February 21, 2014
Protectionism is not the answer to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s doubts about control of the internet, says DIGITALEUROPE’s John Higgins.
This weekend, Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, said that at a Franco-German summit in Paris on Wednesday (19 February) she would discuss EU-based alternatives to the current US-dominated internet infrastructure.
It is great to see a European leader of chancellor Angela Merkel’s stature engaging in the debate about digital issues that will have a long term impact on Europe’s economic standing in the world.
I share her desire to see the creation of world-class European providers of digital products and services, and I agree on the need to build an online environment in Europe that is secure, and that inspires confidence among Europe’s citizens.
Three elements are needed to achieve these two inter-connected goals. First, data protection law needs to be robust, consistent and flexible.
Robust enough to re-assure citizens as they engage with networked technologies; consistent in the sense that one set of rules applies to the whole continent, giving companies the legal certainty they need to do business across the EU; and flexible enough to meet the needs of a wide range of different types of data, with differing levels of sensitivity.
Second, Europe and her allies need a coordinated response to the way security agencies have been accessing citizens’ data. Keeping data in Europe won’t keep it safe from the spies. Efforts must focus on making security agencies more transparent and establishing rules of engagement to prevent them trawling through personal data of innocent citizens unless it’s necessary for our security.
And third, Europe’s politicians must create an environment that will help foster world-class technology companies. This means more investment in R&D and infrastructure, better teaching of the skills needed in a digital economy, and tax and investment conditions that encourage entrepreneurs to pursue their ideas here, instead of in Silicon Valley.
Some people interpret Chancellor Merkel’s comments over the weekend as a call to protectionist arms. I disagree. Mrs Merkel knows that setting up barriers to the free flow of data beyond Europe’s borders would, like all protectionist measures, provoke a race to the bottom that would harm all trading partners, and all industries that rely on data – in other words all industries.
If Europe forced companies to keep all data within EU boundaries this would undermine its negotiating position with other trading partners around the world who are also considering taking protectionist measures to preserve local companies from competition from abroad.
If protectionism is allowed to take root this would spell the end of an open Internet, and instead of being an open and dynamic environment, the Web would become Balkanised.
By putting up barriers at Europe’s borders, we would be throwing away huge potential for Europe in terms of innovation in a wide range of economic activities. Technologies that are only now coming on stream rely heavily on data analytics, which in turn relies heavily on large datasets.
Isolating Europe’s data behind a protectionist wall will not only harm Europe’s economy as a whole. It will also harm Europe’s standing in scientific and medical research.
While our largest trading partners will be fully harnessing the potential of data analytics, Europe will be consigned to having data analytics lite, and will be put at a major disadvantage to other regions.
Europe must prevent the debate over data protection becoming a move towards data protectionism. I urge Chancellor Merkel and President Francois Hollande of France to keep this important and necessary debate on the right tracks when they meet later this week.
By John Higgins, director-general of DIGITALEUROPE
This Op-Ed was first published by the European Voice on 17 February 2014.digital-europe