Trends In Information Technology Law: Looking Ahead To 2021

Publication Date06 January 2021
SubjectGovernment, Public Sector, Privacy, Technology, Coronavirus (COVID-19), Data Protection, Constitutional & Administrative Law, Security, Operational Impacts and Strategy
Law FirmKemp IT Law
AuthorMr Richard Kemp

This piece looks ahead to what we might expect as IT law develops in 2021.

2020: an extraordinary year of IT transformation at scale, pace and depth

At last, we can see 2020 through the rear view mirror. A year like no other within living memory, its impact on transformation in the world of IT is huge. It can be summarised in three words: Scale, Pace, Depth.

"The digital economy is consuming the old economy" said a former CEO of HSBC recently, neatly if graphically articulating the scale of change.1 2020's 'tech celeration' and great shove online have compressed into months changes previously anticipated in years. And headlines in early December 2020 illustrate how the depth of these changes will impact all our lives:

  • DeepMind's AlphaFold AI system predicting a protein's shape from its amino acid components;2
  • Arm Holdings' Project Triffid to develop virtually no-power IOT sensors;3
  • UK regulatory approval of the first mRNA4 and DNA5 Covid-19 vaccines;
  • researchers in China manipulating light particles in a quantum calculation reportedly 10bn times faster than anything before;6 and
  • SpaceX's Starship SN8 rocket prototype carrying out its first high-altitude test flight.7

The high street

Retail and the UK high street remained the place where these changes were most visible in 2020. The chart below8 shows how internet sales as a percentage of total retail sales inclined relatively gently upwards from 3% in 2006 to 20% in 2019, but then raced ahead to 30% in early 2020. The list of well-known UK retailers that went into liquidation or administration in 2020 as a result is likely to lengthen in 2021.

UK Internet sales as a percentage of total UK retail sales (Source: ONS)

Brexit and digital trade

So now we know what "Brexit means Brexit" means. Having ridden up six floors in the elevator of European economic integration, we finally got out at level 2, where we last were in 1960: tariff-free trade in UK- and EU- originating goods, bolted on to the WTO's basic principles of non-discrimination and equal treatment (see graphic).9

"Brexit means Brexit" means getting out at Level 2

December's 1,246 page EU/UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement ('TCA')10 adds to this a number of high level terms on services plus commitments to negotiate. These include seven pages aiming "to facilitate digital trade, to address unjustified barriers to trade enabled by electronic means and to ensure an open, secure and trustworthy online environment".11 The Government has called these out as "some of the most liberalising and modern digital trade provisions in the world" and "the first time the EU has agreed provisions on data in a free trade agreement".12

Brexit and data protection

As an example of the contortions that may lie ahead, many businesses are likely to end up with dual data protection compliance requirements. During the transition period, the GDPR continued to apply in the UK pretty much as before and the TCA defers the UK from being considered a "third country" for GDPR...

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