Britain voted to leave the European Union Thursday in a stunning referendum that risks damaging the U.K.'s financial standing, while spurring tremendous uncertainty across industries in Europe, including the tech sector.
While Silicon Valley's leaders have chosen to remain silent on Brexit so far, the initial market turbulence will lead to a prolonged period of confusion and unpredictability, experts say, with the repercussions felt on the continent and across the Atlantic.
In recent years, the European Union has emerged as an antagonist to Silicon Valley, challenging the ambitions of U.S. tech giants on an array of issues: taxation, data privacy, surveillance, and antitrust. Within the EU, Britain has largely taken a pro-market stance, in opposition to other national governments like Germany and France who have staked a more aggressive regulatory approach against dominant U.S. tech firms, like Google and Apple.
But now that Britain is slated to exit the EU, it's going to lose one of its important counterbalances, Daniel Hamilton, the founding director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, told BuzzFeed News.
"The U.K. has always been a voice for open markets," he said, "and has been for light regulations in the EU context on all things — and that includes tech issues." The vote may also lead to an exodus of capital and businesses out of London, Hamilton added.
“This is probably of outsized importance to Google," wrote Ben Thompson, the founder of the tech analysis site Stratechery. "The U.K. is one of their best markets, and the company needs all the support it can get in an increasingly suspicious Europe that is pursuing multiple antitrust cases against the search giant.”
Google declined to comment. Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple declined as well.
The confounding Brexit vote also comes at a time when the European Union is trying to unify the continent's fragmented internet economy, and renegotiate a crucial data protection agreement with the United States. On both these fronts, the departure appears to frustrate the EU's commercial goals.
"They will have to renegotiate thousands, tens of thousands, of agreements that have knitted the U.K. into the EU," Hamilton said. "The immediate implication for tech and for everything else is massive uncertainty for a period of years."
The EU's plan to build up a pan-European market for digital goods and services was designed to consolidate a paralyzing patchwork of national laws. The so-called Digital Single Market was conceived with the hopes of shaping Europe into a more attractive trading partner, as well as developing the kind of capital and talent-rich hubs that have defined the success of Silicon Valley.
But government officials fear that Britain's vote may trigger referendums in other EU nations, undermining the deep economic integration that underpins the EU, and the broader political and cultural project of unifying the people of Europe.