EU risks being dethroned as world’s lead digital regulator

The writer is international policy director at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center

With a series of executive orders, US president Donald Trump has quickly changed the digital regulatory game.

His administration has adopted unprecedented sanctions against the Chinese technology group Huawei; next on the list of likely targets is the Chinese ecommerce group Alibaba. The TikTok takeover saga continues, since the president this month ordered the sale of its US operations within 90 days. The administration’s Clean Network programme also claims to protect privacy by keeping “unsafe” companies out of US cable, cloud and app infrastructure.

Engaging with a shared privacy agenda, which the EU has enshrined in law, would be a constructive step. Instead, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has prioritised warnings about the dangers posed by Huawei to individual EU member states during a recent visit. Yet these unilateral American actions also highlight weaknesses in Europe’s own preparedness and unity on issues of national security in the digital world. Beyond emphasising fundamental rights and economic rules, Europe must move fast if it does not want to see other global actors draw the road maps of regulation.

Recent years have seen the acceleration of national security arguments to restrict market access for global technology companies. Decisions on bans and sanctions tend to rely on the type of executive power that the EU lacks, especially in the national security domain.

The bloc has never fully developed a common security policy — and deliberately so. In its white paper on artificial intelligence, the European Commission explicitly omits AI in the military context, and European geopolitical clout remains underused by politicians keen to advance their national postures. Tensions between the promise of a digital single market and the absence of a common approach to security were revealed in fragmented responses to 5G concerns, as well as foreign acquisitions of strategic tech companies. This ad hoc policy toolbox may well prove inadequate to build the co-ordination needed for a forceful European strategy.

The US tussle with TikTok and Huawei should be a lesson to European politicians on their approach to regulating tech. A confident Europe might argue that concerns about terabytes of the most intimate information being shared with foreign companies were promptly met with the EU’s general data protection regulations. A more critical voice would counter that Europe does not appreciate the risks of integrating Chinese tech into 5G networks, and that its narrow focus on fundamental rights and market regulations in the digital world was always naive.

Either way, now that geopolitics is integrating with tech policy, the EU risks being dethroned as the lead regulator of the digital world. In many ways it is remarkable that a reckoning took this long. For decades, online products and services have evaded restrictions on their reach into global communities. But the long-anticipated collision of geopolitics and technological disruption is finally here. It will do significant collateral damage to the open internet.

The challenge for democracies is to preserve their own core values and interests, along with the benefits of an open, global internet. A series of nationalistic bans and restrictions will not achieve these goals. Instead it will unleash a digital trade war at the expense of internet users worldwide.

Europe’s ambition of regulating technologies by building on fundamental rights and maintaining transparency is an alternative. However, if the EU wants to continue to use its economic and political weight to set higher standards, it cannot stand by while others invoke security threats. Europe is a major geopolitical power and it must act like one if it is to maintain its regulatory advantage in the digital world.

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