With US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in town, the Eurocrats in Brussels have been talking up transatlantic relations in a digital economy age, a change from some of the nakedly anti-US sabre-rattling that’s been seen around issues such as data protection and privacy in recent years.
The latest to get to his feet was Andrus Ansip, European Commission Vice President for the Digital Single Market, who addressed the Transatlantic Digital Economy Conference to big up ‘the building blocks for the future”.
He started with a soft-sell to his US guests:
The European Union and United States have the most integrated economic relationship in the world. Our companies create 15 million jobs in each other's markets. Cooperation between our economies benefits both sides equally. That is also true for the digital relationship. Despite our different approaches in several areas related to tech, digital flows between Europe and America remain the highest in the world.
(Shush! Nobody mention Privacy Shield! We’ll get on to that later…)
There’s more to come in the future, Ansip declared:
Given the new challenges that accompany emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain, it is vital to get the right conditions in place for safe and secure access to quality data. These technologies depend on it, on both sides of the Atlantic.
OK, now for the tricky bit - data protection, an area where as Ansip euphemistically put it, “the EU differs from the US”. Ahem…
GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) was to be Ansip’s jumping-off point here, seeking to address “many misconceptions about its scope and impact on international data flows”. He said:
We know that US companies and the authorities have many concerns about implementation. They include claims of high compliance costs and that the new rules hold back innovation. This is why we set up a special communication channel with the US authorities about GDPR implementation to discuss, identify and resolve issues before they become real problems.
But GDPR is for everyone’s good, he insisted:
We already see companies in the developing world, especially those with global reach, aligning their privacy policies with the GDPR - because they want to do business in the EU, and because they see it as a model to follow. That is worth noting. In addition, many of the changes will actually help foreign operators - by cutting compliance costs as well as red tape. Take the one-stop-shop for foreign operators that are established in the EU and will deal with only one authority for all their processing operations in the EU.
Anyway, not much has changed, he added:
There is a lot of continuity with the EU's previous rules and principles which have been in place for more than 20 years. These have shaped EU-US relations in data protection. They were also the basis for negotiating the Privacy Shield for the commercial sector and the Umbrella Agreement for criminal law cooperation.
Ok, he said the P-word, so time to grip the nettle there, given that Privacy Shield’s annual review kicks off today. We’ve been predicting tough talking for appearance’s sake from the EU side, followed by zero action and a nod through for the Shield for another year. Ansip’s words provide no reason to reassess our position.
First the ‘tough’ stuff:
The Privacy Shield is under strict political and judicial scrutiny, certainly from the European side. We need to see more improvements if we are to defend the Privacy Shield against the criticism it is facing. Otherwise, it will be difficult for the Commission to defend it at all.
Then the preparation to do nothing about it:
That said, ahead of the review, I would still say that the Shield is generally a success. More than 3,500 companies have certified, including companies like Google, Microsoft and IBM – along with many SMEs. We want to see it continue working on both sides of the Atlantic.
With that done, time to move onto to safer ground and some generic posturing on AI, where Ansip rather strangely noted, “I know US firms have a keen interest”.
Is the idea here that the European Commission somehow has a lead here and the US is watching on to see what’s happening? It’s to be hoped it’s just bad wording and not a delusional belief in Brussels.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that no-one’s ready to claim the US and the EU are on the same page around AI, so it was up to Ansip to make the right noises about Europe taking an ethical lead:
This is a tech area where different countries take quite different approaches. Along with much-needed investment, especially in research and development, Europe places a focus on social, economic, ethical and legal issues.
This is the responsible way to get the most out of one of the most promising and strategic technologies of our times. Policymakers worldwide need to deal and progress with these issues – which is why the Commission pushes them regularly at international fora such as the G7.
In the short term, we are working on ethical guidelines for AI that should be presented in spring 2019. We are also working with international experts to draw up a coordinated EU plan for AI development and deployment.
All of which is generically admirable enough, but offers no guarantee that anyone in Washington intends to pay any attention to such guidelines whatsoever.
A triumph of saying something and nothing at the same time. Ansip ticked the necessary boxes to say he’d done what was needed of him and made the right noises:
In many other areas of what you could call 'new tech' that affect the world's digital space, I am convinced that we are better off when we work together. That is how we should advance our digital future.
It may well be. But it won’t be.
Anyway, onwards with the Privacy Shield cop-out!