Attitudes that explain why ‘Europe is behind’

agosto 14, 2019


Pubblicato In: Giornali, Varie


Philip Stephens is correct: there is certainly no bigger mistake than to confuse cause and effect (“Europe must set its own digital rules”, August 9). But if Europe lags behind the US in the knowledge economy, and now in the race for artificial intelligence, that is the cause of its lacking “companies of sufficient scale to compete with the Americans”, of its struggling “to nurture a culture of innovation”, and of not producing “enough top-flight computer scientists”; in no way can it be the effect. Companies don’t grow, and people don’t choose, in a vacuum.

For Mr Stephens, the success of corporate Silicon Valley is due to the personal data being “scooped up without asking permission”, to its indulging “in aggressive tax avoidance”, and to its “blithely ignoring competition rules”. But he fails to mention that the General Data Protection Regulation, issued by Brussels, is increasingly being accepted as the rule by Big Tech companies, which don’t believe it will impede their growth. Furthermore, “tax avoidance” is in reality a tax suspension that was granted to all multinationals as long as they kept their earnings parked in a tax haven (a regime now significantly changed by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and the adoption of Global Intangible Low Taxed Income). Nor do acquisitions they made contrast with Robert Bork’s interpretation of American antitrust.

Above all, Mr Stephens fails to acknowledge that at the end of the last century in Silicon Valley a liberal counterculture tied together values of spontaneous communities and of personal liberty: the free space of the web was where their request for connectedness was met by the offer of connectivity from the industry.

All these failures reveal a cultural and political attitude that may well be the reason that “Europe is behind”.


Europe must set its own digital rules

di Philip Stephens – Financial Times, 9 agosto 2019

A new team will shortly tip up at the EU’s shiny Brussels Commission. Headed by the German
politician Ursula von der Leyen, it will be looking for ways to promote faster economic growth and
to maximise European influence in an unstable, unpredictable world. I offer a modest proposal.
Europe should build a distinct framework for the digital economy — an ecosystem in which
technology businesses flourish on terms set by, well, Europeans.
The fashion is to fret about a splintering of the internet. The founding US model is challenged by
China’s walled garden. Russia and other authoritarian states are following Beijing’s lead. European
regulators have been challenging the anti-competitive practices of US technology titans and
suggesting they pay a half-decent amount of tax.
For those who did not believe that the cold war marked the end of history and a permanent
American hegemony, this fragmentation always seemed pretty inevitable. In spite of the immense
corporate clout of a handful of companies such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook, national
political and cultural preferences at some point would assert themselves. The internet has become
too big an actor in national political life to remain the property of a bunch of super-rich west coast
libertarians.
The pressing question for Europe is whether it is content to hang on the coat-tails of the US and/or
China or wants to create its own architecture. The answer should be obvious. If there is an
American internet and a Chinese internet, there should also be a European one — a framework in
which Europeans can make their own decisions about data and privacy, free expression and state
security, and taxation and competition.
No one European nation has the heft to go it alone. But with the General Data Protection
Regulation and a series of competition and tax rulings, the European Commission has shown that,
acting as one, the EU has the economic and political weight to be a rulemaker rather than rule
taker.
For the libertarian high priests of digitalisation all this is a terrible heresy. Nothing could be more
damaging than a splintering of the digital world. The web must be a single space, blind to national
borders and free of state interference.
Corporate Silicon Valley has other objections. Technological progress, it says, demands no-touch
regulation. The disrupters must be free of all constraint to, well, disrupt. Sure, they might scoop up
all our personal data without asking permission, indulge in aggressive tax avoidance and blithely
ignore competition rules. But the race for machine-learning and artificial intelligence cannot be
run on analogue rules.
The pitch, heard from the armies of well-heeled lobbyists deployed by these businesses, is
seductive. It is also built on clay. Balkanisation has already happened. The rupture may be at its
most obvious in China, but autocratic regimes across the world are building their own national
firewalls.
Unpleasant dictators are not alone in their reluctance to cede control to a handful of technology
companies. Reasonably enough, democratic governments want some oversight of the digital
businesses operating within their borders. They have to answer to their voters. Why should citizens
of, say, Munich or Marseille, find that their rights to personal privacy or the balance between
upholding free expression and effective security against terrorists is set by the denizens of Palo
Alto?
Europeans have their own views about where the market economy should begin and end. They
disapprove when companies pay pitiful amounts of tax on billions of dollars in earnings. They ask
why such companies imagine themselves exempt from laws designed to prevent them from
snuffing out more innovative challengers.
At this point, the lobbyists wheel out the big gun. The future of the world, they whisper, will be
decided by the global race to master AI. The US and China are ahead, and Beijing’s disdain for
privacy rights gives it an edge. So Europe must think hard. Does it want to fall out of the race by
setting up a new panoply of rules?
Europe is behind. The mistake is to confuse cause and effect. Europe’s problem is not one of overstringent privacy laws or high digital taxes. Rather, it lacks companies of sufficient scale to compete
with the Americans, it struggles to nurture a culture of innovation and it does not produce enough
top flight computer scientists. These are not challenges to be met by signing up to American rules.
Even should they want to, European governments cannot avoid public demands for a say in the
shaping of the digital future. Advances in machine-learning and AI will increase the potential
conflicts. It is not enough to tell those seeking public accountability that when their data are stolen
they should have a quiet chat with that nice Mr Zuckerberg, or to protest there is nothing to be
done about the way Google rigs its search results.
The outgoing European Commission made a good start by taming some of the worst excesses of the
technology giants and setting privacy standards way beyond Europe with GDPR. What is needed
now is an architecture for the European internet that includes not just robust competition, tax and
privacy oversight, but incentives for research and ways to share Europe’s vast public data sets.
Otherwise, the spoils will indeed go to China and the US.

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