EU's 'alternative model' seeks to take back control of data from Big Tech

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By Joanna Gill
Two network cables are pictured in Frankfurt, central Germany, Tuesday, March 2, 2010.
Two network cables are pictured in Frankfurt, central Germany, Tuesday, March 2, 2010.   -  Copyright  Michael Probst/AP

The EU wants to take back control of data, and harness it to benefit citizens, societies and companies.

That's the ambitious plan from the European Commission which unveiled its new Data Governance Act (DGA) on Tuesday. It's part of the EU's new strategy which seeks to break Big Tech's hold over the data sphere.

EU citizens and companies generate more and more data online, and the Commission expects a five-fold increase between 2018-2025. Vice-president of the Commission Margrethe Vestager notes that 'today only very little of all of that data is put to productive use'.

According to an EU study, the new measures could increase the annual economic value of data sharing by up to €7-11 billion by 2028.

The case for data-driven innovation is what is driving the EU's plans to lead on digital. EU Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton explained that the strategy was 'not against others' but 'for ourselves'.

The EU even points to the fight against COVID-19 as a case in point. They say that the 'donation' of information by pharmaceutical companies to European researchers during the pandemic, allowed them to identify molecules for treatment against the virus. However, without the data-sharing process in place, it took three months. The Commission argues that with a 'common European health data space' the solutions could have come faster.

How does it work?

The Commission's plan sets out rules on how non-personal data can be used and shared within a single market for data. It would also establish who has access to the data, and what rights govern them.

Non-personal data is any data that does not contain personally identifiable data or data that has been rendered anonymous. Your age or gender are non-personal as you cannot be identified from just that data.

The model is to be based on 'data intermediaries' or organisers of data sharing or pooling, with the aim to ensure neutrality and transparency.

As such the 'intermediaries' would not deal with data on its own account. The Commission elaborates, for example, they could not sell their data to another company or use it to develop their own product based on the data.

Estelle Masse, a Senior Policy Advsior at Access Now, told Euronews that this is a big change in the EU's approach to data.

"We see a fundamental shift in the way the European Union is approaching the use of personal data and the use of data in general, and this shift moves from one that was centred around protecting this information, which was around the adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation, Europe's flagship regulation on protecting this data, to these new proposals that are centred around sharing this information and creating this data economy," Masse explained.

What's next?

The Data Governance Act is just the first foundation of legislation to round out the data plan. By establishing that EU data should be stored and processed within the bloc's borders, it sets out a challenge to Silicon valley companies like Google.

The next steps in the EU's data arsenal, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act are set to be unveiled early December. To complete the strategy, a new data act is slated for 2021.

But German MEP, Axel Voss, says that the bloc's whole strategy isn't good enough: "So far, we have a kind of sandwich position between China and the US. Europe is not well equipped so far. This would lead to a kind of strategy for what we need to survive in the digital age, but we are already far behind."