Europe's data strategy aims to tip the scales away from big tech

Natasha Lomas
·9 min read

Google wants to organize the world's information but European lawmakers are in a rush to organize the local digital sphere and make Europe "the most data-empowered continent in the world", internal market commissioner Thierry Breton said today, setting out the thinking behind the bloc's data strategy during a livestreamed discussion organized by the Brussels-based economic think tank, Bruegel.

Rebalancing big data power dynamics to tip the scales away from big tech is another stated aim.

Breton likened the EU's ambitious push to encourage industrial data sharing and rebalance platform power to work done in the past to organize the region's air space and other physical infrastructure -- albeit, with a lot less time to get the job done given the blistering pace of digital innovation.

"This will require of course political vision -- that we have -- and willingness, that I believe we have too, and smart regulation, hopefully you will judge, to set the right rules and investment in key infrastructure," said Breton.

During the talk, he gave a detailed overview of how the flotilla of legislative proposals which are being worked on by EU lawmakers will set rules intended to support European businesses and governments to safely unlock the value of industrial and public data and drive the next decades of economic growth.

"We have been brave enough to set our rules in the personal data sphere and this is what we need to do now for government and public and industrial data. Set the rules. The European rules. Everyone will be welcome in Europe, that's extremely important -- provided they respect our rules," said Breton.

"We don't have one minute to lose," he added. "The battle for industrial data is starting now and the battlefield may be Europe so we need to get ready -- and this is my objective."

EU lawmakers are drafting rules for how (non-personal) data can be used and shared; who will get access to them; and how rights can be guaranteed under the framework, per Breton. And he argued that concerns raised by European privacy challenges to international data transfers -- reflected in the recent Schrems II ruling -- are not limited to privacy and personal data.

"These worries are in fact at the heart of the Single Market for data that I am building," he said. "These worries are clear in the world we are entering when individuals or companies want to keep control over its data. The key question is, therefore, how to organize this control while allowing data flow -- which is extremely important in the data economy."

An open single European market for data must recognize that not all data are the same -- "in terms of their sensitivity" -- Breton emphasized, pointing to the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) data protection framework as "the proof of that".

"Going forward, there are also sensitive industrial data that should benefit from specific conditions when they are accessed, used or shared," he went on. "This is a case for instance for some sensitive public data [such as] from public hospitals, but also anonymized data that remains sensitive, mixed data which are difficult to handle."

At one point during the talk he gave the example of European hospitals during the pandemic not being able to share data across borders to help in the fight against the virus because of the lack of a purpose-built framework to securely enable such data flows.

"I want our SMEs and startups, our public hospitals, our cities and many other actors to use more data -- to make them available, to value them, to share them -- but for this we need to generate the trust," he added.

The first legislative plank of the transformation to a single European data economy is a Data Governance Act (DGA) -- which Breton said EU lawmakers will present tomorrow, after a vote on the proposal this afternoon.

"With this act we are defining a European approach to data sharing," he noted on the DGA. "This new regulation will facilitate data sharing across sectors and Member States. And it will put those who generate the data in the driving seat -- moving away from the current practices of the big tech platforms.

"Concretely, with this legislation, we create the conditions to allow access to a reuse of sensitive public data, creating a body of harmonized rules for the single market."

A key component of building the necessary trust for the data economy will mean creating rules that state "European highly sensitive data should be able to be stored and processed in the EU", Breton also said, signalling that data localization will be a core component of the strategy -- in line with a number of recent public remarks in which he's argued it's not protectionist for European data to be stored in Europe.

"Without such a possibility Member States will never agree to open their data hold," Breton went on, saying that while Europe will be "open" with data, it will not be offering a "naive" data free-for-all.

The Commission also wants the data framework to support an ecosystem of data brokers whose role Breton said will be to connect data owners and data users "in a neutral manner" -- suggesting this will empower companies to have stronger control over the data they generate, (i.e the implication being rather than the current situation where data-mining platform giants can use their market power to asset-strip weaker third parties).

"We are shifting here the product," he said. "And we promote also data altruism -- the role of sharing data, industrial or personal, for common good."

Breton also noted that the forthcoming data governance proposal will include a shielding provision -- meaning data actors will be required to take steps to avoid having to comply with what he called "abusive and unlawful" data access requests for data held in Europe from third countries.

"This is a major point. It is not a question of calling into question our international judicial or policy cooperation. We cannot tolerate abuses," he said, specifying three off-limits examples ("unauthorized access; access that do offer sufficient legal guarantees; or fishing expeditions), adding: "By doing so we are ensuring that European law and the guarantees it carries is respected. This is about enforcing our own rules."

Breton also touched on other interlocking elements of the policy strategy which regional lawmakers see as crucial to delivering a functional data framework: Namely the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA) -- which are both due to be set out in detail early next month.

The DSA will put "a clear responsibility and obligation on platforms and the content that is spread", said Breton.

While the companion ex ante regulation, the DMA, will "frame the behaviours of gatekeepers -- of systemic actors in the Single Market -- and target their behaviors against their competitors or customers"; aka further helping to pin and clip the wings of big tech.

"With this set of regulation I just want to set up the rules and that the rules are clear -- based on our values," he added.

He also confirmed that interoperability and portability will be a key feature of the EU's hoped for data transformation.

"We are working on this on several strands," he said on this. "The first is standards for interoperability. That's absolutely key for sectoral data spaces that we will create and very important for the data flows. You will see that we will create a European innovation data board -- set in the DGA today -- which will help the Commission in setting and working the right standards."

While combating "blocking efforts and abusive behaviors" by platform gatekeepers -- which could otherwise put an artificial limit on the value of the data economy -- will be "the job of the DMA", he noted.

A fourth pillar of the data strategy -- which Breton referred to as a "data act" -- will be introduced in 2021, with the aim of "increasing fairness in the data economy by clarifying data usage rights in business to business and business to government settings".

"We will also consider enhanced data portability rights to give individuals more control -- which is extremely important -- over the data they produce," he added. "And we will have a look at the intellectual property rights framework."

He also noted that key infrastructure investments will be vital -- pointing to the Commission's plan to build a European industrial cloud and related strategic tech investment priorities such as in compute power capacity, building out next-gen connectivity and support for cutting edges technologies like quantum encryption.

Privacy campaigner Max Schrems, who had been invited as the other guest speaker, raised the issue of enforceability -- pointing out that Ireland's data protection authority, which is responsible for overseeing a large number of major tech companies in the region, still hasn't issued any decisions on cross-border complaints filed under the 2.5 year old GDPR framework.

Breton agreed that enforcement will be a vital piece of the puzzle -- claiming EU lawmakers are alive to the problem of enforcement "bottlenecks" in the GDPR.

"We need definitely clear, predictable, implementable rules -- and this is what is driving me when I am regulating against the data market. But also what you will find behind the DSA and the DMA with an ex ante regulation to be able to apply it immediately and everywhere in Europe, not only in one country, everywhere at the same time," he said. "Just to be able to make sure that things are happening quick. In this digital space we have to be fast."

"So we will again make sure in DSA that Member State authorities can ask platforms to remove immediately content cross-border -- like, for example, if you want an immediate comparison, the European Arrest Warrant."

The Commission will also have the power to step in via cooperation at the European level, Breton further noted.

"So you see we are putting in rules, we are not naive, we understand pretty well where we have the bottleneck -- and again we try to regulate. And also, in parallel, that's very important because like everywhere where you have regulation you need to have sanctions -- you will have appropriate sanctions," he said, adding: "We learn the lessons from the GDPR."