5 min

Digital Europe: real actions beyond good words

In Brussels, the French Presidency of the Council of the EU intends to make progress on the European issues of digital regulation and technological sovereignty. On digital markets and services, however, civil society expects strong measures in favour of competition, cybersecurity, and the protection of freedoms and data.

In a report entitled “Building and promoting national and European digital sovereignty,” French MPs Jean-Luc Warsmann (LR) and Philippe Latombe (LREM) call on France and Europe to put digital sovereignty at the heart of their political priorities. While the Covid-19 crisis has shown the dependence of France—and more generally of Europe—on non-European (often American) digital solutions and equipment, it has also brought to light new digital issues, ranging from the protection of health data to cybersecurity challenges.

To this end, the MPs set out 30 key proposals to “ensure the resilience of our infrastructure, trust our technology companies, put digital sovereignty at the heart of public action, and put the citizens at the heart of digital policies.”

But how is the reality on the ground? What are the challenges of European digital technology for civil society?

On 20 January, the French National Assembly’s Higher Committee on Digital Affairs and Postal Services organised a conference entitled “The French Presidency’s priorities in the digital field: What are the challenges for our citizens and businesses?”

Mireille Clapot, its President, began by saying that she was “fully aware of the questions and fears of our fellow citizens about the growing role of the Gafa and their platforms in our daily lives, our dependence on these major non-European players, the use of our personal data, the attacks on our sovereignty, and the exponential growth of cybercrime.” She added: “whether we are citizens, companies, administrations, local authorities, or the State, we are all experiencing to varying degrees this asymmetrical relationship with the digital giants, which are mostly American.” 

What about individual freedoms?

On 9 December, Emmanuel Macron presented the priorities of the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union (FPEU), particularly in the area of digital regulation and technological sovereignty. He hoped that the Digital Markets Act (DMA)—which aims to guarantee fair competition in the digital market—and the Digital Services Act (DSA)—which will regulate online content and services—would be completed during the French Presidency.

But some people doubt the true scope of these texts, fearing that they will never be applied. This is the case of Arthur Messaud, a lawyer at Quadrature du Net, who believes that “the EU has not taken any significant measures to deal with the infringements of the Gafa” in terms of the General Data Protection Regulation: “Only a few minor sanctions on detailed points of the activity of Google and Facebook,” he regrets. In the discussions on the DSA and DMA, “nobody cares if these acts will really be applied to control the opponents of the European economy and freedom. So we are very worried about the future.”

Upstream dialogue

However, Benoit Tabaka, Director, Government Affairs and Public Policy at Google France, reckoned that “the two texts come at the right time” and respond to “a need for clarification” on the part of platforms, which are faced with “contradictory injunctions”: “On the one hand, the E-Commerce Directive asks us to be totally passive with regard to published content; on the other hand, civil society and public authorities expect us to play a proactive role in detecting and deleting extreme content (such as child pornography or terrorism), misinformation posts, and fake news,” he said. In his view, the two acts “will provide platforms with a regulatory framework around content moderation and the way they operate on European markets.” Similarly, “they will establish a real dialogue with the regulatory authorities, which will no longer be downstream but upstream of the publication of content, and on which platforms will be able to rely, in particular to identify problems, work on them, and then jointly devise solutions,” he explains. “Google supports these two regulations and asks that they be adopted within the next 12 months!”

Competitive, cyber, and environmental obligations

On the side of professional digital users, Jean-Claude Laroche, General Delegate of Cigref, hopes that the two acts will impose a certain number of obligations on the major software publishers and cloud players. “For us, one of the main issues—in addition to the protection of data in the cloud and the impact of digital technology on the environment—is to reduce certain unfair practices towards companies, such as the impossibility of changing suppliers/publishers, of accessing these markets, and of keeping control over our data,” he said. He then expressed his expectations in terms of cybersecurity: “In the area of security by design of products, publishers must extend the security updates of their software products beyond their lifespan and functional evolutions,” he insisted.  

“We must be able to challenge in order to move forward”

For Joëlle Toledano, a member of the National Digital Council, the two texts respond to the practices of the Gafa that used the e-Commerce Directive to “block the markets, but also their irresponsibility both with regard to the content they publish and the objects sold online—which may be illegal.” The holder of the Governance and Regulation Chair (Dauphine-PSL) advocates that they be improved and adopted as soon as possible: “These two texts pose problems of governance and implementation, similarly to the GDPR, which was originally aimed at the Gafa but is in fact primarily applied to European operators,” she notes. The professor reckons that the two acts must not only prohibit unfair practices, but also establish a real economic regulation of the markets, which would reintroduce competition: “It is absolutely necessary that the European Commission and the Member States equip themselves with the means to understand the real risks that these platforms collectively pose, but also to ensure that our interests are collectively aligned,” she insists. “In our uncertain world, leaving the definition of risk to companies alone is very dangerous. We—the institutions, the research community, the NGOs, and the like—must be able to challenge in order to move forward. Because we are in the process of setting up a self-regulation 2.0. But self-regulation does not work.”

In addition to these main issues, European legislators will also have to quickly address the issue of the Gafa’s carbon emissions, in particular by proposing a common benchmark for measuring the impact of digital players on the environment, and by imposing the publication of their environmental footprint data.

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