Brexit: The tech world reacts to UK's withdrawal from EU

In spite of what the tech industry hoped, the UK and the EU have decided to go their separate ways. Now's the time to keep a stiff upper lip.

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
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

Well, now what?

The UK's decision to leave the European Union -- a movement called Brexit -- goes against the sentiment of leading technologists and economists, all of whom fear the potential effects at home and abroad. Nevertheless, the British tech industry and the foreign tech companies that operate in the country must now decide how to proceed, how to weather any potential storms and how to make the most of the new environment in which they'll have to operate.

The referendum to exit the EU is unprecedented, making it impossible to make long-term predictions about the impact on the tech world. But the bombshell decision promises to shake things up as important figures and tech companies take stock of the new norm. In the US, Donald Trump lauded the Brexit movement, which he linked to his own unlikely ascension. President Barack Obama said the US' relationship with the UK remains unchanged.

In the UK, the reaction can be summed up with one acronym: PMA. That's right, there's a lot of "positive mental attitude" going round right now. And the tech world is going to need a lot of PMA.

What about my mobile operator?

Despite throwing its weight behind the "remain" campaign, a spokeswoman for carrier BT said that it was "business as usual" at the company. "We'll work closely with the British government and EU during negotiations, to ensure BT's views are heard, as our goal is to protect the interests of our customers, employees, shareholders and business."

Rival O2 expressed disappointment. "We believe that large businesses like ours would have been stronger remaining in the EU," said a company spokesman. "Whatever happens next we will continue to fiercely compete in our market, innovate and deliver for our customers."

Watch this: Britain votes to leave the European Union

Vodafone and Virgin Media were both keen to reassure customers that they'd continue to receive company support, and neither firm predicted any short-term impact on their UK businesses.

The EU is working toward eliminating roaming fees across the continent by June 2017, and there's a possibility that the UK could lose out on this benefit, said Luca Schiavoni, senior analyst at Ovum. "UK operators will no longer be subject to the EC's roaming regulation," he said.

This is not a given, though. The networks have been trying to implement these rules for several years and will want to remain competitive in the market.

Data-protection regulations, which give internet users control over what happens to their personal information, were drawn up by the EU, but they may not disintegrate when the UK is no longer a member. For now the regulations are "the law of the land," said a representative from the Information Commissioner's Office.

"If the UK is not part of the EU, then upcoming EU reforms to data-protection law would not directly apply to the UK," said the rep, who added, however, that the UK's standards would have to be "equivalent" to Europe's in order for the two to trade.

Stoicism rules

An EU flag, with a hole cut in the middle, flys at half mast outside a UK home.

An EU flag, with a hole cut in the middle, flys at half mast outside a UK home.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The positive attitude of the UK mobile networks is echoed by the UK's startup scene, which is the strongest in Europe. Many high-profile tech entrepreneurs are taking the stoic approach.

"I voted #Remain -- but I also believe that Britain will always be open, creative & entrepreneurial. Let's ensure that happens. #EUref," tweeted Rohan Silva, co-founder of tech accelerator Second Home and prominent advocate of the London tech scene. His post was retweeted by Baroness Martha Lane Fox, founder of LastMinute.com.

Not everyone shared their optimism. A number of the UK's most successful startups were adamantly against leaving Europe. TransferWise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus, who was staunchly in favor of remaining in the EU, told The Guardian that now "Headquartering elsewhere is a possibility."

Due to the UK being the financial capital of Europe, many money- and payment-based tech startups like TransferWise are based in London -- particularly around Silicon Roundabout. There are some that believe this sector could be hard hit by the outcome.

James Dyson was perhaps the lone figure from the British tech scene supporting Brexit, but a spokeswoman for his company, which makes vacuum cleaners and hand air-dryers, said Friday that the firm would not be "issuing any comments at the moment."

Microsoft, which was a staunch supporter of the remain campaign, also declined to comment following the results.

Outside of the direct line of tech fire, Michael Ryan, chairman of the Independent Film and Television Alliance, believes Brexit will prove "a major blow" to the UK's film and TV industry.

"This decision has just blown up our foundation -- as of today, we no longer know how our relationships with co-producers, financiers and distributors will work, whether new taxes will be dropped on our activities in the rest of Europe or how production financing is going to be raised without any input from European funding agencies," he told Variety.