Encoding values: Putting tech at the heart of UK foreign policy – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Foreign Affairs Committee

Related inquiry: Tech and the future of UK foreign policy

Date Published: 8 July 2022

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New and emerging technologies are fundamentally altering the nature of international relations and the role of the nation-state, as well as forming new arenas in which battles for global influence play out. The growing influence of private technology companies is challenging traditional levers of state influence and channels of diplomatic engagement. In addition, global technology standards are increasingly a tool for geopolitical competition as authoritarian governments seek to gain technological dominance and to shape global standards based on their preferred governance models.

The UK Government has explicitly stated its intention to position the UK as a “science and technology superpower”. The developments outlined above require the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to fundamentally reassess the ways in which it projects the UK’s influence, builds alliances, engages with our competitors, and works with allies to control the firms and technologies that pose a risk of exporting data and technology to our adversaries. Failure to adapt will have devastating consequences for our security, prosperity and global influence, as well as threatening the privacy and liberties of people in the UK and across the world.

There is an opportunity for the FCDO to exemplify the values articulated in the Integrated Review by leading on collaboration with the private sector and civil society, both in the UK and overseas, in the pursuit of its objectives. It is now vital that the FCDO works across Government to ensure there is a single picture of those firms and adversaries who pose a risk to the UK, and that the Government is using the appropriate controls to disrupt the efforts of those who wish us harm. This should include engaging with local product teams and technologists to understand the localised impact of technologies in communities across the world. The Government can also influence global best practice, for example by sharing knowledge of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and drawing upon the expertise of our world-class research organisations, companies and institutes.

The UK’s position on technology standards vis-à-vis the US and EU remains unclear and the UK is being left out of important technology cooperation initiatives. The UK therefore risks becoming a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker on technology standards. We also cannot meaningfully influence the global order without the cooperation and support of our partners. While there is an opportunity for the UK to exercise thought leadership, we cannot go it alone and should not seek to carve out a “fourth way” for the UK in global technology governance. The Government’s continued focus on bilateral technology agreements is creating incoherence and fragmentation, thus failing to provide a strong and cohesive alternative to authoritarian technology governance models. There is an opportunity for the FCDO to leverage its diplomatic influence and wider relationships to promote mutual understanding among the world’s different regulatory blocs, in order to facilitate a cohesive international approach to technology governance, based on the shared values of democracy, openness and human rights.

“Digital deciders” such as India, Singapore and Brazil are yet to fully align themselves with rights-based or authoritarian technology governance models. This is recognised and reflected in the diplomacy of the Chinese government. Together with our allies, creating deeper partnerships with these countries will be crucial to shaping the future of the global technology landscape. The UK Government should increase its diplomatic efforts with countries who might otherwise align with models of digital authoritarianism, including by offering trade and investment opportunities in support of technologies that support democratic values and human rights.

The integration of technology within UK foreign policy should reflect the intrinsic links between the UK’s domestic capabilities and its global influence. The Government’s previous reticence to review and intervene in foreign investments that move strategically important UK businesses overseas has slowly eroded our domestic capabilities, with implications for our ability to project influence internationally. Better integration of work between departments, to support greater coherence between the UK’s domestic industrial and economic policy and its foreign policy, will be crucial if the UK is to realise the Government’s international ambitions.