Internet supremacy

Cutting the Ties that Bind Us

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Can Europe unplug the United States?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The United States has traditionally exerted huge control over global Internet management, but the Snowden affair and Europe’s new drive to establish its own sphere of influence is eroding this.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Many major global Internet bodies, such as ICANN, are based in the United States.
    • Europe is beginning to build its own IT infrastructure independent of external influence.
    • A new study by a German and U.S. think tank has advised against so-called Internet sovereignty.
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  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

Information technology politics is a global beast and is determined by global players. The hi-tech mega-monopolies that dictate it come mostly from Silicon Valley in the United States – and they expand their grasp through lobbyists and industry standards that they set themselves.

In recent decades, their controling influence has proceeded relatively undisturbed. Scarcely anyone was interested in boring issues such as “telecommunications regulation.” But now more countries have developed their own technological interests and are struggling against entities that control Internet policies. One such organization is ICANN – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – which coordinates the Internet from its base in California and is strongly biased toward large American firms.

Ever since Edward Snowden’s revelations about massive data-mining by the U.S. National Security Agency, European countries have pursued their own IT and internal data storage systems. This is causing a great deal of anxiety in digital America.

The reaction from U.S. tech officials is always the same: Independence is useless, and it’s bad for the Internet and world peace and freedom. Don’t worry, they say, we’ll get this security issue fixed.

The reaction from U.S. tech officials is always the same: Independence is useless.

A whole series of politicians rehash this view obediently — most recently, the former E.U. commissioner for digital affairs, Neelie Kroes, at the Telekom Cyber Summit in Bonn, Germany. But the fact is, secure European IT would help to block superpower espionage. Controlling production processes, architectural sovereignty and adhering to German data-protection regulations would be absolute game-changers.

Local data storage and European routing — the requirement that data and e-mails from Europe to Europe can only be transmitted within the continent — make total sense. Of course, this will not prevent espionage, but it makes mass surveillance of Europe impossible.

These measures would have no effect on the oft-cited “free and open Internet” — whatever that is. Every website would remain accessible; innovation and communication could proceed unhindered, but without permanent, foreign access. Freedom would not be limited. It would be enabled.

But all the disinformation coming from American IT companies makes it clear that Silicon Valley is not concerned with peace and freedom, but with hard-nosed industrial politics. European IT would be a runaway export hit — at the expense of the United States and China. And data transfer regulated by Europe would be a massive loss to the business of these large devourers of Internet data.

European IT would be a runaway export hit — at the expense of the United States and China.

The success of U.S. tech influence is boosted by a trump card: American think tanks. These foundations and institutes often work without clear political or academic ties, but with fat accounts and explicit orders from industrial supporters to “manage perception.” They write “studies,” publish “research,” speak at conferences and organize discussions with carefully selected participants.

Now the think tanks are trying to work with German foundations to gain better access. In Berlin’s political circles, there are several small outposts for manipulating opinion. The most recent example of this subversive penetration is a study by the Global Public Policy Institute, a think tank in Berlin, on digital sovereignty in Europe.

The study was prepared with the help of the New American Foundation, a U.S. think tank. It piously recites the same false arguments against sovereignty and recommends only a single technology that is not relevant to U.S. business: encoding.  Independent opinion, European positioning and critical reflection are totally lacking.

The authors from GPPI have absolutely no expertise (being a web manager doesn’t count) and are incapable of evaluating technical or tactical feasibility, side effects and efficiencies. On the other hand, the co-authors from the New American Foundation are competent. But their independence is dubious – its sponsors include the Gates Foundation, Google, Facebook, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. All have clear interests in this issue.

So the study is just more propaganda from Silicon Valley. GPPI was obviously duped by the New America Foundation, but the paper will nonetheless find eager readers. The political establishment, general public and industrial circles are simply ill prepared to resist this guerrilla PR campaign camouflaged as serving community interest and scientific research.

It is a sad state of affairs. In the technological world, we Germans are the conscientious engineers and admonishing moralists, not the global leaders. We agree to be remote-controlled as long as we come out looking like the moral victors.

In the technological world, we Germans are the conscientious engineers and admonishing moralists, not the global leaders.

But that is dangerous, because the next battle for digital sovereignty is already upon us and could cost us dearly. It is a matter of architectures in Industry 4.0, Germany’s drive to computerize its factories, which will impact the entire world of machines. The superpowers are already making their first proposals for frameworks and standards.

We should take action. The softhearted complaints should be followed by a practical process. We know the route: More navigation instead of administration. Long-term strategies instead of reaction tactics. More expertise in the political arena. If there were one expert for every ten lawyers, we would have already won.

Then there could be true dialogue about the possibilities opened by independent IT in Europe, instead of the clamor for restrictions based on outdated approaches between industry and politics. There could be better underlying conditions for risk investors. And of course, there could be technological sovereignty. How are we supposed to design a digital society when we can’t touch its underlying structure?

Finally, we must be more cautious about attempts by American IT to control our interests from afar. Our decision-makers and commentators must develop and articulate their own European perspective, with sufficient depth and independent expertise. And they must be familiar with the agendas and procedures of the other players — including shadowy foundations and institutes, and their distant financial backers.

 

To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

 

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