From Beijing to Brussels, Washington to London, tech sovereignty has become the buzzword of the moment in capitals around the world. With the internet now one of the main theatres of rising political tension, it is no surprise that governments are seeking to maximise their influence over its future. But clawing back control over the various layers of the technology stack – from physical infrastructure to app ecosystems – will not only lead to a more fragmented and less open internet, it will also do little to solve the fundamental power imbalances at the root of so many of the problems we face in the digital economy today.
So what is the alternative? If Europe wants to chart its own digital future, it should instead focus on building public digital infrastructure. By redistributing power over technology, rather than seizing it, Europe can empower users around the world to benefit from and participate in the digital economy on their own terms. The European Commission’s ambitious COVID-19 recovery funds and the accompanying Digital Decade strategy offer a unique opportunity to do just that.
If we accept that the internet will remain one of the main geopolitical battlegrounds in the coming decades, can any (aspiring) superpower afford to remain a spectator in shaping its future? It’s a question that has been dominating Brussels for the past couple of years, with the push for technological sovereignty (or “strategic autonomy”, to use the Commission’s more benign term) as its leitmotif. To bolster these efforts, the Commission has recently launched its new Digital Decade strategy, in which it articulates a vision for how Europe can become a leading actor in the global technology sphere by 2030. The plan sets a number of ambitious targets, ranging from relocalising data and reducing dependencies on key resources, to reshoring key nodes of the supply chain, for example through doubling its share of global semiconductor production to 20%.
These efforts are for the most part very welcome. If Europe wants to take the lead in shaping a better future internet, it shouldn’t content itself with just playing the role of the referee. It must also become a player. That means becoming more proactive in building its own digital alternatives and solutions.
In recent years, Europe has been able to flex its muscle as a regulatory superpower, harnessing the so-called Brussels Effect to not just set high standards within the EU, but also to export these principles further afield. The global proliferation of data protection regulation modelled after the GDPR shows what this can look like in practice. But while these interventions have gone some way to address the broken and exploitative business models internet giants rely on, we must also acknowledge they have not yet led to the emergence of more democratic and human-centric alternatives many had hoped for.
The renewed political discourse on technological sovereignty, in combination with the significant COVID-19 recovery funds (20% of which have been earmarked to help facilitate the twin green and digital transition), offers Europe an opportunity to build actual, value-led alternatives. Europe should no longer be overly reliant on innovation it has played no role in shaping; systems that do not embrace the values it holds dear. The continent thus needs to become a technology maker, rather than a technology taker. In doing so, we would not only create a Union more resilient to external shocks and geo-political posturing, but also engender more opportunities for European values to be embedded in R&D processes.
But we must also be careful: internet sovereignty is a muddled term that means very different things to different people. Under the banner of ‘strategic autonomy’, we are already witnessing a growing push to create national champions, heralding in a new era of counterproductive protectionism. French President Emmanuel Macron just last month said that he wanted to see ten European tech giants valued over €100 billion by 2030; a group of leading startups from across the continent has called for a €100 billion tech sovereignty fund to support the emergence of more ever-illusive unicorns.
Joining the R&D bandwagon to build our own European giants to compete with Shenzhen and Silicon Valley will however not solve the underlying challenges at the heart of the current digital economy. These new European champions would still be forced to operate under the existing rules of the game, rely on the same exploitative business models and would thus risk only perpetuating existing problems. Developing a technology in Europe does not necessarily mean it is developed in line with European values; sticking a “Made in the EU” sticker on is not enough.
Because rather than try to build the next Google, should we not focus on building the infrastructures that prevent the next Google instead?
Europe should move away from pursuing this ‘domestic superstars’ strategy to an approach focused on creating a more vibrant and diverse ecosystem of smaller digital applications, technologies and infrastructures. Because rather than try to build the next Google, should we not focus on building the infrastructures that prevent the next Google instead?
On today’s internet, power is concentrated in the hands of very few actors who increasingly control what we read and what we see. We’re living in a winner-takes-all digital economy, where the tendency tends to be towards ever more concentration, both within and across layers of the system. In pursuit of vertical integration, the large platforms increasingly own the internet’s underlying physical infrastructures and dominate opaque but vital standard-setting processes. The business models underpinning the digital economy reward this kind of concentration and consolidation – with the most powerful actors, those who have access to most data, now acting as essential infrastructure in their own right. But unlike publicly owned infrastructure, these unaccountable companies get to set the rules and extract profits without regard to the public interest.
Google’s announced ban of third-party cookies on its Chrome browser, nominally a move to protect users’ privacy, is a particularly illustrative example of how this gatekeeper power is exerted. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, might have a whole range of solutions under its umbrella, it still derives the bulk of its astronomical revenues through advertising (80% as a matter of fact!). Alphabet also happens to own the world’s largest browser – and so gets to set the rules for how others (in this case other shadowy adtech companies) get to operate on said browser, with little accountability or opportunity for timely interventions by regulators. While advertising technology companies are an unlikely ally in the fight for a better internet, it is difficult not to see the harmful competition implications of Google’s cookie-cutting move. Should we really allow a single entity to both govern and control vital infrastructure and compete for the opportunity to use it?
In an effort to curb the power of Big Tech, we see growing momentum to break up these companies. This idea has particularly started to gain real traction in the United States, where the recent appointment of Lina Khan as FTC chair was seen as a clear signal of the Biden administration’s ambitions in this space. Competition policy and regulation remain vital ingredients of any policy approach that seeks to build a more open and fairer internet, but they aren’t a panacea. We must move away from a government response that predominantly deals with treating the symptoms of a fundamentally broken system, and become much bolder and imaginative about designing systems that prevent getting us in this mess to begin with.
Public digital infrastructure could, for example, provide all internet users with the means to control their own digital identity and personal data online, empowering us to share what we want, with whomever we want, on our own terms.
Building public digital infrastructure is a particularly powerful way of getting directly at the root causes of the problem. Public digital infrastructure could, for example, provide all internet users with the means to control their own digital identity and personal data online, empowering us to share what we want, with whomever we want, on our own terms. Developers of apps and services would be able to tap into these user-generated data commons in a way that is accountable and fair, rather than feel compelled to amass their own data lakes in order to compete. No single centralised entity – public or private – would control this underlying model; instead, the system would be governed on the basis of a shared set of rules and protocols for, for example, interoperability, data portability and security. Such an approach would help us move away from a platform economy, where one player owns a whole suite of tools, towards a protocol-based economy, in which we could see a collaborative ecosystem of smaller, interoperable solutions and applications emerge.
Civil society, trusted public institutions, academia, and the public-interest technology community should be empowered to collaboratively shape the rules, standards and governance models underpinning this model. To allow such a multistakeholder approach to flourish, there is an important role to play for the European Commission as a convener and funder. European institutions would provide the means to ensure governance processes stay open, inclusive and accessible, provide the funding for independent oversight, continuous maintenance and security auditing of underlying technologies and protocols, and support the development of user-friendly solutions on top of these infrastructures. The latter should be encouraged through the establishment of a dedicated Free-and-Open-Source (FOSS) Fund. Generating such an ecosystem would be a departure from the usual role powerful institutions like the European Commission are comfortable playing, but a necessary one in a time when existing policy paradigms have proven to no longer be fit for purpose.
There is growing momentum around the idea of public digital infrastructure, particularly in Europe and the United States.
There is growing momentum around the idea of public digital infrastructure, particularly in Europe and the United States. To name but a few: there is Ethan Zuckerman’s work on reimagining the internet, and BBC R&D’s proposal for a public-service internet. Waag in the Netherlands has set out a pioneering model for the Public Stack. There is the work of the SDEPS coalition, which brings together civil society organisations from across Europe (Nesta is a founding member), and the PublicSpaces initiative, spearheaded by Europe’s unique network of large public broadcasters. There are significant overlaps between the various models these different initiatives propose, but also differences in language and approaches – a more pluriform, collaborative model for the internet would allow for this kind of diversity.
The NGI Forward Project and Nesta have often made the case for public digital infrastructure, for example in our reflections on the emergence of the splinternet (End of the Web, 2017), through Geoff Mulgan’s work on data commons, and our Roadmap for the Future Internet (2020). We are now finalising a white paper that turns these ideas into an actionable policy agenda.
In our view, the key to making public digital infrastructure work hinges on striking the right balance between centralisation and decentralisation. While a grassroots approach would make it difficult to gain the requisite traction, a government-first approach would struggle to build sufficient public trust. To get the balance right, we propose the following three key ingredients:
It is becoming clear that many of the fundamental pillars underpinning the digital economy are crumbling, that the internet itself just works for the few, not the many. The good news is that we have all the technical and governance building blocks at our disposal, as well as the political momentum on our side, to radically rethink how we want the internet to work instead. The European Commission must seize the unique opportunity it now has to take the lead on building these proposed new kinds of public digital infrastructure. The internet is an important public good; it is time we treat it as such.
This blog is based on a series of recent keynote talks I gave on the need for public digital infrastructure, including at the STRP Festival and PublicSpaces conference. The NGI Forward team at Nesta are currently in the process of finalising a white paper that sets out what the various building blocks and governance models underpinning such a model could look like. If you are interested in discussing these ideas (or would like to be in the NGI or SDEPS coalitions) do please get in touch.
Picture credit: Danil Canionsky via Unsplash