Why you should care
Like the Chinese, the Europeans might have their versions of Facebook and Google.
“Edward Snowden!” somebody shouts, and applause erupts from the crowd. This is Web Summit, Europe’s biggest annual tech conference, which draws 70,000 visitors to Lisbon, Portugal. And America’s Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios is having a hard time with his speech. His calls for a European-American united front against China are greeted with rebukes from the crowd of European tech entrepreneurs and executives. When he leaves the stage, he’s booed.
Several speakers later, Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition, best known for beating down U.S. tech giants with large fines and recently being attacked by President Donald Trump as “someone who hates America,” is greeted with a standing ovation. Europe is largely dependent on the U.S. — and, increasingly, China — for its digital technology. Everything from social networks and cloud computing to telecom infrastructure hails from outside European borders. Now, as these technologies become ever more central to the economy, rising fears over privacy violations and data security are driving growing calls for Europe to establish technological sovereignty.
The new European Commission installed this year placed the call front and center, with president-elect Ursula von der Leyen stating: “We have to work hard for our technological sovereignty.” At a press conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe should push its technological sovereignty. French president Emmanuel Macron has joined her in these calls.
There is a growing realization … that we are dependent on big, foreign tech companies for the provision of basic functions of society.
Isabel Skierka, Digital Society Institute, Berlin
France and Germany have announced a partnership to build Gaia-X, an attempt at a European alternative to cloud giants like Amazon, Google and Microsoft. And in October, the French government announced it had asked firms to work on building a cloud network that the country can use to store the data of its firms.
Talk of technological sovereignty first gained traction when the Snowden revelations showed the U.S. had been spying on European countries on a massive scale, even tapping Merkel’s phone. But the recent debate around Huawei and its role in European telecom infrastructure, coupled with the growing centrality of digital tech in modern business, is pushing the subject to a priority area for European leaders.
“Technological sovereignty is everywhere in the discourse,” says Isabel Skierka, a cybersecurity researcher at the Digital Society Institute in Berlin. “There is a growing realization among European countries, governments and businesses that we are dependent on global supply chains for technology. And that we are dependent on big, foreign tech companies for the provision of basic functions of society.”
Which could have real consequences for American tech giants. In 2018, Amazon generated $20 billion through e-commerce in Germany, and $14.5 billion in the U.K. The EU projects that the European cloud market will be worth 449 billion euros in 2020, a market currently dominated by U.S. firms.
But it could also hurt Europe, caution some in the European technology community. Michael Jackson, a British venture capitalist and ex-COO of Skype, says that increased regulations and challenges for non-European tech firms — as erected by Vestager — would likely lead to a “bidirectional” response from the rest of the world.
“We might end up shooting ourselves in the foot,” says Jackson, also a board member of the Swedish car company Volvo. “European companies won’t have the opportunity to grow and compete in other countries.” That would further increase Europe’s dependence on foreign tech.
For the moment, there’s a lack of clarity over just what European leaders mean by tech sovereignty, currently seen as encompassing everything from regulating Silicon Valley companies to attempts by the EU to create its own technology giants. “But generally it means the ability of an actor to determine its own fate with the help of digital technology and by controlling it,” says Skierka.
Even Jackson recognizes the need for European control over its technological infrastructure. “I constantly worry when we put the technological infrastructure of our biggest companies in the hands of badly regulated foreign players,” he says. “We need to have our strategic infrastructure under our own control.”
The concept has more radical origins than the current debate suggests. From 2015, it was prominently used by left-wing Barcelona mayor Ada Colau to signify a change in the city’s technology policy. “It was about people’s control of data,” says Gemma Galdon Clavell, a policy analyst and board president at Eticas Foundation, where she works with the Barcelona city council. “They wanted to put people at the center, and not have corporations impose their solutions.”
Barcelona made its smart city policies less reliant on large technology corporations and started projects like DECODE, aimed at giving regular citizens control over their own data by creating a controlled, anonymized “data commons” platform. DECODE has also held pilots in Amsterdam. And though the Barcelona and EU schools of tech sovereignty are different, “they’re both part of a broader European agenda,” says Galdon Clavell.
Just how Europe will be able to build its own competitors to Amazon or Google remains an open question. “The idea is great, but what about the implementation?” asks Skierka. “How do we get the ideas from paper to reality?”
The new European Commission, for example, is still in the process of being formed, and Gaia-X, the key initiative to promote European cloud sovereignty, remains a bit of a black box. European countries have had a bad reputation when it comes to building these things. In 2012, France poured $200 million into two French cloud consortia, only to have the projects fail in 2016.
Ultimately, sovereignty might not mean full autarchy but relative independence from the U.S. and China. “Complete independence is a pipe dream,” Skierka says. “We should mainly manage dependence and prevent overreliance.” Jackson agrees. “We shouldn’t, for example, ban Huawei,” he says. “But we should limit their participation when it’s necessary for the resilience of our networks.”
Either way, it’s clear Europe is moving for a tech divorce from the U.S. and China. Whether it can pull it off remains to be seen.