Be fully committed to the development of 6G, mature Gaia-X, take the lead in edge computing and embrace open technology. These are some recommendations from the TNO to break through the dominance of Big Tech and Chinese (5G) companies in Europe.
Claire Stolwijk, researcher and consultant at TNO Strategic Analysis and Policy. and co-author of ‘Digital Sovereignty’, presented the research in June at a meeting in The Hague at the Dutch ECP | Platform for the information society.
The study begins with the observation that Europe (read: incl. Benelux) is dependent on foreign companies for data processing and storage. Google, Amazon and Microsoft are responsible here. Europe took the lead in the development of telecommunications; since 5G, Chinese Huawei has filled that role. In a letter (March 2021) to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, four European politicians argue that the time has come for Europe to become digitally independent. Signed by Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, Mette Frederiksen, Prime Minister of Denmark, Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia, and Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland.
This independence is necessary because:
- 92 percent of all data from the West is hosted in the United States and only four percent in Europe;
- The core of the digital infrastructure is provided by non-European companies (routers, switches, encryptions and servers);
- There are no European companies in the Top 20 of global technical brands.
“According to the four prime ministers, too much power is in the hands of a small number of technology companies”
The pandemic has once again emphasized Europe’s dependence. Information technology has made it possible to continue operations, education and healthcare more or less. But thanks to foreign products and infrastructures. According to the four prime ministers, too much power is in the hands of a small number of tech companies. This leads to poor competition with the risk of unfair pricing, degraded quality and lack of innovation.
To enforce data security to some extent, Europe has introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR / AVG). The Americans say: ‘The United States is innovating, Europe is regulating’. Von de Leyen responds and notes that you must not only regulate but also “have the technology to anchor your own values.”
The topic of digital sovereignty has come up on the political agendas. What does TNO mean by this term? The organization defines it as ‘control over the design and use of (business) critical digital systems, algorithms and the data generated and processed with them’.
TNO has developed a model that shows where this control is needed. In the middle a block of digital technology layers: network and communication, data storage and cloud, information and data infrastructure, algorithms and applications.
Around it are blocks of items that affect the central block. A block of materials (needed to build the digital components; a block of ‘policies and business models’; a block of ‘disruptive developments’ (such as smaller and more powerful hardware); and finally a block of ‘new paradigms’ ( encryption, quantum computing).
The central part is now in the hands of ‘foreign countries’. Europe should aim at the “surrounding blocs” in order to exert its influence.
“According to TNO, there are four possible scenarios in which Europe can act”
According to TNO, four scenarios are conceivable where Europe can act, based on two drivers: international cooperation and light international trade. On the vertical axis at the top strong cooperation and at the bottom weak cooperation; on the horizontal axis left very light trade and right very weak trade.
The first scenario, called ‘open international cooperation’, is preferred because it offers the best opportunities at a level of digital sovereignty that preserves Europe’s societal values and social market economy (in the form of international cooperation and trade).
In the second scenario – ‘competitive coalitions’ – foreign parties work together, but many of them are affected by new deep structural breaches over the state’s role in regulating data flows, investment and advanced industrial and digital technology that have applications for national security.
The third scenario is called ‘Big Tech Dominance’, the scenario we are in now, foreign non-European parties acting unilaterally rather than cooperating, but innovation of digital technologies is ahead of regulation. There is a lack of interoperability and technological complementarity that limits a co – operation approach between foreign parties.
The fourth – “one-sided approach” – is the worst case. In this state, unilateral action and a high frequency of economic conflicts lead to a normalization of trade wars between large economies (see US and China). Trade and investment issues become political weapons in a broader geopolitical competition. In this scenario, the United States, China and Europe have a high degree of digital sovereignty at the expense of low trade friendliness and limited international cooperation.
The current state of digital sovereignty is unacceptable. TNO sees opportunities to reverse the trend. Such as the development of smaller, cheaper and more powerful hardware (such as batteries and antennas), new forms of encryption and the perfection of quantum technology.
Promising innovations, according to the research institute, are the development of 6G, the building of a European cloud (Gaia-X), the development and strengthening of market applications of decentralized data infrastructures based on a collaborative business state, the development of edge computing, finally: advice on ( worldwide) laws and regulations to protect standards and values (eg to protect the privacy of platform users).
TNO is already active in most of these areas.