The writer is president of Italy’s National Innovation Fund
Sovereignty has today transcended geopolitics and economics to acquire a digital dimension. This is due to the rise of the technology giants whose influence is now impossible to deny. In the past year, five US tech companies — Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft — saw their revenue grow by a fifth, reaching $1.1tn. US tech stocks are now worth more than the entire European stock market. And Chinese companies operate at a similar scale.
Unlike Washington and Beijing, Brussels has been slow to recognise the importance of digital sovereignty. It has instead channelled its efforts into tighter, more comprehensive regulation of the tech sector, becoming the world’s leading “regulatory superpower”. Bold interventions such as the Digital Market Act and the Data Governance Act will strengthen policies related to competition and antitrust. An equally ambitious proposal for revamping digital taxation could close many of the existing loopholes.
But a full-blown defence of Europe’s digital sovereignty requires three additional moves. First, Brussels needs a strategic, far-sighted approach to its own critical infrastructures and industrial policy. Second, it must emphasise that its concerns about the power of Big Tech are rooted in democratic — rather than technocratic — values. Third, it 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 move has been formally acknowledged, if not fully addressed yet. EU leaders have agreed to pour at least 20 per cent of the €673bn Covid Recovery and Resilience Facility into critical technologies and infrastructure related to AI, microprocessors, 5G networks, the Gaia-X cloud initiative, quantum computing and cyber security.
Measures like this should help avoid the troubles that have afflicted Europe’s car industry, such as shortages of predominantly foreign-made microchips. Volkswagen alone expects to sell 100,000 fewer cars as a result. The European Commission stipulates that by 2030 the EU should be producing at least 20 per cent of the world’s semiconductors. Last year it produced 10 per cent.
The second challenge will be crucial. This battle is not about defending the power of incumbent European industries. It’s about defending the data sovereignty of European citizens, their autonomy and their constitutionally guaranteed rights.
This might call for the development of new governance models such as data trusts, where the underlying data, once anonymised, might be shared in the name of greater public good. Residents of Barcelona, for example, are able to access environmental data for local business and civic initiatives. There’s no reason to assume that today’s default solution — with data feeding the privacy-violating business models of technology platforms — is somehow less technocratic and more democratic. It certainly isn’t.
Third, Europe’s insistence on democracy and diplomacy should inform how problems are resolved in the international arena. Some high-level appointments, including prominent critics of Big Tech, to Joe Biden’s administration suggest that Brussels might find a receptive audience on the other side of the Atlantic. Beijing has embarked on its own campaign to rein in its domestic technology industry.
Despite shared concerns over sovereignty, China and the US are still very much at odds. The US commerce department has a trade blacklist of Chinese companies, including Huawei and the chipmaker SMIC, whose technologies might be a threat to national security. China has reciprocated by banning Tesla cars from military complexes. Both countries are ramping up 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 path. The European solution cannot revolve around a cold war mentality. Instead, it should propose a global “green and digital deal”, to include binding international regulations on antitrust, taxation, digital privacy, cyber security and sustainability.
The world has had a taste of Big Tech’s surveillance capitalism, and of how technology can abet the Big State, for instance with China’s digital authoritarianism. Now it is Brussels’ turn to lead the way to Big Democracy. Europe must harness its digital sovereignty to offer the world a new kind of humanism, combining innovation and dynamism with an uncompromised defence of autonomy, sustainability and self-determination.
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