September 6, 2019

Europe’s Digital Leadership Package lacks a sense of mission

In late August Politico published an internal Commission document outlining a list of proposed priorities for the next European Commission. Among more than 100 proposed priorities, the document contains four priorities in the field of digital policy falling within the responsibility of DG CNECT. These four priorities are a mix between the obvious ("digital for the planet"), already announced ("Digital Services Act" and "Ai regulatory framework" - both of which had featured in Ursula van der Leyen's Agenda for Europe) and the unexpected (a "Digital Leadership Package").

In spite of the rather bland name (which sounds more like a training course for mid-level officials) the Digital Leadership package is easily the most interesting digital policy priority proposed in the document. Yet it does not go far enough to formulate a vision for a sovereign European technology stack, based on positive social objectives.

The package is an attempt to develop a strategy to ensure that Europe will maintain technological leadership in key areas. The Commission justifies this with a rather bleak (but probably realistic) view on the current state of affairs:

If the current trends continue unmitigated, the EU may end up being entirely dependent on third countries for key technologies. This would leave our economy, security, and society exposed and vulnerable on an unprecedented scale. It is no longer just a question about the competitiveness of the EU tech sector. The lack of European capabilities in key technologies threaten Europe's strong position in industries across the board as digital technologies are transforming these industries as well. Importantly, it can also threaten our democracies.

Given the severity of this threat one would expect an equally robust set of proposals for policy information to counter this threat. Unfortunately this is not the case. Instead of a strategic analysis of what technological capacities Europe is missing, the proposed digital leadership package does not go beyond a seemingly random bundle of (already existing?) initiatives. As outlined in the document the digital leadership package would consist of the following "High Priority areas for significant coordinated technology investments":

World leading computing and data processing capacities.
European low power microprocessor initiative
A smart networks and services initiativeEU wide common data spaces and world reference testing and experimentation facilities for AI applications.
European Cybersecurity Shield based on Quantum communication infrastructure (EuroQCI)
The European Blockchain Services infrastructure

This collection of proposed priorities shows little understanding of the real problem that Europe is facing in the face of digitization. Technology is not seen as a whole “stack” with the understanding that competing globally requires the ability to independently provide all layers of the stack. And - more importantly - that leadership in the digital space is not about technological market share but about a vision on how to employ technology for societal objectives.

Over the years Europe has lost its grip on various parts of the technology stack that our digital societies and economies are running on. Nowhere is this more clear than in the areas of operating systems (both mobile and desktop) and the increasingly important cloud computing services. As the European Commission's own European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC) notes in its "Rethinking Strategic Autonomy in the Digital Age" strategic note ...

Europe also lags behind when it comes to technological applications and software based services that have gradually become indispensable for a large number of private and public sector operations.

For instance no major desktop or mobile operating system today comes from EU companies Furthermore the cloud computing industry is dominated by five Us or China-based providers - Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Google and Alibaba. [...] In this context the diversification of suppliers or service providers or the development of alternative - European - offerings warrants consideration [...]

While the EPSC is primarily concerned about this development in the light of Europe's geopolitical strategic autonomy, the dependence on outside vendors for key layers of the digital technology stack has consequences far much closer to home. Being dependent on a small number of non-European providers of cloud collaboration services, social networks and operating systems means that Europe ultimately misses the capacity to influence the impact these services have on their European users. Of course there is the ability to impose regulation (the GDPR) or to limit the powers of dominant players via anti-competition enforcement actions, but in the end, these tools will have limited impact unless users have real alternatives to these services.

And in the light of the concerns raised by the Europeana Commission and the EPSC this should obviously mean European services. But ensuring that Europe has independent technological capacity to deliver all layers of the digital technology stack should not be a goal in itself. In doing so Europe can make design choices and these choices must be based on positive social objectives. Digital technologies should facilitate a society that is equitable and democratic, where basic liberties and rights are protected, where strong public institutions function in the public interest, and where people have a say in how things work.

Given this the Commission must develop a much more ambitious "digital leadership package" for investing in technological capacities that serve this goal. Such a package must have the ambition to put in place a sovereign European technology stack, that can become the basis for a digital space that strengthens public institutions and democratic governance, that promotes equality and justice, and that protects diversity and inclusion in Europe. As the EPSC observes in the above quoted note, the time to act is now:

The further Europe falls behind on digital technologies, the lower its chances of shaping new technologies according to its own preferences.