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New EU digital chief Oettinger shows how little he knows cloud

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright October 3, 2014
Europe's incoming digital chief Oettinger revealed a lamentable misconception of cloud privacy issues this week. Could the entire EU cloud strategy unravel?

Günther Oettinger
Günther Oettinger

Members of the European parliament were aghast earlier this week to discover that the EU's proposed new digital commissioner doesn't get the cloud.

Former energy commissioner Günther Oettinger was being grilled in a question-and-answer session on Monday about his proposed new role as the EU's digital economy and society commissioner. Referring in what he described as "semi-serious" comments to the recent hacking of celebrity pictures from iCloud accounts, he put the blame squarely on the victims:

If someone is dumb enough as a celebrity to take a nude photo of themselves and put it online, they surely can't expect us to protect them.

I mean, stupidity is something you can not — or only partly — save people from.

The ill-chosen comments betrayed an astonishingly poor grasp of the commissioner-delegate's new brief, which he is due to assume within days. Although it is a common misconception among those who either ignorantly or willfully fail to distinguish privately accessed cloud services with the open Internet, it was a lamentable gaffe from the EU's next head of digital policy.

The notion that every service in the public Internet is akin to facilities in a public park, where everyone strolls wherever they like, is facile to say the least. The public cloud is more like a shopping center, where anyone is free to walk into any bank or shop, but only the account holder can access their own private details. Oettinger's predecessors have loudly promoted the EU's measures to protect the privacy of individuals in such transactions.

Making remarks that perpetuate commonplace misunderstandings of such matters is a disgrace from someone who is about to be the EU's digital commissioner. His role is one of those charged with the duty of protecting people online and he clearly starts without a clue.

Clean sweep

Unfortunately in politics, knowledge of one's brief is not normally a large part of why one is chosen for a specific role, and this is certainly the case in the EU. Every one of the 28 commissioners — one from each country — is coming new to their role after June's elections to choose a new European parliament. Perhaps it is as well that data protection will become the direct responsibility not of Oettinger but of incoming justice, consumers and gender equality commissioner Vera Jourová from the Czech Republic. The digital single market becomes the brief of former Estonian prime minister, Andrus Ansip.

A further consequence of the clean sweep of new blood at the Commission is that several of the most experienced advisors are also changing roles. European civil servant Ken Ducatel has been a key figure in the delivery of former digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes' cloud computing strategy but on September 1st he took up a new role as chief information security officer. His deputy succeeds him in his role as head of unit for software, services and cloud at DG Connect, the department that looks after digital policy.

It has been suggested that Oettinger has been selected for the key digital role because, as a German, he is best placed to overcome German opposition to the data protection regulations proposed by former justice commissioner Viviane Reding. But German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht says that Oettinger's poor digital credentials leave him ill-fitted for the task:

Oettinger does not even use social media, for example. He barely communicates publicly with people on the internet. Instead, he is a man of classical media. As regional prime minister and as energy commissioner he devoted himself to traditional issue areas. This will be an enormous challenge for him.

Serious challenges

Oettinger takes over a portfolio that faces serious challenges. As mentioned, the important data protection regulations have run into delays. While that may please my diginomica colleague Stuart Lauchlan, who has been skeptical of Viviane Reding's no-ocmpromise approach to Internet regulation, most cloud industry insiders berate the patchwork quilt of data protection legislation that makes it complex and costly to offer cross-border cloud services in Europe.

Several other aspects of outgoing Commissioner Kroes' much vaunted EU cloud strategy have also run into problems. Work on establishing common specifications for cloud service contracts have fallen prey to professional lobbying by suppliers that the UK goverment likes to characterize as the entrenched 'oligopoly' of established suppliers.

Meanwhile the Cloud for Europe initiative to develop several flagship cross-border public sector cloud projects as role models for public sector cloud procurement has run into difficulties finding government sponsors willing to underwrite the costs of model projects.

My take

The EU is an object model in the flaws of representative democracy. Achieving any consensus among representatives of 28 nation states, especially when elected European parliamentarians are often at odds with their own nation's government ministers, is a constant battle. That anything constructive ever gets done is frankly a miracle.

Add into this the difficulty that most politicians are experts only in the art of politics and rarely understand the detail of specific briefs and you have a recipe for propagating unintended consequences. Although Neelie Kroes often inspired exasperation during her term of office she at least understood the fundamentals of cloud computing in a way that appears to have eluded her successor. I foresee a rapid wave of warm nostalgia for her term of office.

Europe desperately needs to get its act together on cloud policy and first indications are that the appointment of Oettinger has been a retrograde step. Perhaps someone had the notion that his experience as energy commissioner would be helpful in overseeing the development of utility computing in the EU. But if Oettinger has no concept of how the connected digital economy is destined to work, no amount of utility market knowledge will help him in his role.

Disclosure: The author is chair of EuroCloud UK, the British arm of the European cloud industry trade association. Learn more about data protection legislation at EuroCloud UK's next member meeting on Power to the Cloud: What do you need to know about Data Centres?

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