What UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson means for tech

Brexit, Huawei and a potential digital tax are all challenges that Johnson must tackle as he takes power.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
4 min read
The Conservative Party Announces Their New Leader And Prime Minister

Boris Johnson is taking over as prime minister of the UK.

Jeff Mitchell / Getty Images

Conservative politician Boris Johnson is taking over as UK prime minister on Wednesday. In an era of  5G  networks and invasive surveillance, Johnson will instantly face decisions that affect the country's position as a tech leader.

The new PM isn't known as particularly tech-savvy but will be responsible to tackle a number of tech-related challenges, starting with ones he's created for himself.

Full fiber nation

In his acceptance speech Tuesday, Johnson promised "fantastic full fiber broadband sprouting in every home" in the country. During his leadership campaign, he said this could happen by 2025. That is significantly earlier than the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport's promise last year of full fiber access for the entire country by 2033. As of May, that figure was 7 percent of households, according to UK communications regulator Ofcom. 

Some have already criticized the lack of detail in Johnson's promise.

"Boris Johnson's ambitious commitment to achieve full fiber coverage by 2025 is welcome, but needs to be matched with ambitious regulatory change, including reform of the fiber tax," the UK-based Internet Service Providers Association said.

The National Infrastructure Commission estimates the cost of upgrading the entire country to full fiber will be £33.4 billion ($41.7 billion) over the span of 30 years. We're still waiting for Johnson's own estimate plus the details of his plan. But given that he listed the rollout high on his agenda, it's fair to assume this is a priority for him.


A week before he became prime minister, Johnson wrote in the Telegraph that if technology can put men on the moon, it can help resolve the "technical and logistical" problems with the Irish border that are putting stress on the UK's efforts to leave the European Union. 

"If they could use hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to Earth's atmosphere in 1969, we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border," he said.

Johnson has long been known for elaborate metaphors and a tendency toward hyperbole, but this was one example that had experts in politics, technology and science scratching their heads. Just as with fiber, this plan is short on specifics.

Johnson, an ardent Brexit supporter, is likely to want the UK's exit from the EU to go ahead at any cost -- even if that means crashing out without a deal. Tech industry body TechUK is campaigning hard against a "no-deal" Brexit.

"TechUK's members have repeatedly warned of the damaging impact that a No Deal Brexit would have on their business and we would urge Mr. Johnson to put all the talent and resources at his disposal to the task of avoiding this outcome," said TechUK CEO Julian Alexander. "This will be vital if we are to succeed in securing many of the opportunities that lie ahead for the UK beyond Brexit."

With the major exception of James Dyson, founder of the Dyson vacuum empire, tech leaders in the UK generally remain unconvinced that Brexit will be positive for the country's tech industry.

The Huawei dilemma

While the US has specifically addressed the potential security threats posed by Chinese tech giant Huawei to the country's telecommunications infrastructure, the UK has done the opposite. 

Over the past few months, the UK has continued to stall on deciding whether Huawei equipment should be used in the country's 5G network. 5G and Huawei are Johnson's problem now.

Being a leader in 5G is a key part of the UK government's economic strategy, and ensuring next-generation networks can roll out without delay is essential to making this happen. Two carriers, EE and Vodafone, have already launched their 5G networks -- both using Huawei equipment. You might think that makes it too late for the UK government to decide to place a ban on the company. But it's not.

Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee released a statement last week, urging the next PM to tackle the decision as soon as possible or face causing serious damage to the UK's relationships with allies.

"The new Prime Minister will no doubt have many issues to deal with in his first days in office," said the statement. "Nevertheless, this Committee urges him to take a decision on which companies will be involved in our 5G network, so that all concerned can move forward."

Logging on and stepping up

It's also not as if Johnson comes to the job with a fresh slate, as he would if the Conservative party had won a general election and found itself thrust into power. Instead, he's preceded by the legacies of two former Conservative prime ministers: Theresa May and David Cameron. As we can see in the case of Huawei, Johnson will have some tidying up to do.

He'll be expected to enter into the debate on police use of facial recognition technology. His government will need to decide if and when the UK's controversial online porn block and the associated age-verification technology will come into play, after it was once again delayed in June.

Then there's his own digital legacy to consider. Johnson recently indicated that he might introduce a digital tax on tech giants operating in and out of the UK. "I think it's deeply unfair that High Street businesses are paying tax through the nose... whereas the internet giants, the FAANGs -- Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google -- are paying virtually nothing," he said earlier this month, according to Reuters. (FAANG generally includes Apple too.)

Meanwhile he faces competition on the tech leadership front from France, which introduced its own digital tax in January and has shown itself to be adept at wooing Silicon Valley CEOs in a way that the UK government hasn't even attempted to replicate.

All of this is only the beginning for Johnson. Will the man of the moon-landing metaphors be able to  explain the fine intricacies of his Brexit tech solution? Will he follow through on his digital tax suggestion? Will he ensure that despite Brexit, the UK remains a leader in tech and digital industries? Over to you, prime minister.