Europe’s Digital Journey

European Commission unveils plans to “shape Europe’s digital future”

Last week, the European Commission unveiled a fresh approach to the digital economy in the EU with a new strategy to shape Europe’s digital future”. Its wide-ranging policy proposals set out ideas about access to data, the regulation of artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition and support for the growth of technology that “adheres to European values”.

The strategy outlines specific objectives: to establish rules on data and AI that “put people first” and to foster “trustworthy technology”. The proposals were set out by Margrethe Vestager, Thierry Breton and Ursula von der Leyen, all senior members of the European Commission.

The commission’s White Paper on Artificial Intelligence and its European Data Strategy are the first pillars of the new approach. The organization stresses its desire to make the technology a “force for good”, and not one that will harm its citizens. For example, it says that it doesn’t want AI to be misused, as was the case with Clearview AI, a start-up from New York that sold information scraped from social networks to law enforcement agencies in the US. Clearview AI gathered photos without citizens’ consent from sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others. The white paper touches on AI’s potential use in healthcare, cybersecurity and agriculture.

Currently, the US and China dominate AI developments, and European leaders recognize that the EU lacks a tech giant of its own to rival US players such as Google, Facebook or Chinese companies such as Baidu or Tencent. The guidelines also touch on the growing use of facial recognition in public spaces, noting that technically this breaches European privacy law in most instances. The commission will review the use of facial recognition in public places.

The commission’s plan for access to data includes creating a single European market for data, aiming to make data available for public and commercial good, within an appropriate regulatory framework. It also hopes that pooling the region’s deep industrial expertise could help build technology powerhouses to catch up with Silicon Valley and Chinese companies. The organization believes that rapidly growing amounts of data will be generated in the coming years as storage shifts from the cloud to the network edge.

Silicon Valley executives including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited Brussels in recent weeks to lobby lawmakers on regulation, with little success. The European Commission is shaping its own principles and frameworks, and may see the lobbying efforts of hyperscale players as self-serving. However, its strategy is carefully worded to say that all technology is welcome, provided it operates in line with European ideals and values. It’s easy to interpret the post-Brexit move by Google to relocate the data it holds about UK citizens away from the EU as evidence that the large technology players may not share European ideals and values. This sort of move will be seen as justification for a European approach and will encourage the EU.

The white paper is open for public consultation until 19 May 2020 as the commission gathers feedback on the data strategy. The organization is planning to take further action to support the development of trustworthy AI and a data-agile economy after receiving input. Its strategy has a General Data Protection Regulation ring to it, and just as the European rules on data protection have become a global model for other countries, the EU’s stance on a digital economy can inspire other countries to follow suit.

In the past, such initiatives have had some success. A clear example was the creation of the GSM standards and the agreement on spectrum usage in European countries. This allowed infrastructure suppliers, mobile device makers and wireless operators to quickly build scale, which in turn led to the creation of global leaders such as Ericsson and Nokia. But the European Commission must recognize that Europe currently lags the US and China in some key technology areas. It has some intelligent catching up to do.