The Digital #SOTEU

It was a surprise that President Juncker’s state of the European Union address last week barely touched on the digital issues. The speech talks about digitisation of industry as a side-note, a little bit on data protection, and fair taxes for the digital industry. But what happened to the Digital Single Market? This used to be the top priority of the Juncker presidency, broadcast as the key to growth and jobs in Europe. Also, tax is hardly the only area where the Commission has brought the hammer down on Big Tech, anti-trust is even bigger considering the repeated cases brought against Google.
There may be several reasons for this digital omission. First, the SOTEU speech is perhaps less of a shopping list of policy proposals and more of a political vision. Second, most of the digital single market policies are already out there, being processed by institutions and dissected by sceptics (like this writer). No need for president Juncker to spend time on that, maybe. And perhaps Juncker’s speech writer did not forget about digital after all, the roaming ban is mentioned with the other top objectives of the Commission: energy, security, capital and banking. That counts digital policy as business as usual, rather than new electronic frontiers for the European Commission.
What should a digital SOTEU contain? Netopia suggests that the President first pats himself and his colleagues on the back for bringing data protection and anti-trust law to bear on the new monopolists. EU Institutions are the only ones who realistically can push Big Tech in the right direction. The UN’s teeth are not sharp enough, the US is too close to its own digital superstars and anyone else big enough lacks the basic respect for freedom of speech, democracy and legal certainty (looking at you, China!). The EU is the new-sheriff-in-town to the Wild West of the Internet, bringing order and justice to a space ruled by gangs, goons and gunslingers who take what they want in the name of freedom. We know how that story goes.
Second, a digital SOTEU should bring nuance to the expectations of the digital single market. There is no single European demand, so there can be no single European supply. The digital single market should focus on pluralism and diversity, not more of the mono-cultures that dominate today’s internet. The mythic €416 Billion earnings are actually €17 Billion annual productivity increases. Rather than disrupting existing economies, the digital single market policies should focus on creating new ones. The consumers’ interest in offerings tailored to the local flavour and purchasing power needs to be respected, otherwise a backlash is inevitable. Many of the policy proposals have already proceeded far but it’s not too late to make it right.
Third and last, looking forward. A digital vision for Europe should see technology not as a force of nature, but man-made and guided by ideology. The way the Internet works today is a consequence of political decisions, law-making and government investment. Digital skills are great but creative skills are greater: make an innovation plan focused on digital creativity and use the cultural diversity as a strength. Don’t sell out European content to the platform companies, instead make an ambitious investment plan so European champions can compete (Silicon Valley built its fortunes on federal loan guarantees, 4 public dollars to one private!). And while tax- and antitrust case may help, it is after-the-fact-regulation. Most technology innovation comes from public research funding, here is an opportunity to build in that research also considers societal impact, such as artificial intelligence. Lastly, Europe’s digital opportunity is in the content rather than the infrastructure. The importance of intellectual property is greater than ever.
That is the recipe for digital success for Europe. Let’s hope it makes it into the next State of the European Union-address.

This is Netopia’s newsletter September 21