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Not on Attack but in Defense

Brussels does not dominate technological revolution, but the absence of European big tech companies gives it freedom in digital monopolies.

by Christian Rocca
6 min read
byChristian Rocca
6 min read

Europe is not at the forefront of technological innovation, given that none of the great digital platforms of the current era, with the exception of Spotify and the now outdated Skype, were born there. The Old Continent obviously remains a lively part of the world, with the ability to innovate in many industrial sectors, particularly manufacturing and high-quality mechanics, and to bring together humanist and technical culture more effectively than others, but the path to progress in the 21st century has been laid by Silicon Valley and the challenge for the future is to avoid becoming victims to the new technological leadership of China.

Europe is defending itself with great expertise, and the absence of Big Tech companies gives it more freedom to face one of the decisive issues of the day, which is to try to regulate digital monopolies and protect the institutions and democratic processes of free societies. The much-reviled Brussels bureaucrats have shown themselves to be farsighted about protecting personal data from commercial, social and political abuse and manipulation and safeguarding intellectual rights. The privacy directive, which was approved two years ago and came into force in May 2019, followed by the copyright directive this year, are the first serious attempts by an important political institution to find a way to regulate the digital revolution.

 

A model legislator in the field of data protection

As a result of the first directive, on May 25, 2018, a general data protection regulation, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) came into force, which obliged the global giants of the Internet to comply with European legislation even in the absence of similar U.S. laws. The GDPR has become a model for similar legislative initiatives in the United States at the local and federal levels. It’s now cited by U.S. analysts and politicians, who have begun to publicly argue that social platforms need to be restricted and contained. Brussels’ intervention was conceived long before the case of the Facebook profiles used for political purposes by Cambridge Analytica without the consent of the users exploded, and came into force long before Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, after denying it for years, acknowledged that political disinformation generated by agents of chaos circulates undisturbed on his platform.

The GDPR is a complex code of ninety-nine articles that deals with the issue of violation of privacy and the prevalence of algorithms in democratic systems. Thanks to Europe, the owners of the personal data collected by the Silicon Valley giants have once again become social media visitors, while those who store them, analyze them and then sell them no longer have total freedom to use them without restrictions. This is only the first step—there is still a lot to do—but for the first time data owners are granted the right to access their information, which they can correct, transfer and delete. Everything is still very cumbersome, but companies that store private information now have to follow very strict rules on data collection, use and protection, or pay fines, as they have already been forced to do by European authorities, of up to 20 million euros or up at 4 percent of annual profits. Brussels is serious and has also prepared a self-regulation code for Facebook and other social media to try voluntarily to stop the spread of fake news  and the manipulation of online information. Self-regulation is of little use, but the European initiative provides encouragement for U.S. and international political institutions, which will have the task, in the coming years, of breaking up the monopolies, freeing competition and writing the code for the digital age. 

Personal data are worth so much that they have become “the new oil,” Europe has responded in a more powerful and more sophisticated way that personal data are if anything the human rights of the 21st century. Some of the big technology companies, including Apple, a company that does not monetize its customer data, have come to this conclusion too. According to CEO Tim Cook, privacy is a “human right” and the protection of personal data is similar to traditional civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Beyond privacy, there is also copyright

With a troubled political and legislative process, the European Parliament and the other European institutions have moved beyond privacy and approved the copyright directive, which can also be defined as the first serious attempt to protect the rights of intellectual and journalistic content producers against commercial use without consent on the big digital platforms. The European copyright directive had a much more difficult gestation than the privacy regulation, and its approval was complicated by an extensive campaign of pressure on public opinion by digital platforms and by the tenacious ideological opposition of numerous populist and techno-anarchist groups, first among them the Italian ones, which in recent years have dominated European attention and election results.

The text of the directive is vague, it will be subject to different interpretations and will have to be transposed by the individual countries of the E.U. with ad hoc rules, but it provides protection for the business of news producers that is similar to that already in force for music, cinema and television, as well as support for a quality information system undermined by the free and therefore increasingly dependent social media algorithm.

This enlightened European leadership is not to be underestimated, because it has carved out a decisive role for the E.U. institutions and member countries in the global debate on regulating the most controversial aspects of the digital revolution, but also on the climate and other issues affecting contemporary society. It represents the critical conscience of the free world, complementary to that of the United States, which is aimed at maintaining technological hegemony. Europe, the United States and the allied countries would still be an unbeatable force, even in the challenge with the Chinese on 5G technology, if only they would continue, as in the past, to act strategically by mutual agreement, each according to their abilities, instead of unilaterally chasing an empty nationalist rhetoric which is destined to be defeated.

The author: Christian Rocca

Christian Rocca is columnist for the daily newspaper lI Sole 24 Ore. Former director of IL - Idee e Lifestyle magazine and special correspondent and columnist for Il Sole 24 Ore and US correspondent for Il Foglio. Currently works with several Italian and international newspapers. His latest book is Chiudete Internet: Una modesta proposta [Close the Internet: A Modest Proposal] (2019) published by Marsilio.