Europe is searching for a strategy for the digital world, and the digital world is searching for Europe.
At the same time as the European Commission was presenting its digital market strategy this week in Brussels, more than 6,000 Internet activists gathered in Berlin for the annual re:publica conference on digital culture. This year’s theme was “Finding Europe.”
What looks like a calendar coincidence has deep symbolism – because Europe and the digital world will only come together with difficulty.
That’s not so much an issue for 280 million Europeans who log in each month to Facebook or Google. But it’s a big problem for politics in Europe, which is in danger of losing the digital revolution race.
The executive arm of the European Union is now playing “catch-up,” according to E.U. Commissioner Günther Oettinger. After several unsuccessful attempts, Brussels wants to move toward a single digital market in Europe.
But if the E.U. follows through on proposals for a “European cloud” or “European Internet,” it will only be building walls that ensure Europe is left by the digital wayside.
Market dominance achieved through innovation doesn't justify government intervention – and surely doesn't warrant raising national drawbridges.
Those talking about defending the “digital sovereignty of Europe” – like Germany’s minister for economic affairs, Sigmar Gabriel – is still stuck in 19th century mercantile politics. That can’t work in a 21st century world, where moving information freely across borders is just as important as moving goods or capital.
Germany should want to be the world export champion not only in the old economy, but also in the new one. You can’t reach that goal with digital tollgates, but rather through innovation.
All too frequently, some in Germany forget that Google & Co. won their market dominance through creativity. It is good that European antitrust regulators are moving to guarantee that the U.S. Internet giant doesn’t now abuse its market position and stifle competition. But market dominance achieved through innovation alone doesn't justify government intervention – and surely doesn't warrant raising national drawbridges.
The E.U. Commission should keep this in mind as it investigates whether big U.S. tech companies hinder competition on the Internet. Market dominaation can turn into abuse of power, for example if barriers are built to keep newcomers out, or if customers’ privacy is violated. But as long as there is no sound proof, the presumption of innocence must also apply.
The former Swedish minister president, Carl Bildt, reminds us that European companies such as Ericsson developed dominance in network technology, like Google has on the Internet. Do Americans pillory the world market leader from Europe? Do they claim damages, as Mr. Gabriel has in the case against Google?
In an atmosphere heated by the recent NSA spying scandal, European politicians should not abuse antitrust regulations for their political goals.
It would be better if Europe accepted the competitive pressure to innovate. A single digital domestic market would be a strong innovation and growth engine. The E.U. has struggled for years to bring together the continent’s mishmash of differing regulations in the digital economy. European copyright laws are also a jumble of different rules for 28 E.U. nations.
One can say the same about the European data protection regulation, whose adoption has continually been slowed down by Germany. It is curious that Europeans get upset about the data-collecting mania of Facebook, but cannot manage to pass clear, European-wide regulations for the data hunters.
Internet activists at the re:publica conference in Berlin will have to search a long time before they “find” digital Europe. Politics on the continent still moves at a snail’s pace, while technology speeds ahead. It is more important now that politicians clear the way – and not build new hurdles.
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