05/12/2019

At the “Digital-Gipfel 2019” summit hosted in Dortmund, the German government announced plans for the development of “Gaia-X” – a European cloud platform aimed at providing European companies with a local alternative for cloud-based data storage. With companies in the US and Asian markets, such as Amazon and Alibaba currently dominating the scene, Gaia-X is aimed at boosting European digital infrastructure and heading off a perceived regional reliance on international providers for data capability.

The core concepts and plans for Gaia-X are currently being developed by Germany and France, with input from local business including Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Bank, and Siemens & Bosch. In its elevator pitch, the Gaia-X platform is intended to act as a bridge between multiple different cloud services and provide a joint standard to share data, allowing users to move their data around the platform and between services freely. The commercial benefits of such a platform for the European business community are twofold: first by promoting smaller cloud providers who would not otherwise be able to compete with their hyper-scaled international competitors, and second the broader European industry by increasing data sharing opportunities. As a given example, a joint data standard could allow a mobility start-up based in the EU to access and utilise data shared by national transport authorities.

The benefits for local industry, while prominent, also serve as a means for addressing a more pressing issue for national governments – that of data sovereignty and security. Control over data is increasingly viewed as a vital national resource, along the same lines as oil and gas. As with oil and gas, countries who are reliant on others for the supply of data services are at risk of becoming politically dependent on those countries. With more businesses looking to migrate their data to cloud environments, European politicians are increasingly cautious about ceding data control to foreign companies and the governments they are beholden to. This is not just a question of service access either - European governments are concerned for the security of both of sensitive industrial information and the personal data of citizens that are hosted overseas. Participation in the Gaia-X platform will require service providers to abide by EU rules for data protection and sovereignty. These requirements come in response to overseas data security risks such as those presented by the US Cloud Act 2018, which requires US-based data storage providers to provide information held on their servers to local authorities regardless of whether those servers are physically located in the US or abroad. Described by French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire as “totally unacceptable”, Europe’s move to “establish a safe and sovereign European data infrastructure” in response to such data security risks should come as no surprise.

This is not to say that the concerns of Germany and France are unique to the region – the proposal for the Gaia-X platform falls in line with the efforts of other nations as the issue of data and technological sovereignty takes more of the spotlight. Russia has recently introduced a new sovereign internet law, allowing the government to sever the country’s internet from the world wide web and monitor web traffic from other countries. In 2015 China kicked off the “Made in China 2025” plan with the aim of improving its position in the world of high-tech manufacturing, offering government subsidies and using state-owned enterprises to make advancements in areas such as IT and telecoms, advanced robotics, and AI. Even Uganda is dipping a toe in the water, exploring the possibility of nationalising its internet data exchange service in a bid to exert more control of the country’s internet environment.

Merits aside, the immediate practical question now being asked is whether Gaia-X can be turned into reality. Although supporters say the current technical capability to build the platform is irrelevant as building the infrastructure is a matter of necessity, critics point to previous failed attempts to build a European cloud consortium, such as the French-based Numergy and Cloudwatt which were shut down after failing to attract enough customers. With Germany and France finalising the core platform concepts with a view to take plans to the broader EU in early 2020, no doubt we will soon see whether the promise of data sovereignty will encourage sufficient participation in the Gaia-X platform and give it the scale it needs to survive.

Authors: Tim Gole, Kirish Kularajah and Thomas Power

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