Paul van Gerven is an editor at Bits&Chips.

6 May

For many of us, complying with last year’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR, better known as AVG in Dutch) was more of a nuisance than anything else. Websites needed to be changed, access rights had to be restricted on office networks and servers and certain data had to be walled off. Because someone could, theoretically, gain access to the readership database, one poor editor had to start locking his computer every time he left his desk for more than a couple of seconds.

Only recently, I’ve begun to realize that the GDPR may have been worth the trouble, though. Well, maybe not the particular set of regulations as such, but the sort of thinking that’s behind it. It could be the stepping stone that gives consumers back their online privacy, but more importantly: it may give the European tech industry a much-needed boost.

When it comes to internet technology, Europe has basically become a colony of the American techpire. Enthusiastically we embraced the social media, search engines, video services and e-commerce that Silicon Valley brought to our shores. Even now that the dark side of Web 2.0 has come to light, we keep giving away our data. For all but the most principled users, the services on offer are simply too good to pass up.

Fortunately, and bravely, the European Union has taken it upon itself to clean up the monopolistic messes that Mark Zuckerberg and like-minded tech libertarians can’t seem to – or rather: simply don’t want to – clean up.

The GDPR grants consumers sovereignty over their data. This means being able to access and amend it or to decide who can access it. Eventually, the EU wants users to be able to move to another service, taking their data with them. And these services will get a fair chance because the EU will see to it that they do.

Applying similar principles will be even more important when the next cycle of data-driven technology presents itself: artificial intelligence (AI). Europe was basically blindsided the first time by Google, Facebook and the likes. Still lacking Silicon Valley-like ecosystems, it runs a high risk of missing out again. Only this time, the stakes are much higher. AI will transform every kind of human activity, from retail to warfare.

That, in itself, warrants a close examination of the ethics involved, but these considerations are also a potential basis for a business model. “The ethical dimension of AI is not a luxury feature or an add-on. It is only with trust that our society can fully benefit from technologies. Ethical AI is a win-win proposition that can become a competitive advantage for Europe: being a leader of human-centric AI that people can trust,” said Andrus Ansip, EC Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, last month at the presentation of AI ethics guidelines, which this summer will be put to the test by companies and institutions.

By going the ethical route in AI, Europe may present a viable alternative approach to that of China and the United States, both of whom we probably shouldn’t trust (anymore). By offering something that neither AI champion can – things like privacy and transparency – European companies stand a fighting chance.

Of course, the strategy has more than a whiff of wishful thinking. Supporting measures can increase the chances of success, though. To name a few: implementing a common European data market, increasing public investment in AI and supporting technologies, repaying protectionism from competitors in kind and finding allies that adopt the same standards. Given how AI will shape the future, and indeed determine Europe’s standing on the world stage, is there really an alternative to giving it a shot?