Digital policy: Weapon of choice for EU global leadership

Mirela Mărcuț
Dr., Lecturer
University of Oradea, Romania

On July 18th, 2022, the Foreign Affairs Council decided the inclusion of digital diplomacy as “a core component and an integral part of the EU external action”, based on the acknowledgement that digital technologies can „shift the geopolitical balance of power”. The same document illustrates the purposes of the EU digital diplomacy, first among which is the strengthening of the EU standing global digital affairs. Other significant purposes are to “promote the EU’s human-centric and human rights-based approach to the digital transition” and to “actively promote EU internal digital policies and regulations”. These elements are to be translated into action by the news that the EU is opening an office in San Francisco this year, a major uptake into its digital diplomacy efforts.

Even though digital diplomacy had not been an official tenet of EU external action, the actions of the EU have already signaled this turn towards the global stage ever since the Commission presented its vision towards Digital Europe back in 2020. The “geopolitical Commission” detailed the idea of European-style digital society and advocated for a European approach towards AI, all efforts to crystallize the European vision towards digital transformation. The contextualization of this European approach means that there might be room for a different approach in global digital affairs and the EU might be able to fill the gap.

Why digital policies? The domain is split between the EU and Member States by virtue of the system of competences of the Lisbon Treaty and, historically, the EU has had issues with the competitiveness gap in this field. Leadership, in this respect, can be a challenge, and the USA and China are currently the frontrunners. The USA is the country of origin for BigTech, while China has stepped up its efforts to gain competitive advantage in artificial intelligence (AI).

Nevertheless, the EU possesses mechanisms that have propelled it to the center of global digital affairs and of which it intends to take advantage to develop its digital diplomacy. Against the backdrop of the Capitol riots fuelled by misinformation and fake news on social media, the Facebook revelations that opened discussion about social media and mental health, as well as the COVID-19 misinformation, the EU has found its competitive advantage in global digital affairs, namely the ability to regulate. Based on neofunctionalism, European integration has been pursued with efforts to approximate legislation and to create a harmonized set of rules. The Digital Single Market (DSM) has been built with these steps. Additionally, given the sheer market size of the EU and its significance in global affairs, key pieces of legislation have managed to be exported internationally. This is the case with the General Data Protection Regulation, which companies have adopted as a global standard, prompting researchers to discuss about a ‘Brussels effect’ applied in privacy and digital economy.

What are the key components of the possible EU leadership in global digital affairs? Firstly, the appetite for regulation at the origin of current efforts sits at the center of EU global leadership. The recently approved Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act are key examples in this respect, considering that they attempt to rein in some of the overwhelming influence of social media companies and other BigTech companies. These regulations aim to limit targeted advertising, require transparency and risk assessments, interoperability and much more in order to protect European consumers, to limit BigTech monopolies, and to safeguard democracy.

Secondly, as the Council conclusions on digital diplomacy showcase, the EU approach to digital transformation is rooted in human rights and is human-centric. In this respect, the EU has recently put forward the European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles, with key ideas, such as ‘people at the center of digital transformation’, ‘freedom of choice’, ‘participation in the digital public space’, ‘safety and security’, and ‘sustainability’. Empowerment of citizens is at the center of digital transformation, compared to other contenders, such as China, where control and surveillance are used to keep people in check. With the launch of the transatlantic partnership with the USA, the EU aims to start an international dialogue based on the respect for fundamental rights in the digital space. This is especially relevant, considering that the US has not managed to put forward legislation to regulate BigTech companies, while public discourse manifested in the words of former President Obama or US Senator Amy Kloubuchar laments that the US is on the sidelines of this discussion.

Finally, not only has the EU approved legislation to curb the power of big platforms, but it has also extended into new legislative territory, being the first entity to put forward legislation to regulate AI. A step forward from the AI strategy, the approach develops a risk-based assessment tool for the use of AI systems in the EU. Albeit a consumer protection regulation, the EU stands to gain ‘first mover advantage’ that can inspire other entities to apply the same approach.

Digital policy is a weapon of choice for the EU, as it aims to take advantage of the favourable international context, as well as of the internal expertise with the regulation of the digital space that the EU has developed out of need for integration. The main tenets of digital policy are the appetite for regulation, the explicit human-centric vision, and the incursion into emerging fields of policy, such as AI. The bigger question is whether the EU can do it and, based on the ideas of the Brussels effect and the lackluster response of the US in similar matters, the EU has chosen the best weapon of choice for global leadership.

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