Brexit vote: What the UK leaving the EU means for tech

This could be a historic moment for the UK. CNET looks at how the tech world is -- and isn't -- responding.

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
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The UK voters did it: Britain is now out of the European Union.

The debate has been messy over whether Britain should exit the EU, a move nicknamed Brexit. In part that's because of all the unknown outcomes -- each side has had a tough time building a solid case.

Those wanting to leave are justifying their position with arguments about British sovereignty, the amount of money the UK sends to the EU, and uncontrolled immigration. Some who are voting to remain are doing so because their ties to Europe run deep, others because they want to avoid another recession. Some just don't want to make what would likely be an irreversible decision about the future of the country in a climate of such uncertainty. Regardless, the remain camp has the clout of the world's leading economists behind it.

It's an historic moment: No country has ever left the EU. That makes it impossible to say for sure what will happen now that Brexit is a reality. The ambiguity extends to the effects a leave vote would have on the technology industry, which has generally leaned toward Britain remaining in Europe.

Here's a look at the potential implications.

What has the EU ever done for tech?

British citizens have reason to be grateful to the EU, which prioritized broadband in every home, passed data-protection regulations and recognized the needs for countries to work together on cybersecurity issues.

The EU is working toward a digital single market, a seamless online marketplace where digital services can prosper and where industry, employment and the economy all benefit from digitalisation. Issues tackled so far include ensuring people have equal access to Netflix.

The Union is also currently in the process of making sure phone users can enjoy movement from member state to member state without having to pay roaming fees. Such policies have proved popular not just with consumers; all the UK's network operators believe EU membership is good for their businesses, and they're firmly on the side of remaining in the EU.

"Britain needs unrestricted access to the European market in order to compete effectively," Telefonica CEO Ronan Dunne wrote in a blog post on LinkedIn in May. "Without this, we risk serious harm to our economy in the short, medium and long term."

BT, which earns about a fifth of its revenue outside the UK, said it values the way EU membership opens markets. "The board and senior management of BT have been clear for months that the company's prospects are better if the UK stays in a reformed EU," a BT spokesperson said.

The British tech-industry vote

The networks are not alone.

A survey of the UK's tech workers by Juniper Research has found that 65 percent think Brexit will have a negative impact on the global tech industry. Seven in ten of those who predict a negative outcome for tech also believe it would be harder for UK tech firms to attract and employ individuals from EU countries.

The UK leads Europe's tech sector, with the country boasting 18 of the EU's 47 private tech companies valued at more than $1 billion, which are also known as unicorns. Nearly two-thirds of respondents to Juniper's survey said they think the tech industry would suffer as a result of reduced funding from the EU for the UK tech sector and that London would be less attractive as a tech hub.

A report published by The Guardian in May showed that many UK unicorns are robustly in favour of EU membership. The likes of Just Eat, Funding Circle, Zoopla and TransferWise are joined by smaller startups like Ustwo, maker of the video game Monument Valley, in backing the remain camp. None of the UK's unicorns is openly supporting the leave campaign.

A dissenting voice from the British tech industry is vacuum pioneer James Dyson. "When the remain campaign tells us no one will trade with us if we leave the EU, sorry, it's absolute cobblers," he said in an interview with The Telegraph earlier this month.

On the outside, but looking in

Even the US tech giants, which haven't had the easiest time with EU regulators, are anti-Brexit.

"We appreciate and respect that there are a range of reasons that motivate people on both sides of the debate, but as a business that is very committed to this country, our view is that the UK should remain in the EU," Microsoft wrote in an open letter back in May. Bill Gates, the company's co-founder, has also spoken out separately in favour of the UK remaining in Europe.

Google and Facebook, on the other hand, have remained neutral in the debate, serving instead as platforms for discussion and voter engagement.

Facebook dusted off its "I'm a voter" button for the second time this year in the UK. It also hosted a Facebook Live session in collaboration with Buzzfeed, in which members of the public quizzed key figures from both camps, including Prime Minister David Cameron (remain) and the United Kingdom Independence Party's Nigel Farage (leave).

Google has publicly posted stats and maps showing what kind of Brexit-related search queries it's been receiving. On Thursday, polling day, it has a "Time to Vote" button on its homepage, which links to a Google Plus post featuring voting information from the Electoral Commission.

These companies are not without their own vested interests -- both use London as hubs for many of their activities within Europe and there will undoubtedly be implications for them with the UK leaving the EU.

Updated at 4:57 a.m. PT on Friday: To note that the UK has voted to leave the EU.