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As geopolitical tensions over the control of technology rise, Europe is putting its foot down on how it wants the internet to run.
The European Commission presented on Wednesday its so-called Digital Decade Principles aimed at defining the 27-country bloc’s vision of how the digital economy should abide by values such as democracy, privacy, solidarity, freedom of choice and security.
It’s Europe’s attempt at turning its approach to internet governance into the global standard.
“We aim to be in the forefront of this global momentum and create something that allows us to take action on [the] ground and to take action together if we can inspire like-minded partners,” said Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager in a press conference on Wednesday.
Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said the EU’s digital “constitutional basis” would help promote democratic digital principles on the global stage.
U.S. tech giants Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft now dominate the online world, and Chinese firms like Alibaba and Huawei — boosted by their strong domestic positions — have emerged as strong challengers in recent years. As these power dynamics have shifted, so too has the global diplomatic discussion about how to govern technology. Washington and Beijing are exerting more and more influence over international standards organizations and diplomatic bodies like the United Nations.
The Commission’s declaration, which could be signed alongside the presidents of the Council and the Parliament before the summer, is part of the bloc’s Digital Decade strategy to reach important common tech milestones by 2030, including doubling Europe’s microchip manufacturing capacity, ramping up 5G coverage and building tens of thousands of data storage and processing centers known as edge nodes.
The strategy will guide Europe as it responds to other global players’ efforts to frame the digital-governance conversation.
The U.S. is expected to launch its so-called Alliance for the Future of the Internet next month, which will gather democratic countries around a common vision for a free web. Authoritarian regimes in China and Russia have pushed their own approaches to the internet, which include heavy government control over online content and limits on how data can leave their jurisdictions.
This tug-of-war over how to govern the internet is expected to boil over in the coming year. Diplomats at the U.N. are starting discussions on a cybercrime treaty initiative proposed by Russia, and a major “plenipotentiary” conference of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is scheduled for September in Bucharest, where a new ITU secretary-general is expected to be named.
But while Brussels’ digital principles are aimed at increasing Europe’s influence over these international talks, the document largely repeats EU policymakers’ mantra of putting “people” and fundamental values at the center of internet governance.
The text reiterates what the bloc has tried to do using laws and proposals in past years: putting privacy, fundamental rights and strong consumer protection at the heart of technology requirements. It is expected to reference what the EU has done with its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and is trying to achieve with new legislation covering areas like artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and online platforms.
The Commission also notes in its charter that risks from technology — including artificial intelligence, cyberattacks and mass surveillance — can have “far-reaching effects for citizens, our democratic values, our security. Within the bloc, EU countries including Poland and Hungary have allegedly been using technology to spy on journalists, lawyers and opposition journalists.
The text pushes for European governments to put inclusivity and freedom of choice at the core of their own plans to expand the digital economy.
With its declaration, the EU’s executive body also hopes to inform European citizens of their online rights. Forty percent of European citizens were not aware that they had such internet rights including freedom of expression and privacy online, according to 26,000 European citizens surveyed for the declaration.
The Commission pledged to monitor how its principles are implemented within the EU’s borders through an annual report and a survey, as well as other studies.
This article has been updated to include remarks from the European Commission’s presentation on Wednesday.
Mark Scott and Laura Kayali contributed reporting.
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