The EU must be bold and defend its digital sovereignty
The writer is president of the Italian National Innovation Fund
Sovereignty has today transcended geopolitics and economics to acquire a digital dimension. This is due to the rise of tech giants whose influence is now impossible to deny. In the past year, five US tech companies – Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft – saw their revenues increase by a fifth, reaching $ 1.1 billion. US tech stocks are now worth more than the entire European stock market. And Chinese companies operate on a similar scale.
Unlike Washington and Beijing, Brussels has been slow to recognize the importance of digital sovereignty. Rather, it channeled its efforts towards stricter and more comprehensive regulation of the technology sector, becoming the world’s first “regulatory superpower”. Bold interventions such as the digital market law and the data governance law will strengthen policies related to competition and antitrust laws. An equally ambitious proposal to reorganize digital taxation could close many of the existing loopholes.
But a full defense of Europe’s digital sovereignty requires three additional measures. First, Brussels needs a strategic and far-sighted approach to its own critical infrastructure and industrial policy. Second, he needs to stress that his concerns about the power of Big Tech are rooted in democratic values - rather than technocratic ones. Third, he must lead the development of a global framework to ensure that technological disputes are resolved amicably and diplomatically rather than through protracted trade wars between Washington and Beijing.
Fortunately, the challenge of the first step has been officially recognized, if it is not yet fully met. EU leaders have agreed to devote at least 20% of the 673 billion euros of the Covid recovery and resilience mechanism to critical technologies and infrastructure related to AI, microprocessors, 5G networks, the initiative from Gaia-X cloud, to quantum computing and cybersecurity.
Measures like this should help avert the turmoil that has plagued the European auto industry, such as shortages of microchips made mostly abroad. Volkswagen alone hopes to sell 100,000 fewer cars. The European Commission stipulates that by 2030 the EU should produce at least 20% of the world’s semiconductors. Last year he produced 10%.
The second challenge will be crucial. This battle is not about defending the power of the existing European industries. It is about defending the data sovereignty of European citizens, their autonomy and their rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
This could require the development of new governance models such as data trusts, where the underlying data, once anonymized, could be shared in the name of a greater public good. Barcelona residents, for example, can access environmental data for local businesses and civic initiatives. There’s no reason to assume that today’s default solution – with data fueling business models that violate the privacy of tech platforms – is somehow less technocratic and more democratic. This is certainly not the case.
Third, Europe’s insistence on democracy and diplomacy should inform how issues are resolved on the international stage. Some high profile appointments, including prominent Big Tech critics, to Joe Biden’s administration suggest that Brussels could find a receptive audience on the other side of the Atlantic. Beijing has launched its own campaign to harness its domestic tech industry.
Despite shared concerns about sovereignty, China and the United States still strongly disagree. The U.S. Department of Commerce has a blacklist of Chinese companies, including Huawei and chipmaker SMIC, whose technologies could pose a threat to national security. China has returned the favor by banning Tesla cars from military complexes. Both countries are increasing their spending on key components such as semiconductors.
Once it puts digital sovereignty at the heart of its foreign policy, Europe has a chance to chart a new global course. The European solution cannot revolve around a cold war mentality. Instead, it should come up with a global “green and digital deal”, including binding international regulations on antitrust, taxation, digital privacy, cybersecurity and sustainability.
The world got a taste of Big Tech surveillance capitalism and how technology can encourage the Big State, for example with China’s digital authoritarianism. It is now Brussels’ turn to pave the way for great democracy. Europe must harness its digital sovereignty to offer the world a new kind of humanism, combining innovation and dynamism with an uncompromising defense of autonomy, sustainability and self-determination.