Digital policy in the EU – what lies ahead?

Digital policy in the EU – what lies ahead?

The EU’s digital policy has been a hot topic lately. Last week the European Commission published three significant strategies concerning digitalization, artificial intelligence and data. At the same time, the member states, the European Parliament the Commission are fighting over the size and priorities of the EU’s budget for the next seven years. The importance of the topic is emphasized by the fact that digital solutions are crucial for the realization of the Green Deal, the Commission’s other top priority.

The guiding document for the EU’s digital policy is the communication named “Shaping Europe’s digital future”. The communication draws together all the major policies concerning digitalization that the Commission intends to introduce during its five-year term. As in Finland’s government program, many topics are promised to be specified in strategies and reports that will be published later.

There are many favorable objectives in the communication. For example, climate neutrality of data centers by 2030 is easy to support. What comes to CSC, there is no need to wait for ten years; our data center in Kajaani is already carbon neutral. Next year it will even become carbon negative as the excess heat generated by our world-class supercomputer LUMI will be fed into the district heating network.

In order to achieve the carbon neutrality goal, it is necessary to place big, EU-funded computing facilities to environments where computation can be done ecologically. This opens up a possibility for Finland to act as a forerunner. Other warmly welcomed openings are, for example, investing in Europe’s strategic digital capacities and better access to health data, which will advance its use in research.

European perspectives on AI and data will sharpen with time

The Commission opened a discussion about the EU’s perspective on artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of a white paper. AI has great potential to act for the common good areas such as the health sector and transportation as well as by optimizing energy consumption. However, the use of AI includes also risks, which is why adequate legislation needs to be in place. The first half of the white paper lists actions that the EU plans to take in order to develop Europe’s AI capacities. It is especially important to develop high-performance computing, to deploy the FAIR principles (findability, accessibility, interoperability and re-usability) for data and to develop skills.

What comes to legislation, the white paper proposes new rules only for high-risk applications of AI. This is a sensible approach as many of the existing laws already concern AI. In addition, AI applications are very different in nature, and thus it does not make sense to regulate them all in the same manner. For no-high-risk applications, the Commission proposes a creation of a voluntary labelling system. Whatever actions will be taken with the regulation of AI, it is of utmost importance that there is one common set of rules for AI in the EU. It is the only way we can realize a true single market for data and AI.

In the third new document, data strategy, the EU aims to advance the usage and movement of data between member states and organizations. This will be realized by developing data sharing infrastructures and principles, such as interoperability and machine readability. A good starting point for interoperability is the European Interoperability Framework: data must be interoperable in technical, organizational, legal and semantic level. A completely new proposal is to create data spaces for certain strategic sectors; together these data spaces will form a single European data space. In the research world, this kind of data space has already been developed in the form of the European Open Science Cloud, which should be a good benchmark for others to start from. In order to succeed, it is vital that data really is interoperable, and that it moves between the sectors (research, public administration, business).

These three strategies lay out the digital policy of the EU for the next five years. However, in addition to policies and strategies, digitalization needs funding. Currently, the EU institutions and member states are negotiating a multiannual financial framework (MFF), i.e. the 7-year budget of the EU. MFF will determine how much EU money will be spent on research, digitalisation and competence building during the next seven years. Science and research get much attention in the politicians’ speeches, but in the EU’s budget, they seem once again to be superseded by old priorities. However, the negotiations are still far from done, so there remains hope that the Commission’s new policies will get some financial support to back them up.


Published originally 27.2.2020.

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Ville Virtanen

Kirjoittaja työskentelee CSC:llä yhteiskunnallisen vaikuttamisen parissa