Gaia-X: A trojan horse for Big Tech in Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU's cloud infrastructure project, Gaia-X, poses a great risk of destroying the European ecosystem and hopes of sovereignty after the recent inclusion of some of the world's largest tech firms, write Stefane Fermigier and Sven Franck.

Last week saw the Gaia-X project officially presented at a​ ​virtual summit, with some 4000 participants​ watching. [Shutterstock]

The EU’s cloud infrastructure initiative, Gaia-X, poses a great risk of destroying the European ecosystem and hopes of sovereignty after the inclusion of some of the world’s largest tech firms in the project, write Stefane Fermigier and Sven Franck.

Stefane Fermigier is a serial entrepreneur and open-source activist based in Paris, France. He is currently the founder and CEO of Abilian and co-president of CNLL, the French association of open source software companies.

Sven Franck is head of marketing at Nexedi, one of the largest open source software publishers in Europe, based in Lille. He also manages the Free Web Endowment Fund and is a member of the board of Volt France

Last week saw the Gaia-X project officially presented at a​ ​virtual summit, with some 4000 participants​ watching as Peter Altmaier and Bruno Le Maire, economic ministers of Germany and France, as well as Thierry Breton, the EU Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, lauded the project as the next-generation data ecosystem for Europe.

With Ursula von der Leyen in her state of the Union address in September confirming that “​we will build a European cloud as part of NextGenerationEU – based on GaiaX​”, it is clear that Gaia-X is destined to receive significant amounts of EU public funding.

Gaia-X will pitch European values and the idea of an open and federated ecosystem of cooperation and collaboration against both the Chinese model of heavy government control of domestic markets and buildup of national champions and the US model of uncontrolled corporate reign whose downsides are slowly becoming visible.

Corporate Capture

Both Germany and France, who launched the Gaia-X initiative, emphasized the importance of the project being in independent hands – “​a project driven by business for business​” – and preventing the capture of regulatory agencies by the sector they are supposed to regulate.

However, the main danger for Gaia-X and its ambition to develop a competitive European cloud infrastructure and technological sovereignty is a different one: It is “corporate capture” – the reliance of many of the founding members of Gaia-X on US and Asian technologies, such as OpenStack or Kubernetes.

If the objective of the EU and national governments is to invest to build up EU technological competence through Gaia-X, it has to assure that Gaia-X does not turn into a trojan horse for the GAFAM hyperscalers to siphon off public funding for creating the envisioned federated data infrastructure with US and Asian technology providers.

With the Gaia-X summit highlighting participants from​ ​IBM Cloud, Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services and Google​ and​ OVH cloud announcing to become a strategic integrator of Google Cloud​, one has to wonder how much the founding Gaia-X industrial members, led by interim CEO Hubert Tardieu of Atos, a ​strategic partner of Google​, are actually interested in developing European technological sovereignty over tapping into the market potential of a federated data infrastructure.

As a telltale sign, Google’s Gaia-X representative during the summit cited the company’s adherence to the SWIPO code of conduct as Google’s definition of supporting fair competition in the European cloud market. SWIPO is an initiative that the French CIGREF association, representing the 100 largest French companies and public administration, and also a Gaia-X member itself, ​labeled as a clear failure of corporate self-regulation, stating that​:

“Cigref can only acknowledge the failure of the self-regulation process of the cloud market in Europe. This failure is essentially the result of a systemic asymmetry of skills, resources and objectives between some of the world’s leading cloud service providers, on the one hand, who defend the core of their business and their ability to lock in their customers, and on the other hand those users whose lobbying in this area is not their business.”

“None of the proposals made by Cigref members to improve the SaaS code of conduct and the subsequent governance of codes of conduct by the legal entity have been taken into account, in defiance of the SWIPO Working Group’s governance rules.”

One has the impression that among Gaia-X founding members, the​ ​key principles of Gaia-X​: (#4) digital sovereignty and self-determination​ and ​(#5) free market access and European value creation​ have little or no priority, and that the project – while providing a vision for data portability and protection – is actually an elaborate exercise of window dressing and lip service to swoon European and national governments into providing significant additional revenues for US technologies.

This will be to the detriment of European technology providers such as​ ​OpenNebula​ or Rapid.Space​, both Gaia-X Day-1 members receiving zero visibility during the Gaia-X summit. There is an ecosystem of European cloud scalers such as ​Proxmox​,​ ​Scaleway​, Hetzner​, ​Vates​ , or​ ​Linbit​ as well as European orchestration software such as​ ​OpenSVC​ or SlapOS​. And they are being used to build ​alternatives to Hyperscalers​. The question is whether public funding will be used to destroy them?

A sad reality: Public money spent to destroy European business 

Ten years before Gaia-X, the French government launched the Andromeda project to facilitate the creation of a sovereign cloud. The four French companies involved, among them, Day-1 Gaia-X members – Atos, Thalès and Orange, ignored French cloud providers that had demonstrated to be able to deliver IaaS, Multi-Datacenter and High-Availability solutions (for example ​NiftyName​) using French open-source virtualization software (​Qemu​) and instead used 150 million Euros of public funding to support an-up-and-coming US technology named OpenStack.

With ample cash under their belt to outspend any marketing efforts from European SMEs, the OpenStack integrators also used these funds​ to poach key engineers from other french Cloud companies such as Gandi.net​, leading to allegations that public money was spent to harm French and European companies.

Does history repeat itself with Gaia-X?

Considering the danger of corporate capture and the fact that many of the industrials who worked on the Andromeda project are today Day-1 members of Gaia-X, we can only hope that the public hand rethinks its role.

Europe is not China, where the government controls competition. But Europe is also not the United States, where corporations reign free and dictate the political agenda.

If the European Union wants to nurture its economic competitiveness and its innovative potential while upholding its values of an open and collaborative ecosystem, it has to define the rules according to which this ecosystem has to operate – such as demanding the Gaia-X infrastructure to not be based on a specific software technology or component, such as Kubernetes.

If digital sovereignty is the objective, one only has to look towards other European Horizon 2020 research and development programs, namely in the defense sector, and the conditions these programs attach to guarantee that public funding is spent on developing sovereign EU technologies and intellectual property.

One also doesn’t have to be creative to come up with financing schemes that support industrials to implement Gaia-X data spaces but exempt non-European entities from receiving public financing for using non-European technologies to do so or increasing the funding rate for industrials that use European technology providers to build Gaia-X solutions.

Measures like the above would go some way of ensuring a more level playing field and limiting the influence of GAFAM on preventing European cloud providers and technologies from being able to compete and demonstrate their technical capabilities.

Gaia-X is a great opportunity to demonstrate what potentials a federated and collaborative system based on European values can unlock. By not attaching conditions for receiving public funding and by letting Hyperscalers influence the rules of openness and competition, it also poses a great risk of destroying the European ecosystem and hopes of sovereignty that the Gaia-X project was originally supposed to build and strengthen.

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