A team of authors asked by the Policy Department of the European Parliament to provide a “visionary worldwide overview of new digital services” and to derive an action plan for MEPs has this week published its findings. Surprisingly, one of the key recommendations for the long-term is for the EU to build its own ‘European Internet’ – making direct comparisons to the ‘Great Firewall of China’.
China has long been criticised by Western countries, academics and companies for its locked down approach to the Internet. Through a combination of legislative and technological levers, China restricts access to foreign websites, information and internet traffic.
The criticism typically refers to the founding ambitions for the Internet, which were focused on open access for all and enabling the free exchange of ideas and information. It has been argued that China has used its ‘great firewall’ to limit opposition to its one party state and there have been reports of the government using control of the Internet to make citizen arrests.
For a detailed background read on the implications of China’s firewall, you can read resources here and here.
The report published this week by the European Union assesses a range of digital opportunities for the trading block across the short to long term. I won’t go into all the details, but it covers everything from 5G, to using DNA to provide personalised services, to brain controlled digital tech.
It seems that without any sense of irony, the authors of the report state:
The conceptual foundation for this report is benign and positive. We do not look too deeply into the risks and potentially dangerous scenarios, but rather attempt to understand the possible chances and opportunities.
They also go on to advise that the European Parliament take a “leading stance in the global digitalisation”. Not sure how globalisation squares with a territorial focused Internet, but we will leave that aside for one minute.
On the topic of a ‘European Internet’, the firewall idea is one of the key recommendations for the EU over the long term. The authors write:
The EU should include an action plan for a digital cloud – a European Internet – in the DSA [Digital Services Act]. This European Cloud would foster a European digital ecosystem based on data and innovation. It would drive competition and set standards. Foreign web services could become part of such a digital ecosystem but must adhere to the rules and standards of the EU – such as democratic values, data protection, data accessibility, transparency and user friendliness.
Technologically, it would require a top-level infrastructure, high-speed 5G or a 6G data network and a firewall. Setting up such a network would promote many European companies and therefore boost business and drive innovation.
Like the Chinese firewall, this European internet would block off services that condone or support unlawful conduct from third party countries.
It would appear that the ambition is to use the firewall to favour European technology companies, much in the way that China has been able to push its domestic tech into the hands of citizens by restricting access to international services.
That is one sure fire way to drive EU growth, but does limit consumer choice and international competition. That may be the aim, but it’s a very different scenario to the one EU citizens currently live.
Elsewhere, the report talks about the impact of COVID-19 and the need to aggressively pursue further digitisation. The report notes:
At the time of writing this report in March and April 2020 it becomes visible that digital technology has become the backbone of all aspects of European society. The shutdown of many EU countries due to COVID-19 (Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2) demonstrates how important a sophisticated digital infrastructure is to keep economies running even at a basic level. During quarantine and under curfews, digital services enable working from home for many people.
They also support private life, as digital services and e-commerce assists in providing the European population with food and supplies, entertainment, and the possibility to meet remotely. Governments and administrations in the EU can continue to govern and take decisions by digital teleworking and remote meetings. Without digital solutions the crisis would have had a worse impact.”
It’s hard to know at this point if this report will be taken at all seriously by the European Parliament. However, it’s an idea that will be highly controversial and will likely raise questions about what sort of market interaction the EU wants to have with the rest of the world. In addition, member states will likely – and rightly – have questions regarding the level of control this gives the EU.