Internet freedom is in Europe's hands

15 October 2014

The phalanx of the American Internet economy assembled some days ago to conjure up the nearing end of the Internet economy in front of a kind of "virtual Wailing Wall." Google CEO Eric Schmidt went so far as to a paint a bleak vision of the future with the words: "The U.S. intelligence agency N.S.A.'s surveillance activities could break the Internet." And the representatives of companies ranging from Facebook to Microsoft nodded their heads in full assent to this statement. So what are we Europeans to make of it?

The high-publicity self-staging of IT bigwigs has a precarious background. Shortly after the Snowden revelations, the Washington-based thinktank ITIF (Information Technology and Innovation Foundation) predicted profit losses for U.S. providers of 21.5 billion dollars for the coming three years. By now, the loss of confidence in the U.S. has grown to such an extent that Google, Oracle, and the like are losing droves of customers in Europe and Brazil.

The eminent representatives of the American information economy are therefore incessantly mouthing the mantra that "the freedom of the Internet is at stake." The rhetoric that lies at the heart of this lament, however, is simply hypocritical and represents an attempt to distract from the U.S. security apparatus's real entanglement with Silicon Valley.

There are hundreds of examples for these connections, which go all the way from the Pentagon's decisive subsidization of scientific and technical research to the risk financing of smaller start-ups in the tech sector and the recruitment of top managers from the industry for the "War on Terror." This opaque web of politics and economy, whose purpose is both to secure the hegemonic claim to power of the sole post-Cold War superpower on a global level and to protect existing branch monopolies for U.S. economic interests, appears in a different light today.

Whenever American companies lament the loss of Internet freedom, what they are really complaining about is their dominant tech titans' loss of market shares. The American IT industry is itself to blame for the loss of trust in it, which itself is a tremendous opportunity for the European IT branch.

The U.S. has almost completely perverted the founding ideology of its presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln of a land of freedom and opportunity for all. The United States has made an institution out of a single moral imperative for the "American Way of Life" over its more than 200-year history: ownership and wealth. The socio-critical American singer/songwriter Randy Newman drives this point home: "It’s money that matters in the U.S.A." To put it in Erich Fromm's terms, America has thus created a central culture of having. In the United States, ownership is equivalent to freedom to a greater extent than in Europe. The notion of upward mobility from poverty to wealth thus legitimizes the right of the individual to defend his or her wealth. Which explains the immense influence that the weapons lobby has in the United States.

Europe, on the other hand – if for no other reason than the trauma caused by two world wars – has been developing a culture of "being" based on a different notion of freedom for more than 70 years now. Protection of personal data forms an irremovable cornerstone of this concept.

The time has now come for Europe to concretize its moral values in binding intra-national law. The lasting echo in the media that data espionage made in the U.S. and U.K. has set a socio-economic debate in motion in Europe that has now reached the management level of large companies. Luckily, this debate has been accompanied by a wave of migration from data centers in the United States to local European data centers.

This European data protection regime, which hopefully will come into force next year, is in many ways a great example of the implementation of key human rights. And its EU-wide validity will form a long overdue counterbalance to American legal notions of privacy and protection-worthy confidential corporate data. Insiders such as the German Green Party MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, who spearheaded the drafting of the EU Privacy Policy in the European Parliament, are optimistic that we will see the dawning of a new era for data protection in 2015. The calls for the rapid establishment of a digital domestic market by the new commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker also give cause for positivity.

Through this great union, the European Union might be able not only to thwart the hitherto successful business model of the American IT industry, in which personal data was injudiciously given away in exchange for convenience, but also to unleash enormous economic potential for the development of its IT industry as a whole by 2020.

Europe can restore balance with the other major world region if the new EU Privacy Policy promptly comes into effect. European citizens and businesses must regain control of their own data and maintain that control at all times. From a technological perspective, the fact that Europe is a leader in the development of encryption technologies gives us the best possible chances for success. We now need only a reliable legal framework.

The European values should also be part of the fabric of the TTIP negotiations. Incidentally, it is encouraging in this regard that the European chief negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero will not put Europe's achievements in the field of sustainable agriculture up for negotiation and will not compromise on the ban of genetically engineered organisms and hormones.

If we now turn the correct screws of our policies based on our values, then we really could make the 21st century the European century, as Jeremy Rifkin predicted in his book "The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream" The European Union is an unparalleled attempt. It is a political network whose central purpose is to cause us to perceive ourselves above all as "Europeans." It is the attempt to establish a collective consciousness in which social responsibility and cultural diversity are deeply rooted and are seen as the shared riches of a United Europe.

That is why Europe will save Internet freedom!

Helmut Fallmann
Member of the Managing Board

Almost 30 years ago, Helmut Fallmann founded the software group Fabasoft together with Leopold Bauernfeind. Today he is a member of the Managing Board of Fabasoft AG. Fabasoft has developed into a leading European software manufacturer and Cloud provider headquartered in Linz, Austria.

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