The European strategy for data, explained

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The European strategy for data, explained

Earlier this week, the European Commission unveiled their “European strategy for data” in a 35-page memo directed to the EU Parliament, EU council, European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and whoever is bored enough to go through it. In other words, me.

I have a rule for memos: if the word “synergy” shows up at least once, I skip it. And you bet this one isn’t the exception. But the European Union is going to dedicate €6 billion to the effort so I decided to forgo my rule, kill some innocent trees and read it.

I know, I suck, but it was worth it. Here’s the thing.

The volume of data produced in the world is growing rapidly, from 33 zettabytes in 2018 to an expected 175 zettabytes in 2025. For reference, a zettabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes or, roughly, 1 trillion gigabytes.

One thing is clear from the memo: the European Commission thinks data is the new oil/gold/coal and is trying to get a piece of the action. A few reasons:

  • First, they think it’s valuable. They believe “data will reshape the way we produce, consume, and live. Benefits will be felt in every single aspect of our lives..”
  • Second, if they don’t own it, they can’t regulate it. The EU wants a space where “EU law can be forced effectively.”
  • Third, they think owning and/or regulating data is the only way to ensure privacy, or at least what the EU thinks is a citizen’s right to privacy. But ultimately, they think that they deserve the value that comes out of data created, stored, processed and put to use inside the economic block.

I might bash on the European Commission and its regulation efforts quite a bit, but they are doing what any rational group would do. This is how they are doing it.

The  plan: a European Single Market

The European Commision plans to fix this problem and own a piece of the data pie by building a European Single Market for data.

“The aim is to create a single European data space – a genuine single market for data, open to data from across the world – where personal as well as non-personal data, including sensitive business data, are secure and businesses also have easy access to an almost infinite amount of high-quality industrial data, boosting growth and creating value, while minimising the human carbon and environmental footprint.”

This Single Market will sit on top of 4 main pillars.

  1. A cross-sectoral governance framework for data access and use within the European Union, with the goal of avoiding inconsistent actions between sectors and between Member States.
  2. Investment in Europe’s capabilities and infrastructures for hosting, processing and using data. In short, they want to build AWS with an EU stamp on it.
  3. Empowerment of individuals and SMEs by investing in skill development and general data literacy.
  4. Common European data spaces in strategic sectors of public interest to generate availability of huge pools of data in these domains.This is a laudable effort from part of the EU. The way in which data is collected and used must place the interest of the individuals first. Right now, the US is a free-for-all private market, and China is a Black Mirror gone wrong with a case of the flu.
“China has a combination of government surveillance with a strong control of Big Tech companies over massive amounts of data without sufficient safeguards for individuals.” – European strategy on data report

Where’s the catch? It’s all nice and good, but before actually governing data, you need to produce, and/or store meaningful amounts of data. And compared to the US and China, Europe owns close to zero data.

Right now, a small number of Big Tech companies (Facebook, Tencent, Google, etc.) hold a large part of the world’s data. And none of them a European. There isn’t a single HUGE consumer win in Europe, and we won’t have one for a long time.

And on top of that, the biggest cloud and infrastructure providers – Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, IBM Cloud and Oracle Cloud – are owned by some of the largest US companies.

In short, most of the world’s data is generated AND stored (at least in terms of governance) outside of the EU.

On top of that, there is one slightly bigger problem: there is “no such fucking thing as data”. The European Commission refers to data as a single, unified entity that can be combined, leveraged and ported at will.

Benedict Evans puts it better than I ever could:

“You can't use Uber's booking data to make a better ad engine. You can't use GE's engine telemetry to build a better Chinese-to-German translation engine. There is no such thing as 'data'. There is merely millions of different sets of information about totally different things” – Benedict EvansAnd what does “personal data” even mean? Your Google searches? Your Uber rides? Your electricity bill? Your location data? Your Pornhub searches? Everything?

If you read the memo, it comes across as if the EU thinks that all data sets in the world fit together nicely to form a beautiful Van Gogh painting called “data” that they can milk, regulate and oversee.

But reality is a bit different. Instead of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, imagine Alex DeLarge coming up with the most retorted and evil puzzle, where pieces don’t fit and constantly move and transform themselves like the stairs in Hogwarts.

It might look decent from afar, but when you look up close you'll realize that datasets don't get along very well.

But still... even if the European Commission got the concept of “data” right (which they might during the implementation phase), there’s one core issue worth addressing.

What are you really trying to solve?Across the document, the European Commission takes a stab at solving multiple problems, all of them worth solving.

  • Data as a valuable input for decision making in business and government
  • Big humanitarian problems (health, the environment) at a global scale
  • Increased economic impact at a continental scale
  • Privacy for EU citizens in a global context
  • Regulating Big Tech companiesHere’s the thing...

One data policy won’t be able to fix ALL of them because many of these objectives are trade-offs. This strategy is like trying to cover a King Size bed with a (€6 billion) baby blanket - it’s WAY too small so whenever you pull from one side to try to cover it, you will immediately uncover the other side.

As an example, you can’t have real privacy if you need to collect and store enormous amounts of data to solve the “big” problems worth solving.

I don’t want to seem negative.

As I mentioned before, what the EU is doing is laudable. Setting a data standard not for themselves but for the rest of the world is a commendable endeavor that needs to be done, and Europe is perfectly positioned.

The main question I have for the European Commission right now is: which problem are you trying to fix? Do you know what you want? Do you understand the trade-offs?

Just because you outlined a 35-page strategy for the next 7 years, it doesn’t mean it will actually play out the way you intend it. In fact, by definition, it won’t.