On September 27, the EU Competitiveness Council met in Brussels to discuss how to support Europe’s digitization, particularly with regard to artificial intelligence — an area that has tremendous potential, but also faces extreme global competition. AI, of course, runs on data. The unfortunate reality is that U.S. tech companies control and exploit large amounts of European data, in turn monopolizing our digital economy.
That’s why I, among 16 other executives, signed a letter to the council’s ministers—who engaged in a public policy debate and “competitiveness check-up” at Thursday’s meeting—urging a focus on these monopolies and the unfair business practices they get away with, from the exclusion of third parties to spontaneous changes to terms and conditions to unjustified interference, to name a few. There are alternatives to giving away the data, and thus, sovereignty,—something I emphasized as part of the National Digital Council in France and as the leader of numerous working groups focused on AI and privacy.
France, for one, has worked hard to attract major foreign investment in this space, opening AI hubs while seemingly ignoring the fact that Google, Apple, Facebook and the like don’t pay taxes in the country, yet still extract significant wealth from it. This hurts innovation and many local startups working hard to improve the region. London, Paris, Berlin, and Zug are popular tech destinations, yet they often get overshadowed or pushed out of the market because of the dominant U.S. players.
Google, of course, dominates web search market, conducting 77% of all internet searches and processing 400,000 every second—gathering significant amounts of data in the process. Such dominance means, as AI specialist Cedric Villani aptly put it, that large foreign companies threaten Europe with “cybercolonization.”
Online platforms that mediate buying and selling account for a whopping 60% of the private consumption of digital goods and services. Europe cannot be lax and blindly open its market to foreign platforms who are only creating monopolies. Their goal is to lock both buyers and sellers into their ecosystem—to be the central point of the majority of digital transactions. This level of centralization has become synonymous with a dependency on tech oligopolies, and a lack of country sovereignty. Even the “local” companies we think we have working in AI are often very dependent on U.S. tech.
The good news is that every problem that exists with closed, proprietary marketplaces and platforms can be solved easily with blockchain. Through the GDPR, Europe and France have already been the first to regulate data privacy, protecting both individual rights and digital sovereignty from foreign tech giants. Blockchain—which in fact has developed faster in Europe than in Silicon Valley—can take this a step further, and can transform Europe in to the next Crypto Valley. Decentralized AI means that algorithms run directly on end-user devices, preventing sensitive data from being sent to the cloud at all.
Also, rather than having an intermediary between people buying and offering digital goods and services, blockchain allows peer-to-peer marketplaces. These marketplaces often have no fees, meaning all of the value can be captured by buyers and sellers. On the other hand, when U.S. tech giants hold a monopoly they can charge significant fees, force certain types of payments, and coerce end-users in a myriad of other ways. With a decentralized approach, no single person or company controls the content. The suppliers and buyers decide for themselves what should be included in the marketplace.
It can be tempting to want to make Europe attractive to some of the biggest names in tech and AI, but we must recognize what we are sacrificing by doing so. Many local startups can’t compete because having a monopoly means you can, more or less, do whatever you want—even if that means engaging in unfair business practices or doing things that are good for your bottom line but bad for actual users. One way to avoid such cybercolonization, though, is to embrace decentralized technologies. They’re the key to both innovation and sovereignty.