How Europe Can Counter American And Chinese Big Tech

Google and Facebook’s power endanger democratic discourse. It is time to design an infrastructure for European social media platforms.

Google stand at Munich's trade fair
Google stand at Munich's trade fair
Jan-Hendrik Passoth


MUNICH — It has been a long time since the term digital technology stood for the promise of openness and the empowerment of the public and democracy alike. Nowadays, a handful of providers dominate the market, led by Google, Amazon and Facebook as well as their Chinese co-competitors, who are on the rise. But there is more at stake than dominating the market or utilizing data for advertisement purposes or providing consumerist enticement.

It is not just Europe's digital sovereignty that is at risk but everyone's, as well as our very ability to live together as a society. We find ourselves in a difficult situation, to say the least, if algorithms and analytic technology are controlled solely by technology giants, who determine visibility of content — especially in times in which democracy has been put under severe pressure by populists everywhere.

This has far-reaching consequences for democratic discourse across Europe. There is no transparency as to which criteria are applied to determine what content is deemed fit for dissemination, due to the fact that algorithms and analytic technology are considered trade secrets. But since these algorithms and analytic technologies are designed to increase the time spent on particular webpages and optimize targeted advertising, their content depends on the users' likes and dislikes and their interests, which in turn are calculated through analysis of the user's data. This endangers openness and diversity within the public space. At the moment, there is no possibility of democratically and legally ensuring that a balance is struck and difference of opinion cultivated. Public interests are subjugated and sacrificed to the optimization of business models.

The will to change the status quo is growing.

One of the reasons as to why Europe lacks digital sovereignty is due to the fact that Google, Facebook and Tencent are not just single providers of public products and platforms, but these companies are also — financially as well as intellectually — heavily invested in the basic digital infrastructure that makes up our digital experience. This goes from data centers and cloud systems via interfaces and frameworks to data-analyzing technology.

They did not create one central system but rather designed standards which encouraged companies to remain within their own digital "ecosystems." This behavior led to them establishing themselves, step-by-step, as the go-to infrastructure in varying fields.

Portable fingerprint reader — Photo: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA

Europe's attempts to find a solution were, so far, guided by thoughts of creating overarching regulations. But that in in itself is not enough. It also requires sustainable alternatives that cultivate solidarity and follow European norms and values. And there is no shortage of ideas for projects fostering alternative solutions. There is the potential for open cloud systems, data-protecting processes of machine-led translations and social networks that truly encourage diversity. But these will not come into being if political motivation and will are non-existent to unite these varying forces.

Users need control of their data and social media should foster diversity

It is, therefore, quite encouraging to see that the will to change the status quo is growing. Berlin and Paris, within the Treaty of Aachen, agreed to the creation of a European "digital platform for audiovisual and information content." This agreement, potentially, constitutes the right approach, if it is to be taken as the first step towards building an alternative, open and transparent infrastructure which could foster diversity of content and products. And it is, therefore, justified that researchers within the fields of computer and social science as well as social initiatives and cultural institutions support this endeavor.

The development itself, however, will have to be provided by the markets and societies concerned. But political drive could provide the impetus needed. To achieve this, three decisive steps need to be taken. Firstly, sound development programs supporting new and bundling existing initiatives aiding the development of public welfare technologies will have to be created. This will provide startups with independent financial support beyond the initial setup phase and will aid media and technology cooperation as well as social projects that have dedicated their operations to strengthening digital sovereignty.

Google, Facebook and Tencent are not just single providers of public products and platforms.

Secondly, it will need process-orientated coordination to bundle and amalgamate the dynamics of various projects, thereby creating an organically developed European digital "ecosystem." This could be achieved by a European coordination center, supported by a civil society digital oversight committee, which would function as a democratically legitimized supervisory authority. Ideally, the European coordination center would bundle public initiatives, define sponsoring goals, standards and interfaces by accumulating and providing technological, political and regulatory expertise.

And thirdly it will require pilot projects that will lead by good example. The Franco-German agenda to put the Treaty of Aachen into practice provides a chance to achieve all this. National and private broadcasters, publishers, scientific and cultural institutions as well as civil society activists could become a part of this "digital platform," thereby deciding on how cloud systems, search engines as well as filter and personalization systems should be designed to adhere to European norms and values and to provide users with a maximum of control over their data. The infrastructures created through this process could and would be accessible to other sectors from the very beginning, if they are based on open technologies and standards. This would ensure a step-by-step progression towards a complete, European digital ecosystem.

This process requires stamina, energy and imagination — attributes that are readily available within Europe. It is high time we put them to good use.

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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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