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The elephant and the virus

14.10.2020
Gianfranco Cecconi
Opinion

A recurring topic of conversation when discussing the opportunities and threats to effective data sharing in Europe is the concerns around who owns the infrastructure making that sharing possible. We're talking about storing, transforming, sharing, securing, transferring data between parties that have legitimately decided to share. In this little essay, I'm not complicating your lives by discussing the legal modality by which that sharing takes place, or the ethical dimension of the purpose that sharing is taking place for, but rather spend a few words on some of the players in the technology market making this possible.

Decades of development of the digital industry created an unarguable dominance of the United States in the business of information processing, particularly after the advent of the internet. It's not like Europe didn't get its opportunities: perhaps we were simply distracted by other business. Many American companies made major mistakes, too, and could fix themselves 1, others simply missed the boat altogether. Whether you live in Europe or elsewhere, the fact is that, whatever your favourite acronym to call them is - The Four, or GAFAM or FAAMG or FAANG 2 - the Googles and Apples of this world are instrumental to the piping of today's information, from the mobile phone in your pocket to businesses to large governmental systems, including your government in Europe.

This is commonly perceived as a risk, with many facets. The USA's own Judiciary Committee formalised those risks in a 449 pages report 3 only a few days ago, and they do not even have the issue of dealing with articulated law framework if not their own country's. In their words, the committee "found evidence of monopolisation and monopoly power". The GAFAM are "outsized (...) gateways to news" and can "affect political and economic power".

Now, imagine yourself back in Europe. Two enlightened entrepreneurs want to share data between them, to collaborate on research and product development. They need a platform to do that, they look around, and every tool that is available and reliable comes from GAFAM. Is that a problem? Will that cripple the future of data sharing?

GAFAM were caught with their fingers in the pie in the past, and that naturally conditions and concerns us. But in what way does that make them untrustworthy today? I'd rather say that being so big and visible, their options to cheat and lie are relatively limited, particularly after getting in the news for offending. You don't believe me? In the late 1990s, chemical companies could pollute the environment so visibly to exterminate hundreds of cows in a small farming town.4 They got caught, and now we keep a close eye on them. Besides, nobody stopped wearing Lycra (R) yoga pants after that, right?

Large companies are visible. Large companies get in the news. Yes, they have good lawyers, too, and can defend themselves, but they are also under scrutiny.

I believe our concern may be out of focus twice.

First, origin. We consider the originating country of a company as a problem, per se. How can that be? Europe has mature jurisprudence systems at national and European Union levels, and ways to enforce the law. I don't expect any GAFAM with a legal office - say - in the Republic of Ireland, to be any more of an offender than a backstreet artisanal bottega in Naples, Italy. Sure, the scale of the GAFAM will enable them to do a lot of damage, but it'll be hard for civil society and law enforcement to miss that when they do. Our way of thinking can be prejudicial against the culture that we expect the company to have inherited through their origins. All Americans will be cowboy-ish with our data, right? We know this is not true.

Rather, we should focus on having suitable tools to define crime and prosecute it, whether the offender is American, Russian, Chinese or... European. That is where we are failing. Why is that GAFAM based in the Republic of Ireland? Likely, to enable perfectly legal tax avoidance schemes.5 Are we fixing that?

Second, size and wealth. Yes, one little unlawful move by a goofy GAFAM multiplied by millions of users can do a lot of damage, but should that be our first concern? Where is, for example, cybersecurity on our spectrum of worries? Back in 2017 ransomware, WannaCry hit individuals and organisations worldwide, including infrastructure such as hospitals, postponing surgery, literally putting human lives at risk. The losses caused by the cybercrime have been estimated to go beyond 3bn Euro.6 In case you didn't know, it doesn't take a GAFAM to unleash a crippling computer virus or ransomware upon us, but just a skilled computer programmer in his bedroom. What are we doing about that? How often do we talk about this in the news, if not for licking our wounds when it's too late?

Now, the least I want is to protect the GAFAM from their accountability or downplay their power, but I hope you've appreciated my attempt at putting things into perspective. My focus, and I hope yours as responsible citizens, is to educate our families and friends to the good and the bad of digital, and put enough pressure on the "American giants" and the legislator to make things right. The GAFAM are far from being my first personal worry in helping data sharing become common practice in Europe. 

It may take time, but it is possible to tame an elephant. Trying doing the same with a virus. 

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