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Safe harbour: Has the UK government turned its back on UK business?


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News that HMRC has decided to ditch Microsoft and go with Google Apps has caused some discontent amongst UK based technology providers, myself included. According to The Register HMRC will become 'the first major department (it has 70,000 staff) to move to Google Apps… and will join the Cabinet Office and Department for Culture, Media and Sport in deploying the cloud'.

This news comes on the back of a recent announcement by file sharing company Box that it's is now approved by GDS for use at an OFFICIAL level within the public sector.

We're always in favour of greater competition. It brings innovation and value for money to a sector that in the past has been guilty of oligopoly tendencies. The G-Cloud buying framework liberated the public sector from all that. It bought an era of openness, competition and transparency. It leveled the playing field by ensuring that companies approved to sell services through the framework had proved their worth and commitment to keeping data safe and on-shore. In return for the hard work ensuring compliancy, the government promised that it would favour British SMEs and use G-Cloud to encourage more public sector business channeled through UK businesses as a way to keep the economy moving.

The recent Google and Box announcements come in direct opposition to those statement objectives. Looking through the G-cloud framework there are ample suppliers, albeit less well known, that can provide the public sector with the same service that Google and Box can. So why spend money with the US monoliths?

It also raises some bigger questions. Let's start with the most important one - that of data sovereignty. Once in Google's or Box's cloud you literally have no idea where your data is. You don't and won't know when its being moved as Google employs a cluster effect to its data to ensure that it is stored efficiently. This means that it regularly shifts customer's data from one location to another to maximise resources. More than that, you could be putting your own governance at risk since your data may fall under the jurisdiction of another country and as a result may have to open up that data to the government where it's housed.  

There seems to be a double standard being applied. UK suppliers, including ourselves, have to commit to keeping data on-shore - even Ireland is considered off-shore. Rightly so, suppliers have to detail and abide by how data will be managed and adhere to strict processes as set out by the framework. With commitments to carbon reductions and taxes, suppliers outside of the UK and its jurisdiction do not have to adhere to the same legislation nor incur the additional costs related to safe guards.  

Credit where credit is due though. Microsoft has worked hard to ensure that it works within the UK and G-cloud framework, building data centres and infrastructures that adhere to the regulations. The announcement that HMRC is ditching Microsoft for Google sounds a bit like a reaction against Microsoft rather than favourable benefits that Google might bring.

While it's likely that companies the size of Google and Box will manage data properly and securely, authorising services from US providers sets a precedent for others who may not be so zealous.

What's of more concern is that while HMRC said that it's not moving UK citizens tax records off-shore yet - it didn't rule it out completely, opening up citizen data to be access by foreign governments.



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