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5 European digital ministers argue for digital sovereignty amidst COVID-19, call out Big Tech for ‘imposing standards’

contact tracing, app, virus

Asserting “digital sovereignty” as “the basis for Europe’s sustainable competitiveness”, digital affairs ministers of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal released a statement on May 26 that castigated “digital global players” for “imposing technical standards” on Europe. Despite not naming Apple and Google, it is obvious that the statement takes aim at the companies’ contact tracing API. CGTN first reported on the statement.

Apple and Google had revealed that 22 countries so far have received access to the API in a statement on May 20. The European Parliament also passed a resolution on April 17 that mandated transparency, decentralisation, sunset clauses, and data minimisation as principles for contact tracing apps to adhere to.

Reading between the lines

“Of course, contact tracing is only one of a number of digital and analogue solutions. Digital tools, as integrated and complementary measures, are part of an overall medical strategy to fight the virus.“: This suggests that EU member states consider digital contact tracing as one of the many tools to fight the pandemic, not the primary one.

The statement mentions country-specific contexts at least twice, and the need for “democratically elected Governments” to “evaluate and judge it [digital technologies] both acceptable for our citizens and compliant with our European values”. The ministers are thus emphasising that they have the democratic authority and the knowledge to decide what is best for their citizens, in a way that global tech players do not.

Coupled with repeated stress on “European values” and “shared principles” and stress on Europe’s digital sovereignty, it is obvious that a binary has been set up between EU- and US-based Big Tech. The need for “interoperability” and Europe’s ability to execute national digital tracing solutions that are interoperable have been mentioned thrice, hinting that unlike the US, countries in Europe can play well together while still preserving their individual national identities.

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And this part — “These technical solutions are all developed in accordance with EU and national data protection and privacy legislation and according to shared principles. We are committed to developing voluntary, privacy-preserving and open-source applications.” — draws attention to the fact that unlike the US, Europe has privacy legislation at both continent and country levels. It also appears to take umbrage at the implication that Apple and Google are the true preservers of privacy while governments across the world, especially in Europe, are seeking ways to disrupt that.

Apple spurned France, Germany

The French government had asked Apple to ease its Bluetooth restrictions so that the country’s national contact tracing app, StopCovid, could carry out proximity tracing with Bluetooth running in the background. Apple refused to do so, and France is now going ahead with StopCovid with no support form Apple. StopCovid has been approved by the French National Assembly (lower house of the parliament) and is expected to be launched this weekend, Reuters reported.

Apple had similarly thwarted Germany’s plans use a centralised standard called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) by refusing to change settings on iPhones, forcing the country to opt for the Apple-Google API, Reuters reported.

Germany, France want to build a European cloud

Calls for digital sovereignty are not new in Europe. The digital information economy has emerged as a major bone of contention in the EU-US trading relationship. In November 2019, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had urged Europe to claim “digital sovereignty” and seize control of its data from American companies at an employers’ conference in Berlin, the Financial Times reported. She said that the EU should develop its own platforms to manage data, and reduce its reliance on American cloud services run by Amazon, Microsoft and Google. This speech came at the heels of unveiling of plans of Gaia-X, Germany’s plans for a European cloud. The plan is backed by France.

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