Friday, January 22

Europe: battlefield in the Great Digital Game of the world’s superpowers


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The technologist It not only transforms economies and societies: it is an essential component of state power. It is today and has been since ancient times, although sometimes we forget it, with dire consequences.

Every Empire has been tied to some form of technological superiority. The British Empire was made possible by three innovations: the steamboat, the machine gun and the quinine, a technological trident that allowed a small island in the Atlantic to dominate aof the earth’s surface and 458 million people (20% of the world population at that time).

Pax Americana has also had as its central axis the technological superiority of the United States, key to winning the Guerra Fra. China, which wants to regain its role in the world and to be respected again after centuries of isolation, poverty and foreign domination, has noted that the USSR lost the Cold War without having been defeated except in a small battle fought in Afghanistan.

If Chinese leaders have understood anything, it is that the process that has brought the United States to where it is has not been improvised. It wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg who invented the internet so that we could share family birthday photos and saturate social media with videos of kittens, but rather research initiatives that were launched by President Eisenhower in response to the launch of the Sputnik in 1957 by the Soviet Union, a technological success that left the United States in shock.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) gave rise in 1966 to the creation of ARPANET, a project consisting of dividing the information into small packages that would travel through a decentralized network in order to safeguard military communications in the event of an attack. nuclear attack.

Hence arose the TCP / IP transmission control and inter-networking protocols that later, in short, came to be called Internet.

Unknowingly, the United States was not only laying the groundwork to win the Cold War, but extending its hegemony well into the 21st century. Witness of that power, if in 1990, just before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the five largest companies in the world were American (General Motors, Ford, Exxon, IBM and General Electric), three decades later, in this 2020 just After all, the five largest companies in the world by market value are still American, although this time they are digital (Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook). The United States is the first digital empire, with China lagging behind.

From coal to 5G

The geopolitics of the twentieth century focused on the control of the mining basins of the Ruhr, Silesia or the Donbs, access to oil from the Caucasus and the Arabian Peninsula, the security of the Suez, Panama or the Straits of Malacca. Coal, steel, oil, gas, maritime routes.

In the 21st century, the battlefield between the superpowers is digital. We are not talking only about cyberattacks or disinformation, which are the spearhead of hybrid war strategies, but about a competition for world hegemony between the United States and China that will last throughout the 21st century and that will be elucidated in the control of data clouds, semiconductor production, artificial intelligence, security of 5 or 6G networks or quantum computing.

The fight for digital superiority is today the new Great game facing the superpowers, only instead of having the British and Russian Empires turning their backs in Central Asia and Rudyard Kipling as the chronicler, we see the Chinese Communist Party deploying a powerful industrial and innovation strategy that seeks to digitally become independent from the United States. .

It is the 21st century, and the actors are Google, Apple, Facebook, Tencent, Alibaba or Huawei, but the reality is the same as always: submit or be subdued, be sovereign, vassal or colony (this time digital). Hence the relevance that a concept such as “digital sovereign”, unthinkable in the 90s of the last century when it was taken for granted that globalization and the Internet would lead humanity to a new horizon of shared technological progress.

In that happy world after the end of the Cold War dominated by the triumph of liberal democracy and economic interdependence, geopolitics seemed an outdated discipline. In that world, access to technology was not a problem, since it was believed that the combination of open markets, strong multilateral institutions and effective international standards would guarantee access to technology for citizens and States.

With open supply chains and highly decentralized manufacturing processes, geography mattered little: a smartphone could be conceived in Silicon Valley and assembled in China to be sold in Spain, while its components could be made in Taiwan or Vietnam with colt from the Democratic Republic. of the Congo.

The return of geopolitics

In that world, neither politics nor geography dictated the levels of access to technology. But that world is already yesterday’s. With the return of History, other forgotten elements have returned such as identity, geography or demographics and, with them, geopolitics and the central role of states, forcing Europeans to take seriously the risk of becoming a digital vassal.

The good news is that the European Union has understood that in the digital world you can only choose between being a player or playing field. The EU is not a military superpower, but it is a regulatory superpower. Thanks to the vast powers it enjoys in terms of trade and competition policy, it has managed to become a powerful digital player despite not having companies of the power and size of the United States. Equipped with rules such as the General Data Protection Regulation (RGPD), approved in 2018, or the two proposals presented by the European Commission this December to regulate both markets and digital services, the European Union is positioning itself to make assert its interests and principles against the big American technology companies.

Fines for abuse of market position or the possibility of introducing a digital tax that puts an end to the not very presentable tax practices of these large companies are the order of the day; Also the obligation that the platforms take responsibility for the harmful or harmful content that users upload to the networks or that they respect and pay for copyright, including the informational content of other media that they reproduce within their platforms.

At the same time, after the European Commission characterized China as a systemic rival and technology competitor in a bold and novel strategy approved in 2019, European governments have begun to limit the presence of Chinese companies like Huawei in key technology sectors such as 5G. .

The EU has also taken a step forward with regard to Artificial Intelligence, approving a series of strategies and plans that seek to ensure that the development of this technology, whose industrial impact experts compare with what electricity once meant, is done in line with the values ​​on which the EU is based, especially as regards the data protection.

In the last five years, Europe has become a global pioneer in digital policy-making, abandoning its former laissez-faire attitude. Covid-19 has only done more to highlight the need to deepen this path. But regulation is not enough: referees do not win games. The great challenge of the European Union is to innovate as much as the United States or China: that is where its digital sovereignty is at stake.

* Jose Ignacio Torreblanca is co-editor with Carla Hobbs of ‘The digital sovereign of Europe: from regulator to superpower in the era of rivalry between the United States and China’, a collection of essays prefaced by Anthony Giddens and Jos Mara lvarez-Pallete (Catarata, December 2020) .

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