The digital revolution is happening now and Europe is under pressure to keep up with the pace of technological change.
That was the key message from European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, as she opened this year’s FT-ETNO Summit in Brussels last month. The EU digital economy and society chief was addressing leading policymakers, regulators, industry executives and investors who had gathered in the Belgian capital to discuss the EU’s place in a digitally-connected world.
In a speech focussing on leadership in an increasingly digitising world, Gabriel warned that Europe’s digital leadership was “not fully achieved” and “will not come by chance.
"It will depend on today’s decisions and today’s action.” She added, “Of course, Europe is in a strong position in many industrial sectors, such as photonics and robotics and its performance in connectivity is globally satisfactory. But we are still underinvesting in new technologies and are lacking world-class online players.”
Reacting to concerns raised by several telecoms CEOs that overregulation and Europe’s slow roll out of key technologies such as 5G and Artificial Intelligence was putting the EU’s competitiveness at risk, Gabriel said, “The issue of digital leadership has never been more central for our common future in Europe. The digital shift comes with a massive redistribution of cards, changing the established order on both the economical and societal points of views, with new winners and new losers, among people, companies and countries.”
The message from the commissioner was clear: Europe will not be exempt from the massive economic and social disruption that the fourth industrial revolution will cause and Europe’s hopes of strengthening its digital leadership rest in a collective approach rather than simply a regulatory one.
“Today, the centre of gravity of the digital world stands on the other side of the Atlantic, and now increasingly in China. Knee-jerk reactions will not be enough to meet this challenge,” said Gabriel, adding, “The good news is that we have started to answer these challenges in the EU since 2015, with the establishment of our Digital Single Market (DSM).”
“Knee-jerk reactions will not be enough to meet this challenge” European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel
For the commissioner, the EU’s DSM, with its focus on competitiveness, innovation and fundamental values, is the most comprehensive and ambitious attempt to drive a continent to the digital age.
She told the audience that, in the last four years alone, the EU had put forward more than 60 initiatives, each “aimed at protecting European citizens.”
Following the commissioner’s remarks, further comment came from John Suffolk, global cyber security and privacy officer at Huawei. In a panel discussion about privacy, he told the conference that the GDPR regulation introduced in Europe earlier this year should be seen as a “superset” of many similar laws around the world, adding, “I think we also need to be realistic here because GDPR has not tried to answer every question and it will take some time for regulators to align their thinking.”
He pointed out that his company operates in more than 180 countries and has to “obey the laws in every country” in which it is present. “When you examine all the countries that have privacy laws in some shape or form, over 100 of them are still aligned to old data protection laws although many are now beginning to align to GDPR.”
When asked how important the UK, for example, was for his company’s 5G goals, he stressed, “We want to be successful in every country. At the end of the day, we are a commercial business so we start with some simple principles such as asking: what is the law of the land and what is it that our customers want?”
He expressed confidence that his company could provide 5G in a majority of countries but added, “We also need to be honest here because different countries take a different approach to inward investment and trade. We never start by saying we must do business in 100 per cent of countries in the world. But we would still fully expect to participate in 5G globally, including the UK, because we are one of the leading producers of the technology.”
“We need to shift the debate back to first principles because if we don’t the technology will rush ahead before policymakers have thought about how to control the AI solution” John Suffolk, global cyber security and privacy officer, Huawei
Turning to the issue of AI (Artificial Intelligence), Suffolk said, “We need to shift the debate back to first principles. If we don’t, the technology will rush ahead before policymakers have thought about how to control the AI solution.”
He went on to state that it was important “not to conflate the issues of consumer personal privacy with national security” because the two were “very, very different."
"The reality is that governments around the world have always had the ability, even in a non-digital world, to demand access to information about our personal property and banking details. For whatever reason, governments have not been clear in terms of what is the right policy and legal framework in a digital world. I think that is because, in essence, governments basically have not shown strong leadership.”
He added that governments “need to get off the fence” in deciding the balance between national security and personal privacy.