Lacking Its Own Digital Giants, Europe Plans New Approach

LONDON — Across the digital economy, Europe has been missing.

Apple, based in California, and Samsung, from South Korea, make the most popular phones in Europe. Facebook owns the most widely used social networks, Google dominates online search and advertising, and Amazon controls e-commerce. European companies run their businesses on cloud infrastructure from Amazon and Microsoft. The region’s wireless networks are largely made with equipment from the Chinese giant Huawei.

The European Union on Wednesday outlined an attempt to restore what officials called “technological sovereignty,” seeking tougher regulation of the world’s biggest tech platforms, new rules for artificial intelligence, and more public spending for the European tech sector.

Officials have said effort is a “generational project,” and the ideas reflect a growing concern among European leaders that countries in the region are overly dependent on services provided by companies based elsewhere. With the global economy becoming ever more centered around technology, European countries would have a harder time creating jobs and generating tax revenue to fund government services.

“We are presenting our ambition to shape Europe’s digital future,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union that is crafting the policy.

The proposals introduced on Wednesday are clearer in identifying the problem than proposing specific solutions. The commission said it would begin a consultation period that will take months before any concrete legal proposals are ready. The debate is expected to last through much of the year.

But officials laid out some broad ideas that will be debated in the months ahead.

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Companies that have become “gatekeepers” for technology that runs businesses — like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google — will face more scrutiny. A particular focus, officials said, will be on the data they hold that could give them an unfair advantage over rivals.

Artificial intelligence technology — in which computers are being trained to perform increasingly complex tasks — would also receive more government oversight, especially where the automated systems create harmful risks, such as in health, transportation and policing. The commission said artificial intelligence systems should be transparent, guarantee human oversight and prevent bias.

Policymakers also outlined standards for industries to share data within the European Union, making it easier for companies to pool the information they collect individually to better compete against the tech companies that control much of the world’s data.

The debate over the tech policies has gotten the attention of the tech giants. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s top executive, was in Brussels on Monday to meet with officials about the proposals. Top executives from Apple, Google and Microsoft have also visited the European capital over the past several weeks.



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