Von der Leyen opens the doors for an EU data revolution

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen gives a press conference at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, 19 February 2020. The European Commission will present a new strategy on Europe's Digital Future. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The EU is set to exploit the “untapped potential” of vast troves of industrial data, allowing public and private actors “easy access” to huge reserves of information, the European Commission announced on Wednesday (19 February).

“It is a fact that the majority of data we collect today is never used even once, and this is not at all sustainable,” Commission President von der Leyen said on Wednesday,  as she presented the EU executive’s new paper: “A European Strategy for Data“. 

Within the EU’s industrial data stocks “lies an enormous amount of precious ideas, potential innovation, untapped potential we have to unleash,” the Commission President added.

In what may be seen as a veiled threat against the dominance of global tech giants, the Commission also warned that access to the single market “is not unconditional.” In this vein, the EU is seeking to “leverage regulatory power” to “advance the European approach and shape global frameworks,” according to an explanatory document accompanying the EU’s new data strategy.

Data Act and GDPR amendments

Proposals put forward on Wednesday include the creation of nine common EU data spaces across sectors including heathcare, agriculture and energy, as well as the establishment of a Data Act in 2021, that could “foster business-to-government data sharing for the public interest.”

As part of this framework, the Commission could also look at usage rights for co-generated data between private actors, which are currently laid down in private contracts, in addition to compulsory access to data under specific circumstances.

“Everyone can access the European market as long as they accept and respect our rules,” the communication outlines, adding that amendments could be made to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in order to enforce individuals rights with regards to the use of data that they generate.

The document notes that Article 20 of the GDPR, the right to data portability, could be “enhanced” so as to give individuals “more control over who can access and use machine-generated data.”

This could be achieved, the Commission states, by introducing stricter requirements on interfaces for real-time data access and “making machine-readable formats compulsory for data from certain products and services,” including for data emanating from smart home appliances or wearables. Such a revision is likely to come as part of the 2021 Data Act.

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.

At the core of the EU’s new strategy is the opportunity to free up data access and use between private and public sectors.

The EU “missed the battle” on personal data at the height of the platform explosion, admitted Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, saying he would seek to redress the balance by ensuring the bloc makes the most of the industrial data it produces.

“We recognise that we missed the battle for personal data to the US,” said Breton. “The battle for industrial data starts now,” he said, adding Europe was in a good position to win that battle.

In this vein, the strategy pushes for the “opening up public sector datasets of high commercial and societal value, such as environmental data and earth observation data” and facilitating the use of publicly held sensitive data, such as health records or social data.

Europe can win global battle for industrial data, Breton says

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).

Crunching the numbers

The Commission plans to invest up to €2 billion from its own budget to trigger €4-6 billion into a “high impact project” on European data spaces, which will include the deployment of data-sharing tools and platforms, the creation of data governance frameworks and improving the availability and quality of data itself.

The executive also aims for the investment to facilitate both business-to-business and business-to-government data sharing, expecting a 2.8 fold increase in value of the data economy from 2.4% in 2018 to 5.8% of the EU’s GDP by 2025.

Cloud infrastructure 

The executive also plans to coordinate work on the European cloud federation, the network of energy-efficient and trustworthy infrastructures, with member states pursuing their own initiatives by signing memoranda of understanding by the end of this year.

When pressed about the content of the memoranda and the concrete steps these documents will facilitate, Breton told EURACTIV that the Commission is coordinating with Germany, which has already started to push for a European cloud network called ‘Gaia-X’, as well as also other states such as France, in order to achieve a coherent strategy for Europe.

European cloud network to start in late 2020

The German government is accelerating the buildup of a European cloud network in the fight against impending dependence on Chinese and US providers.

The Commission’s plans in the data arena received mixed responses on Wednesday. Poland’s Minister of Digital Affairs Marek Zagórski told EURACTIV that his government is happy to see that the Commission “has decided to embrace the data economy and create a common European data space.”

“Poland will also support initiatives aimed at increasing access and re-use of industrial data, both in the public and private sectors. We strongly believe innovation and competitiveness of the European economy lies with data and it is a chance we must not waste,” Zagórski said.

However, other players were less warm to the proposals. The Center for Data Innovation, a think tank, published a statement criticising the strategy, saying that the idea of establishing European data spaces “doubles down on policies like data localisation, which would force companies to store and process data domestically, and other protectionist measures that would cut off foreign cloud providers out of fear they might encroach on Europe’s technological sovereignty.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Breton fielded questions from lawmakers in the European Parliament’s Internal Market and Industry Committee, who wanted to ensure that citizens rights would be protected as part of the EU’s opening up its industrial data trove.

Cristian-Silviu Buşoi, the MEP chairing the committee, highlighted the importance of keeping control “over the huge wave of data we generate, as a matter of sovereignty, so this data works for the benefits of European citizens.”

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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