UK Approach to Digital Standards: upholding integrity, accelerating innovation

Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy, Saqib Bhatti, gave a speech at the Digital Standards Showcase event in London on 19 February 2024

Saqib Bhatti MP

Good afternoon, everybody.  

It is an absolute pleasure to be here – and I am delighted to see such a diverse group of leaders from industry, academia, civil society, standards development organisations, and international partners here with us in London today.  

And I think that this is a testament to a growing recognition of the real-world impacts of digital technical standards, the nuts and bolts of the internet and digital economy, as I like to call them, and a real sense of optimism and excitement about what we can achieve.

That takes me straight onto the question - why do digital standards matter? 

It sometimes appears in everyday life, especially in my job, that technology is moving faster and faster by the year.  

Barely a day goes by without stories of inspirational people harnessing the power of AI to cure cancer, exploring the potential of quantum computing to tackle climate change, or investing in future telecoms to boost Britain’s economic productivity.  

But I think sometimes, if we do not look below the headlines, we miss out on a much more complex story.  

Technological progress brings with it a myriad of opportunities to deliver better, both for Britain and the world – grow our economy, create new jobs, and improve our standard of living.  

But those benefits are far from automatic. The same technologies that promise to make us wealthier and healthier bring new risks, too – and they will only work if people trust them enough to use them. 

So digital standards already play a vital role in how we use that technology today.

They are like a set of instructions for how we develop and deploy technology. They set out good practice for technologies. They help ensure products and services perform safely and efficiently and without them, much of modern life would be unimaginable.

Whenever we do our banking online or use our mobile phones abroad, it is digital standards which make this possible, secure and reliable.

But the digital standards of today will also underpin how the technology of tomorrow is developed and deployed. This is why we focus our efforts on critical technologies, including AI, quantum, future telecommunications, semiconductors, the internet and key areas such as cyber security.

Digital standards can realise technical principles essential to an open, democratic technological future, ensuring that our devices and our systems are interoperable and ‘secure by design.’

But they can embed moral principles, too, upholding human rights and ensuring that we are safe online.

Crucially, though, digital standards also form an indispensable part of a pro-innovation approach to regulating new technologies. This can be in place of or alongside regulatory approaches.

And we know standards drive innovation. We know they drive growth by accelerating commercialisation and lowering barriers to international markets.

By providing clear routes to compliance, they give businesses the certainty that they need to bring new products to market, and they give consumers the confidence and trust to use them.

In 2022, the British Standards Institution found that an estimated 23 per cent of GDP growth since 2000 is attributable to the impact of standards, including digital standards.

And there are clear additional commercial advantages to be had for those at the front of digital standards development, who have the opportunity to shape international markets and reap the rewards, for example through Standards Essential Patents.

It is clear, then, that digital standards are not an end in themselves. They are a means of making technology work, making it safe, and secure - all around the world, for everyone.

And that last point is absolutely vital; technologies like AI and the internet do not respect geographical borders.

They are fundamentally global.

And so the digital standards that go with them, which govern them, must be global, as well.

Increasing fragmentation within the ecosystem, for example between states, standards development organisations, or industry players, risks making our digital standards ecosystem weaker and more unstable. 

Duplicative, competing standards or technological approaches, could lock innovators out of global markets, preventing us from accessing technologies that could change our lives for the better.

Or, if we fail to build secure and globally interoperable systems from the outset, we could risk the very safety of our society and economy.

But if we get global digital standards right, we can ensure that the technologies of tomorrow are developed and deployed in a way that supports growing global markets and guarantees our shared prosperity, safety and security.

Right now, we are already working with our partners in industry and standards development organisations to strengthen and uphold the integrity of a diverse ecosystem that is able to produce robust standards that are fit for the future.

But we cannot do this alone.

We have to work together with like-minded partners around the world to uphold integrity in the global digital standards ecosystem.

And we have a proud history as a leader in this space.

Thirty-six years ago, we played a key role in founding the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), now a key player in standards development in some of the fastest growing parts of the digital economy.

And, just two years ago, we were elected to the governing council of the International Telecommunication Union, where we are driving forward a vision for an institution that fosters international consensus and collaboration and delivers effectively for all its members.

Today, I want to share with you our vision for a global standards system that promotes innovation, prosperity and growth.

In line with our like-minded partners, we are opposed to top-down government-imposed approaches that fundamentally seek to reshape the digital standards ecosystem.

But of course we recognise that government has a vital role to play, as a key user and adopter of technology with unique expertise that we have already used to support standards development for the Internet of Things and now for AI and cyber-security.

Together, we can reinforce a multi-stakeholder, industry-led standards development ecosystem that remains open, transparent and consensus-based, even as it becomes more coordinated, accessible and inclusive for the benefit of all.

To do that, we have set out a clear approach with three key pillars.

Strengthen the global digital standards ecosystem and increase the UK’s contribution and leadership

The first pillar is strengthening our global digital standards ecosystem by increasing the UK’s contribution and leadership. 

Firstly, we are ensuring that the development of digital standards takes into account a rich and diverse range of perspectives and relevant expertise

But it also means making standards development more accessible to stakeholders, including the small businesses who are so vital to our economy, and making it easier to engage in standards work.

That approach is central to our standards work on the critical technologies, including the AI Standards Hub, the UK Telecommunications Innovation Network and the Quantum Standards Network Pilot, where we are using targeted outreach to encourage active engagement with standards development organisations.

And as I said, we know that we cannot do this alone – so we are deepening our collaboration with regulators like Ofcom, the national quality infrastructure and other government departments, for example expert institutions like the National Physical Laboratory and National Cyber Security Centre, who I know you will be hearing from later today.

That collaboration is crucial if we are to build forward-looking standards that are fit for the future.

Ensure digital standards development is at the heart of research and innovation in Britain

And this brings me on to the second pillar of our approach: ensuring that digital standards development is right at the heart of research and innovation in Britain.

And I am proud to be part of a government that is investing more than ever in science and tech.

In the past year alone, we have invested £19.4 billion in research and development across the government – higher than Britain has ever seen before. In DSIT, we have announced ambitious strategies for every one of the critical technologies that will be crucial if we are to grow the economy, create new jobs and of course improve the lives of British people in the decades to come, whether it is our £2.5 billion quantum strategy or our £100 million wireless infrastructure strategy. 

For those strategies to succeed, standards will be essential. That is why we will shape our innovation system to incentivise engagement in standards development from the very start, by building on the strength of our relationships with UKRI and academic institutions to leverage existing funding and grants to incentivise engagement in digital standards development.

If we get this right, then I believe that we will be in an even stronger position to champion British research and development - and cement our science and tech superpower status.

But, as I said, making our science and tech superpower mission does not mean pitting Britain against the rest. Britain will only succeed if we are open and engaged with the world around us. Because building a better digital future will take every one of us.

Strengthen international partnerships and develop a common approach to safe, secure technology

And that takes me onto the final pillar of our approach: strengthening our international partnerships and developing a common approach to safe, secure technology.

The success of the Internet Protocols developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force show how much we can achieve when we work together as a global community.

Now, we want to double down on that success by bringing an even wider range of voices into the fold.

By becoming more proactive and collaborative with our partners in global standards development, we can build a stronger network better able to counter disproportionate influence and authoritarian approaches.

Together, we can uphold the multi-stakeholder, industry-led, open and transparent model which has been so essential to our success so far.

And to do that, we will reinforce our existing relationships with like-minded partners – but, crucially, we will engage more broadly than ever, by building ties with Commonwealth countries and key middle powers who will be the ‘digital deciders’ of tomorrow.

Closing remarks

I am confident that, in these three pillars, we have an ambitious plan to make Britain a true global leader in standards.

And I don not expect us to get there straight away. This is not about easy fixes or short-term thinking.

Building a standards ecosystem that is fit for the future requires us to invest in years of work – not just to build talent and expertise, but to get our relationships right.

Right now, making that investment matters more than ever. As technology evolves at an ever-faster pace, we cannot afford to lose sight of the people who it is supposed to serve.

Ensuring that technology delivers tangible improvements for our economy and society could not be more important.

Standards are an essential part of that, and so are each and every one of you – the people who are working to build better standards, day in, day out.

So I would like to leave you today with a call to action – no matter your sector or your size, there are benefits to you, and your nation, by engaging in digital standards. My door is open – together, we can realise all the extraordinary opportunities that technology has to offer.

Thank you.

Department for Science, Innovation and Technology
Saqib Bhatti MP