EU defies big tech firms and proposes single data market

The European Commission outlines actions needed to enable the continent's digital success

A long-awaited digital strategy to enable Europe’s success in the data economy has launched, while reducing the reliance of European countries on services and products developed by companies based outside the region.

The wide-ranging plan launched by the European Commission (EC) outlines a set of measures and investments around data. It includes intentions to position Europe as a leader in defining standards in the development of data-driven technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition and other innovations, with a “human-centric” approach.

According to the proposals announced by the EC’s senior members Margrethe Vestager, Thierry Breton and Ursula von der Leyen, “technologies that work for the people” is one of the three objectives of the overall plan, which also aims to “create a fair and competitive economy”, as well as “an open, democratic and sustainable society”.

The EC’s ambition to “shape Europe’s digital future” covers everything from cyber security to critical infrastructures, digital education to skills, and democracy to media. “I want digital Europe to reflect the best of Europe – open, fair, diverse, democratic and confident,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EC.

Another major point of the proposed strategy includes the creation of a “single data market” by 2030, focused on four pillars: governance; enablers, skills and rolling-out of common European data spaces in certain economic sectors.

This is intended as a means to create conditions for European companies to compete on an equal footing with big tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple. According to press reports, the heads of these companies have all been to Brussels over the past few days to try to lobby policymakers, with limited success.

The EC wants European technology companies, regardless of their size, to be able to keep up with China and the US, where businesses are investing billions in gaining the edge in areas such as AI. On the other hand, Europe has yet to produce a tech giant of its own.

To allow for more competitiveness, the EC wants to effectively end Silicon Valley’s data stranglehold. The discourse is that citizens should be empowered to make decisions based on anonymised datasets, which should be available to any business.

The commission has also reinforced its plans to invest billions of euros in initiatives under the Horizon research and innovation programme, which includes a three-pronged strategy to build Europe’s AI and data capabilities.

The EC blueprint on this digital future detailed key actions of data-related plans, such as the creation of an European federation of energy-efficient and trustworthy cloud infrastructures and related services. This has a first implementation phase set for 2022, with a view to facilitating combined investments of €4bn to 6bn, of which the EC could aim at investing €2bn.

A European cloud services marketplace integrating the full stack of cloud service offering is also part of the plan, with implementation intended for 2022. Another key action is enhancing data portability rights for individuals under Article 20 of the General Data Protection Act (GDPR), giving them more control over who can access and use machine-generated data.

Trade body TechUK welcomed the EC’s data vision and noted that the UK shares many of the values outlined in the European strategy. “We also share many of the same challenges, such as getting responsible data innovation right and building public trust and confidence in data-driven technologies,” said TechUK’s associate director of technology and innovation, Sue Daley.

According to Daley, the data innovations that come from the EC’s strategy “will be key to the digital transformation of European organisations, society and individuals, including those in the UK”.

“To remain globally competitive, Europe must continue to be open to world-leading talent and innovation. The UK has a lot to contribute and stands ready to help,” she said.

The TechUK executive argued that the Open Data Institute’s work on data trusts is an example of a project that could provide a template for the creation of common EU data spaces.

“Pioneering initiatives from UK regulators, such as the FCA and ICO sandboxes, provide a useful blueprint for creating a more competitive European data industry,” Daley added.

The EC will now enter a consultation period that includes the debate over the recently launched AI whitepaper, with the process expected to last several months. A final digital strategy is expected for the end of 2020.

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