Europe has disappeared from the state-of-the-art technology scene but the new Internet revolution is a unique opportunity for it to get back in the game.
The digital revolution is suddenly speeding up with the combination of platform companies, connected objects (of which there will be more than 20 billion by 2020), artificial intelligence and robotization. Already 4.5 billion people – out of a total of 7.6 billion – have entered the data era. Digital transformation is irreversible. But its values, structures, rules and players are undergoing a radical change.
The principles that governed the emergence of the Internet are the primacy given to innovation rather than the norm, network neutrality, free access to personal data and control of such data by operators, and self-regulation justified by the specificity of cyberspace. However, these principles are now untenable and obsolete.
The myth about Internet freedom and novelty is what created the Gafam oligopoly, backed by the US security apparatus. With a 3,500 billion dollar capitalization, Gafam can crush any form of competition, with the exception of China, which has developed its own network and national leaders: Baïdu, Alibaba – with its 25 billion dollars’ worth of transactions on national singles day –, Tencent (WeChat) and Didi. Furthermore, neutrality has proved to be incompatible with the development of professional uses, such as telemedicine, and of robotization, especially with regard to driverless vehicles. All of these demand speed, power and above all a high degree of guaranteed security.
Political and strategic upheavals in the digital economy are having even more impact. The polarization of jobs, incomes, businesses and regions is destabilizing the middle classes and fuelling the populism that is undermining democracies. Tax avoidance is depriving nations of essential resources. In return for deceptively free access, personal data is handed over, exploited and manipulated, and this threatens personal freedom. The refusal of social media to assume any responsibility whatsoever for content favors the spread of fake news as well as cyber-crime, Jihadism and attempts by démocratures [a combination of democracy and dictatorship] to manipulate democratic processes – as in the case of Russia during the US and French elections, and the referendums on Brexit and Catalonian independence. Finally, the digital economy and the development of artificial intelligence are areas of intense competition between the USA and China, which, as part of its ambition to attain world leadership, is using massive investment to supplant American technological domination.
This is a crucial moment in the digital revolution. A new Internet is emerging, based on differentiation, privatization, empowerment, regulation and confrontation. The critical nature of some operations and security constraints mean the prioritization of content and users according to uses: individuals and businesses for private exchanges, public services for the sovereign functions of the government. Tariff differentiation is intrinsic, depending on speed and on the level of security that is guaranteed. Access to the network is one of the essentials for ordinary citizens, for competitiveness in business and for making regions attractive – thus for inclusive growth. One of the main responsibilities of the authorities therefore becomes the cover, maintenance and resilience of the digital infrastructure. At the same time, it is essential to recognize and protect each individual’s right of ownership of his or her personal details, as by creating a restricted and protected cloud for critical uses.
The digital economy must come under the rule of law, in terms of the responsibility of platforms for the content they propagate, respect for the consumers who are themselves producers of data, competition and taxation. In the same way it is crucial for the digital economy to bear part of the cost it generates for society because of polarization effects, and to be responsible for its impact on the survival of democracy, conditioned by the pluralism of information and citizens’ critical reasoning.
The new Internet revolution is a unique opportunity for Europe to get back in the game, having disappeared from the state-of-the-art technology scene in which it once led the field in telecommunications in 2000. Because of its potential and its risks, the digital world is even more systemic than the financial markets. It is the perfect example of common property that it is the European Union’s job to protect and develop.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 12th February 2018)