Big Data Saving Transatlantic Ties in Hoodies and Suits

Is Big Data sparking or solving Europe's crisis with America? A guest editorial looks at the issue from both sides of the Atlantic.
Plugging the data gap.

San Francisco in the late fall: If you find yourself in a sinfully expensive California hotel with hundreds of people wearing hooded sweatshirts and strikingly tasteless T-shirts, then you know you are at a technology conference. The few, pale-faced people in suits seem truly flamboyant by contrast. They exude the sluggishness of old industry and the far-away authorities in Washington.

Added to the mix are a couple of flown-in Europeans, who often are met with a blend of pity, arrogance, and indignation against unwanted regulation. None of this is new. It’s routine in this part of this world, which essentially revolves around itself, despite its pretension to be global.

And yet this year is somewhat different. The debates are not limited to self-adulation and bragging about occasionally obscene capital injections. Heady visions of the future are mixed with a surprisingly clear interest in current flashpoints.

The world is on fire, even for these digital wizards in training: The markets for ideas from Silicon Valley threaten to break away given the excessive data collection by America’s intelligence services. Terrorists are using their once vaunted social networks for perfidious aims and in European capitals people are happy to talk about building a Euro cloud and bloviate about the destruction of the dominant U.S. Internet companies.

The token Europeans attending the conference suddenly feel important. But confronted with the question of how Europe, with its strategy of data separatism, plans to meet the geopolitical challenges and the erratic path of the U.S. government, the Europeans start to stammer embarrassingly. Those listeners don’t appear disappointed, but instead smugly look like their assumptions have been confirmed.

Scene change: A few days later in the western German city of Bonn. Deutsche Telekom is putting on its annual cyber security conference. Those wearing suits are in the clear majority, and the flamboyant participants are once again those in sneakers and hoodies. The United States is in attendance and absent at the same time. The country is present as a giant of digital industry and criticized as an international player. Absent in establishing trust since the NSA scandal.

The typical German indignation has given way to a certain helplessness. The call for American concessions is not nearly as confident as it was a year ago, during the storm over revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The token transatlantic guest, a representative from the U.S. State Department, knows how to make use of the disillusionment. He does not need to stammer. He gives an almost brilliant performance, in respect to friendliness and at the same time empty rhetoric, when asked about new forms of international cooperation.

A sense of resignation is palpable among many conference participants.

Do the conferences in California and along the Rhine simply represent temporary misunderstandings? Or are we experiencing a new dimension of transatlantic estrangement? The past few years have been among the darkest in the United States relations with parts of Europe, especially Germany. The disagreement during the Libya crisis, the mutual know-it-all attitudes during the financial crisis, Wikileaks and not least the Snowden revelations have shaken the relationship. On Germany’s side of the Atlantic anti-Americanism is flourishing and in the United States the opinion leaders of Europe are met with a growing lack of understanding.

There is already a shift from government to “googlement" when it comes to Big Data.

The recurring reference to “shared values” is worn out and sometimes even simply wrong, as is illustrated by the relationship between data security and privacy.

The age of digitalization reinforces this finding. The collection and use of data is even in the United States no longer the domain of the intelligence services. Contrary to some portrayals, the dependencies have already reversed. There is already a shift from government to “googlement.” Not every aspect of this development is necessarily negative, not every Internet company shirks its responsibility. Many crises cannot be solved without the support of the Big Data industry.

In addition to necessary regulation, there is also a need here for innovative, international concepts for cooperation. Washington is sidelined until the presidential elections in 2016. With the new Republican majority in Congress, Barack Obama is a lame duck. Though such leaders are known to still quack, the U.S. president will do this especially in his own country and over the Pacific. Therefore, the necessary pressure must come from Europe. And given the weakness in most of the European governments, people are looking to Germany.

As amazing as it sounds, Berlin could provide a conceptual proposal for both Big Data and the renewal of the transatlantic partnership.

To contact the author: [email protected]