Europe can win global battle for industrial data, Breton says

Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for internal market, during the conversation "Corporate Responsibility to Protect: The Politics of Big Data", at the Munich Security Conference. [MSC / Müller]

Europe may have lost the battle to create digital champions capable of taking on US and Chinese companies harvesting personal data, but it can win the war of industrial data, Europe’s industry policy chief said on Saturday (15 February).

Vast troves of data from how fast we drive our cars to how much time a robot needs to churn out products will open a new front in the battle for digital dominance, said Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner in charge of the bloc’s single market.

Alarmed by the dominance of US and Chinese tech companies such as Google, Amazon or Huawei, the European Commission is leaving behind the “laissez-faire” attitude of the early 2000s and ratcheting up regulatory pressure to protect its businesses.

The new approach will be on display on Wednesday when Breton unveils the bloc’s new data and artificial intelligence strategy.

“We’re entering a new phase. The battle for industrial data starts now, and the main battlefield will be Europe,” Breton, a former French finance minister, told Reuters in an interview.

Breton said the EU had a unique opportunity to win the next phase of the digital revolution centered on the harvesting, management and analysis of data from factories, transport, energy and healthcare.

“Europe is the world’s top industrial continent. The United States have lost much of their industrial know-how in the last phase of globalisation. They have to gradually rebuild it. China has added-value handicaps it is correcting,” Breton said.

“But the bulk of the industrial value chain, from large groups to SMEs, is based in Europe today. That’s why all eyes are on Europe right now,” he added.

LEAK: Commission outlines plan to create single EU data space by 2030

The EU wants to create by the end of the decade a genuine single market for data that corresponds to its economic power, prioritising nine “strategic sectors” including health, climate, agriculture and energy, and dedicating up to €6 billion to investment in data centres, according to the Commission’s data strategy seen by EURACTIV.com.

More assertive

The commissioner, who was speaking from the Munich security conference where he met the chief executive of Microsoft before meeting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in Brussels on Monday, is keen for Europe to take a more assertive approach.

“In this sector, tomorrow’s winners won’t necessarily be today’s winners,” he said, adding that the big cloud platforms that exist today will probably be replaced by more decentralised and secure “mini-clouds”.

A former CEO of French IT giant Atos and telecoms group Orange, Breton said the European Commission would unveil a three-pronged approach on Wednesday, consisting of tighter regulations, infrastructure investment and sector-specific strategies.

A 25-page draft Commission document, seen by EURACTIV, outlines the measures to create a single market in data, that could still be tweaked ahead of Wednesday’s presentation.

It will include an array of new rules covering cross-border data use, data interoperability and standards.

The document also proposes scrapping competition rules which hinder data sharing and possibly introducing rules to prevent large online platforms from unilaterally imposing conditions for access.

Europe will remain open to non-European companies but wants to use the heft of its industrial base to set its own rules before other continents do, Breton said.

“Europe is not naive, it can very well see what’s going on. That’s why we have to organise ourselves now, including when it comes to the deployment of the first 5G networks,” he said.

LEAK: Digital services face EU competition crackdown

The European Commission is mulling over measures to bolster competition rules for digital services in order to rein in the dominance of global tech giants and foster “technologies that work for people”, a draft communication obtained by EURACTIV reveals.

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