number of different hotspots for different areas. I think about the cybersecurity expertise you’ve got in Belfast or around Cheltenham and the Malvern area. I think about the media and creative companies with a tech focus around Manchester. I think about the gaming community that’s really centered on Edinburgh. Not many people know, but actually there were more tech jobs created in the north of England over the last 12 months than in London. We’re talking hundreds of thousands in both areas, but it’s not that everything is focused on London.

One of the other big announcements that the Prime Minister made earlier this month, earlier in November, was around expanding our Tech City initiative. It’s now called Tech Nation. There are going to be hubs based, as we’ve got the Tech City initiative in London, in Belfast, in Edinburgh, in Cardiff, as well as other places around England. That’s about recognizing, as you say, that there are fabulous skills and expertise across the whole of the UK. We’re very proud.

A lot of what I look at when I’m dealing with the US is just the enormous size here in the US, whereas the UK is one-and-a-half times the size of Washington State or two-thirds the size of California, and yet, we have 170 higher education institutions in that space, including the top two in the world, four of the top 10, and a number through the top 100. Each of those, not just Oxford, Cambridge, and London, but around Manchester, around Queens in Belfast, around Edinburgh, are really rapidly developing great technical excellence, great spinoffs, great entrepreneurs coming out of all those different institutions.

Companies can look across the whole of the UK, and each bit has got slightly different advantages, whether it’s in the different incentives for investment that you can get with the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, the different access to talent, the different costs, the different access to universities in any particular locale. We obviously think the UK is a fabulous place to invest with a wide range of opportunities for any companies looking to expand.

Cybersecurity trends

TB: That’s great. As you mentioned earlier, you have a lot of experience in cyber security. You were on the UK’s national cyber security team. You were the deputy director there at CERT-UK. As you look at the national and international privacy, security, online safety issues, what’s top of your agenda right now?

Whittaker: I think there’s a couple of different areas that I would pick out. One, this is about recognizing that the world has moved and the world is moving online. The joke I used to make when I was talking, particularly around the financial sector, is, “Great news, everyone. Checkbook fraud has been virtually eliminated.” The world has changed, and now we’re using online banking so that’s where the target is.

I think there’s a couple of areas that I pick out, and we’re trying very hard to do in the British government. One is recognizing that this has to be an issue where companies and individuals are taking responsibility for their own security, so recognizing that this isn’t just an IT problem, this is a board level problem that companies need to be thinking about how to make sure that they, their assets, their people are secure and operating securely online, not assuming that just because they’re a small company or they might have a specific area of interest that they’re not going to be a target. We see a lot of just random attacks. It’s very low cost to add another thousand email addresses to a phishing attack or that sort of thing. The chance of just being caught up in an attack that wasn’t necessarily targeted to you is real, and companies need to think about that.

Secondly is that we’ve got an awful lot of very easy low-hanging fruit, if you’d like, that people should just take advantage of. Basic things like making sure that default passwords are changed, so they’re not just set on a default password. Secondly, making sure that those who have got high level admin level access, it’s controlled and people know who’s got that access and there are ways of auditing and monitoring those who have got high level access and how that is used.

Thirdly, that you just do the basic training for how to spot a phishing email. The vast, vast majority of attacks that we were seeing almost always started with either someone clicking on a link that they really shouldn’t have or going to a website they really shouldn’t have or downloading something they really shouldn’t have. That’s largely an awareness-raising piece.

There’s lots of very simple things that companies can do. Inside the foreign office, we have regular repeated mock phishing attacks on a small percentage of the workforce on an ongoing basis. We have a button on our email header that says Report Suspected Email, and then it goes straight into a quarantine zone for the IT team to look at, and just people being aware that this is a vector of attack, and that they need to be thinking about it.

Finally, we also see this as an important collaborative effort. You’ve got many very, very good security companies. You’ve obviously got the big internet providers and the big platform companies. You’ve got what government can do and the way that government can play in the knowledge that we have from our intelligence, security, and law enforcement community and bringing that. We need to work together to make sure that the challenges posed by cyber security are tackled effectively across that community.

TB: As you’re sitting down with startup CEOs, tech CEOs in San Francisco and Seattle and elsewhere, what are the main questions they’re asking you? What’s on their mind?

Whittaker: I think there’s a couple of different areas. No surprise that Brexit offered some features, and reassuring companies about access to talent in the UK and what we’re doing about data regulation is an important one. They’re always interested in where the cutting-edge research is going on in the UK, and so the work around AI. We’ve just announced that the Alan Turing Institute in the UK will be our national center of excellence for AI. I think companies get really excited about the possibility of working collaboratively with them.

They also want to know, as we talked about earlier in the program, about where we see the regulatory environment going and what the UK can do to incentivize working with our regulators for those who’ve got really innovative thoughts and products. Then, people do want to be starting to have those conversations about how society is changing. We’re coming at it from a government perspective is thinking how do we make sure that we put those digital skills, put that training in place, to enable the entire British population to engage with technology. We have one of the very highest percentages, certainly for a big country, of digital penetration, things like e-commerce. Digital access is incredibly high in the UK, and we want to remain at the forefront.

Brexit and the tech industry

TB: We talked about Brexit in the context of GDPR. How do you answer the broad Brexit question that you get: how is this going to impact a company that wants to expand there or that is already operating there?

Whittaker: Sure. I think there’s a couple of different bits. One is making it very clear that the UK is going to be leaving the European Union. I think reminding people that it is going to happen. The result of the referendum was clear and the British government is now doing what has been asked by the British people, which is to leave the European Union.

Secondly we recognize that that process creates uncertainty, and that’s not what businesses necessarily want. So for us, it’s thinking about how do we minimize the uncertainty. The big one there is making clear that the day we leave, all existing regulation and legislation will continue to apply. The difference is that it’ll be subject only to UK courts and to British Parliamentary procedures if we wanted to change any legislation. That’s when they talk about the Great Repeal Bill, which is being worked on through Parliament now. It’s about making sure that we’re in a place on the day after we leave that all existing regulation will continue to apply.

We’ve made various commitments on the funding side, so particularly around the science investments. That will continue to happen. We’ve also made very clear that we want the UK to remain a great place for talent to come. We recognize that we need to get the processes right, and the Migration Advisory Committee is looking at that and will come forward with their proposals over the next couple of months. We are strongly encouraging companies and organizations to feed in their thoughts there.

We also want to make sure that we remain a genuinely global player. This is not about the UK cutting itself off from the world; this is about the UK seeing a real opportunity to be an absolutely global champion for free trade. We’ll be working extremely hard to promote those free trade agreements, firstly, with the European Union, but then many like-minded countries around the world. The discussions with the US in terms of what a future arrangement would need to consider and look like are already happening. We’re very clear that, while we are a member of the EU, which is the case today, we can’t formally negotiate and sign a free trade agreement ’til we’ve left, but we can certainly be thinking about what that future might look like.

Then the other part is recognizing that there’s a lot of negotiation still to go. What the future arrangement between the UK and the EU is the discussions that we need to be having with our EU partners. We want that to be a very positive, very ambitious, very broad and deep relationship with the rest of the EU. We need to get it right. Those discussions will take some time to do that, but that’s where the stage we’re at now.

TB: It’s interesting. I just jogged my memory. The vote came in June of 2016. You started your job in August of 2016. Has this been a big part of your role and your conversations, or is it more of a subset?

Whittaker: Sure. It’s certainly one of those issues that comes up very consistently. But actually, it’s one of those ones where we tend to move on very, very fast. People check in that it’s happening and check in to get the reassurance that we’ve got the right issues in mind and we know what’s important for companies as we go through the negotiation process, and we definitely do that.

But the brilliant thing about my role, and particularly the engagement with the technology companies, both big and small, is that there are so many phenomenally interesting areas to discuss. Whether you’re looking at the future of healthcare, the future of work, the future of mobility, all of them produce really interesting discussions that really don’t come up as part of the Brexit debate necessarily.

So the chance to talk with companies that are doing really innovative stuff, to talk with both UK and US entrepreneurs and how we can support and help them develop their businesses, not in a long-term future, but today, this month, the next 12 months, is a really exciting opportunity. There’s so many brilliant areas going on that I get to be part of.

Key tech trends

TB: You referenced a lot of them. Artificial intelligence, you mentioned quantum computing earlier. There’s so much going on in the tech world, and you do have a front-row seat for it in San Francisco and Seattle in particular and Silicon Valley. What gets you excited most personally as you look at all these new areas in terms of the potential to transform business or personal lives or the world?

Whittaker: That’s a great question. I’ve got a slightly cheat answer in that I’ve got two boys who are growing up and they’re both at school in San Francisco at the moment.  They are completely digital natives in the sense that they were both born after the smartphone was delivered. They’re both much better at using the iPad than I am. They don’t really know what a mouse is when we go up to the computer upstairs.

So I think there’s areas there that I look at in terms of image recognition and natural language processing that are we’re already, just in the last 18 months, seeing the transformations coming about through there. But I totally imagine a situation, by the time they’re finishing school and going to university, they might not even type, let alone write anything. They would just talk. That’s how they will interact with the compute power that will exist for them.

I’m also personally very interested in the chances around the future of healthcare. I think looking at the changes, particularly around personalized and preventative medicine and healthcare broadly, this idea through the compute power that’s available, the wearable devices that you or I can put on that can track our movements, can track what we’re consuming. I saw the first FDA approval for a swallowable pill came through very recently. Those are the sorts of things that I can imagine having a very significant impact on our lives over time.

I’m also a believer … I never know who to correctly ascribe this quote to, but we tend to over-emphasize the changes that are going to come in two years and under-emphasize the changes over a 10-year period. We always have to be slightly wary of some of the more extreme claims that are made about immediate changes that are coming, but also being very cognizant that over a 10-year horizon, you can look back over the last 10 years and the change has been phenomenal. I’m sure that when we get together again in 2027 and look back at this, I’ll be wildly off in what’s changing the world.

But no, I think one of the great things is just looking at the opportunities that, whether it’s cloud computing or mobile technology, allow for the incredible range and breadth of entrepreneurial opportunities. I’ll be wildly wrong if I try and guess what are going to be the 10 fastest-growing companies over the next 10 years, but I’m very certain they will have been enabled by cloud computing, by mobile technology, by, for example, the internet of things and how that develops, that are going to have really big changes for how we live and operate.

TB: Tell me about the relationship between the UK and Washington State specifically.

Whittaker: Just looking at some of the numbers for Washington State, I think it’s, I want to say, $5 billion worth of exports and goods and services from Washington State to the UK. I think UK is now the largest foreign employer in Washington State. Nearly 19,000 jobs are with UK-headquartered companies. It’s that sort of deep and special relationship that we have is what makes me thrilled to have this role, and great to have the chance to be here today.

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