France’s new mantra: freedom, equality, digital sovereignty

When European governments declared January 28 Data Privacy Day in 2006, few in the United States took the decision seriously. It took three years for the US Congress to follow suit and recognize this date as an opportunity to commit to data privacy. Today, as France takes new steps to reduce Europe’s exposure to American (and to some extent Chinese) technological dominance, the United States can no longer afford to be caught to take a nap.

France holds the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers of the European Union (EU) for the first half of 2022, an ideal perch to pursue its digital ambitions. As well as presiding over an endless parade of obscure Council meetings, the French are convening a two-day public conference, starting today, titled “Building Europe’s Digital Sovereignty.”

On Monday, the focus is on “the four pillars that underpin European digital sovereignty: security, innovation, regulation and values, and openness,” reviewing the steps the bloc has taken so far and planning future movements. (“Values” is often code for resisting the long arm of US intelligence and law enforcement agencies, but “openness” is a wink that balances traditional EU membership to free trade, albeit weakened.) Tuesday will be dedicated to “Feeding Europe’s Champions”, featuring the continent’s tech entrepreneurs, especially those in small businesses.

This is not just another manifestation of the EU’s penchant for conference-based policy-making. Waving the flag of digital sovereignty is good domestic policy for French President Emmanuel Macron, especially as the country’s presidential election draws near. Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire and Secretary of State for the Digital Economy Cédric O have been at the forefront of efforts to develop local alternatives to foreign cloud service providers. Last year, they launched a “trusted cloud strategy” (“cloud of trust) establishing French data protection criteria vis-à-vis American laws. Companies such as Microsoft and Google have created joint ventures with French partners to offer their services without interruption. France also intends to seek a local successor to Microsoft to host its COVID-related Health Data Hub (HDH).

But even those measures have proven insufficient to protect governments like Macron’s from domestic allegations that they are too comfortable with Big Tech. On January 25, Virginie Joron, a member of the right-wing Rassemblement national party of Macron’s presidential rival, Marine Le Pen, denounced the French government’s initial decision to let Microsoft host the HDH. “You have introduced American giants into the data of French administrations, at the very heart of the State”, she declaimed in the European Parliament, according to a Politics report. Center-right presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse voiced similar criticism of the role of US tech giants in a recent speech to the French parliament. The French left also intervened.

These national measures are accompanied by an ever-growing EU digital policy agenda. In 2019, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen argued that “it is not too late to achieve technological sovereignty” in critical technology areas. Thierry Breton, a former French tech executive who is now the EU’s top internal market official, has acted as a landmark for measures to promote European cloud service providers and seed continental advances in new technologies such as blockchain, quantum computing and semiconductors. Margrethe Vestager, the bloc’s competition chief, has made headlines with her drive to challenge the business practices of US tech giants.

The Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act, which aim to tackle the economic domination and social impact of powerful online platforms, are about to be enacted. The European Commission has proposed a law on artificial intelligence, aiming, among other things, to regulate the uses of AI in the fields of education, employment and public benefits. The EU has already enacted the Data Governance Act, which is expected to improve the sharing of government-held data with private sector entities willing to exploit it. A complementary bill, the Data Act, due to be proposed later this month, also aims to facilitate business-to-business and business-to-government sharing of primarily industrial data.

The concept of digital sovereignty thus plays both an offensive and defensive role in the French presidency of the EU. By organizing conferences and chairing meetings of the Member States of the grouping, the Macron government can contribute to advancing European digital legislation towards its conclusion. These efforts, along with domestic moves to stymie foreign cloud giants, can also help immunize Macron against accusations from his presidential rivals.

As Frances Burwell and I argued in a paper for the Atlantic Council in June 2020, almost all of the EU’s new digital legislative proposals aim to exercise greater control over European data. It is undeniable that the idea of ​​digital sovereignty is today a driving force in debates on European technology policy. And the ripple effect of decisions taken in Brussels and other European capitals will be felt across the Atlantic.

Kenneth Propp is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s European Center.

Further reading

Image: The logo of the six-month French Presidency of the European Union is seen during the EU Ministerial Conference “Building Europe’s Digital Sovereignty” at the Bercy Ministry in Paris, France, February 7, 2022 Photo by Sarah Meyssonnier/REUTERS

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