Governments and companies are making more and more use of cloud technology and services. These offer many advantages. You can access your files from anywhere. Your mail, for example. And companies no longer need to purchase expensive software or hardware packages. They can purchase applications, computer power and software ‘on demand’ via the cloud. This is vital for the development of AI applications, for one thing. Plus it is almost as simple as finding a movie on Netflix.
Convenient, you might say. Except that Europe is heavily dependent on American parties for this. The five largest companies, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, Oracle and IBM, control a large part of the market. In addition to these American companies, a number of Chinese parties such as Alibaba are following in their wake. A European alternative is non-existent. According to research carried out by the think tank Ceps, over 90 percent of Western data is stored in American data centers.
Limiting the influence of tech giants
Europe is trying to limit the influence of US and Chinese tech giants by means of legislation. There are substantial fines for any abuses of power and if they really go too far, there is the threat of the companies being split up. Similarly, the GDPR is intended to safeguard against data being used by companies or other institutions without a valid reason or permission. At the same time, the importance of data is increasing all the time. Substantial amounts of money can be made from it and it is incredibly useful in the development of AI. But the protection of European data among all these American or Chinese companies leaves much to be desired.
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Whether you are an individual or a company using this cloud, you can never have full control over the storage and processing of your data. And you can’t always control who may or may not have insight or access to this data. Consequently, governments or companies can become too dependent on these parties. A malfunction can mean that certain services no longer work. Germany and France had this in mind last year. They launched an alternative to all this non-European cloud turmoil in July, that they named Gaia-X.
Since then, Gaia-X is much more than solely a German-French collaboration. It is a foundation that nearly 200 institutions, companies and other parties from all over Europe have joined. The goal of the project: Data sovereignty, data portability and more opportunities for European parties to do business with European cloud providers.
Vacuum cleaner robot malfunction
“What we often don’t realize is that these tech giants are already so woven into our daily lives that we can barely do without them,” says Jesse Robbers, voicing his concerns. He is involved in this project on behalf of the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). As an example, he cites a malfunction in Amazon’s cloud, which caused his vacuum cleaner robot to stop working. Another example: “My children work at school with Chromebooks. Google knows more about their scholastic performance than I will ever know. It raises all kinds of questions. Are the videos that Tiktok users make their own? – Or do they belong to China because they happen to be held in Chinese data centers?”
According to Robbers, the cloud parties that own a large part of the market are “increasingly becoming more interwoven.” By this, he means that parties that used to primarily offer data centers have also started to handle all the capabilities that all this data offers in their data centers. With Google as a prime example. “In Europe, that justifiably leads to discussions and questions on the part of the industry. Who does the data belong to if it’s on a data center somewhere in the U.S.? Should I go with an American party where the convenience it offers is perhaps greater because everything works in an integrated way? Or should I opt for a European party, where data does not leave the EU? Maybe you have less functionality, but at least you know for sure that your data stays in Europe.”
Control over your own data
Gaia-X’s first task is to ensure that companies and governments regain control of their own data. Robers believes that they should be able to decide for themselves where their data is stored. “Dutch hospitals use data centers in the Netherlands. They do not want the American parties that they often work with to be able to make a backup in the US. That goes against data sovereignty.”
This project should also enable data to be shared more easily with other parties and avoid remaining exclusively linked to one platform. Robers: “Nowadays, you often see that once you are linked to a large party, it is difficult to share data with a company that uses a different cloud provider. With Gaia-X, we are in the process of developing standards for this, and we are working on certification that will improve this kind of sharing. This certification allows you to grant access to other parties. This also makes it easier for smaller European cloud parties to take part.”
According to Peter van Harten, who is also involved in this project on behalf of Smart Industry (a Dutch organisation focusing on smart tech in industry), a great deal is already happening in the Netherlands when it comes to data sharing. “Look at the Smart Connected Supplier Network that is continuing to be developed in a field lab on the Brainport Industries Campus. This is one of the examples we were able to pass on to Germany. They were very enthusiastic about this. So, as the Netherlands, we were also able to contribute in some way to the formation of Gaia-X this way.”
Read more about Smart Industry here.
Rock-solid American market
But although all kinds of agreements have been reached and standards devised for sharing data in a secure manner, it is difficult for – frequently small – European cloud providers to compete against a rock-solid American market. The goal of Gaia-X is therefore not to set up a completely new European infrastructure. However, major players are allowed to take part. Robers: “They can contribute knowledge and join in, but they are not allowed to have a say in which direction things go. This is how we want to prevent sensitive European data from ending up outside of Europe.”
All this should ensure that Europe remains master of its own data. Van Harten: “In the words of Peter Altmaier (German Minister of Economics and Energy): ‘We must prevent cars from running on a Chinese battery and from being driven by American software. Europe has got to stand up to this.”
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