The European Internet

Hundreds of European digital startups are working together across national boundaries to create an ‘alternative internet for Europe’, away from the prying eyes of American and British intelligence agencies and independent of the big search engines and service providers. They are funded by the EU’s PROSE Open Source project, which challenges the big Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecommunications giants by bringing together small and medium enterprises (SMEs), universities and individual software developers. Open source software allows users to copy and paste the basic code, then adapt it and use it to build new applications that can monetise customers’ data and geo-locational information. Miguel Ponce de Leon of the Waterford Institute of Technology TSSG research group is a leader of the PROSE programme:

“Being able to share resources plays a big part when it comes to social items like healthcare, like smart-agri food. Mobile phones are being used to engage these industries and we’re producing the software. Neelie Kroes (the outgoing Commission Vice President and Digital Agenda champion) is promoting SMEs. You’re starting to see SMEs getting a chance to grow within the EU,” he told Netopia.

Ponce de Leon is based in Ireland, home to the European HQs of Facebook, Twitter, Apple, IBM and other big internet enterprise companies. The Irish government has been accused of offering unfair tax loopholes to these companies and Brussels has ordered this to stop. Ponce de Leon claims the big American firms choose Ireland because of the English language and the young, highly educated population. It is highly educated thanks to EU funding which prioritised high-tech skills and computer science after the 2008 crash which left the Irish economy in a mess, and triggered a multi-billion Euro bailout from other member states. And through the PROSE Open Source project Ponce de Leon believes a new set of alternative ‘internets’ will emerge to re-build citizens’ trust in the digital world after the revelations about mass surveillance of European citizens by the US National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ, leaked by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“We’re looking at replacing the Internet. It’s been used as the plumbing for everything and it’s falling apart at the seams after 40 years. You’re starting to see companies providing alternative internets that interconnect your community so you only connect with people you know and trust and in that way you can be certain that nobody’s snooping on you” concluded Miguel Ponce de Leon.

That the internet has managed to survive in the form that it is in for so long is nothing short of a miracle,” said Peter Warren, who chairs the UK-based Cyber Security Research Institute. “It is not fit for purpose and never has been and the whole structure is long overdue for an overhaul. The legislators should insist that the system is rebuilt and they should impose the cost on those companies who have the most to gain from the internet – the internet companies themselves.”

For this to happen we need an international approach. In terms of Hungary (which recently tried to impose a tax on internet users but was blocked by mass protests) and Ireland with its tax loopholes, it would make more sense if national governments confronted the issue of these large companies not paying their way – as was shown in the UK recently when it was revealed that Google paid a risible amount of tax – that would make more sense that passing on the cost to a country’s consumers” said Warren.

But all these initiatives – protests on the streets of Hungary, open source projects, nation-state actions and worldwide collaborations – are just skating across the surface of an unseen land-grab by Big Technology. Facebook, Google and other ISPs are quietly buying-up ‘dark fibre’ – the underground fibre-optic pipes that carry their traffic across Europe. The servers that hold Europeans’ personal digital data are scattered around the world, and data flows freely between them beyond the reach of any EU, national or regional law.

“The rules are changing,” said Erik Hallberg who runs the world-wide backbone of Swedish telecom carrier TeliaSonera AB, which maintains Facebook’s European network. Hallberg told the Wall Street Journal in an article in December 2013. “All of us in the market need to be more open minded.” The WSJ reported that the big enterprise companies were buying the infrastructure ‘in order to control the pipes‘ through which our information flows.

Politicians and regulators will soon wake up to the reality that those who own the networks will ultimately control how they are used. Google’s Advisory Council on its European tour has tried to enter the political dialogue about who really runs the internet. From the reaction to the tour it seems they have been preaching only to the converted – the libertarians who believe in total online freedom with no legal or ethical constraints. Will Europe’s new incoming Digital Agenda leaders jump on the Big Tech bandwagon or call the bluff on online lassez-faire ideology?

Jane Whyatt