The digital wake-up call Europe and Asia cannot ignore
The coincidence was telling. At their autumn summit last week in Brussels, leaders of the 28 European Union countries were expected to discuss the EU Digital Agenda, with the aim to focus on their internal market and agree on common industrial and regulations priorities. This discussion indeed took place. But the issue which dominated their exchanges was a much more political one: can the EU continue to accept to be spied on by the United States, and can Germany _ the continent's economic powerhouse _ not confront Washington after the recent revelations on Chancellor Angela Merkel's electronic communications interceptions by the National Security Agency (NSA)?
In short, is it possible to conceive a European Digital agenda for the coming decades without addressing Europe's digital vulnerability first? The summit, not surprisingly, did not end with a conclusive answer. France, Germany and their European partners are now proposing to Washington a kind of digital "code of conduct", while in the meantime promising to inject more money to foster European internet companies and startups. Nevertheless, due to the very problematic state of the old continent's economy and the current public spending restrictions all over the EU, an immediate and much needed capital flow seems very doubtful.
A second coincidence added even more significance to last week's digital debate. While European leaders were debating the best way to confront the Barack Obama administration without entering a full-blown diplomatic crisis _ a path advocated by Brazil, whose President Dilma Rousseff has recently cancelled a planned meeting with Mr Obama _ the internet community was convening in Bali, Indonesia. The meeting in question was the annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF), bringing in representatives from governments, international organisations, corporations and civil societies. And there, as well, in the tropical heat of Southeast Asia, the extensive spying network of the NSA dominated the discussions.
The IGF, contrary to the European summit, was never supposed to take decisions or draft formal conclusions. But what came up out of dozens of panels in Bali was equally telling. Asia, though not as shaken as Europe by the NSA's revelations, is bumping into the same digital wall. With immense quantities of Asian data being stored on US servers, and with hundreds of millions of Asian consumers being hooked to Google, Apple, Yahoo or Microsoft, the East is equally threatened by the over-arching US digital empire. Most Asian states, like their fellow Europeans, do not have digital sovereignty. They have no means to protect digital assets of their citizens and institutions. In brief, those emerging countries positioning themselves as potential leaders for tomorrow's globalisation are experiencing a similar digital wake-up call.
The similarities end here. Unlike European governments, Asian administrations do not see the US digital assault on privacy as worth a confrontation with Washington. Culture plays a role here: in Asia, the group remains often above the individual and Asian states are still reluctant to modify their internal security acts. Moreover, some countries' administrations have long spied on their citizens and therefore do not wish to reopen this freedom versus security debate, especially at a time when war on terrorism and religious fundamentalism continues to rage throughout Southeast Asia.
Another difference is that Europeans and Asians have diverging commercial interests in this digital economy. In Asia, US internet giants are either welcomed or kept at bay by openly protectionist legislation. The debate in this part of the world is not to replace or to emasculate the Silicon Valley's offspring, but to protect the huge regional digital market, and eventually to make lucrative commercial transpacific deals with the US mastodons. Some countries in Asia are already positioning themselves as competitive and safe destinations for data storage. Business comes first. Digital security breaches are seen as acceptable collateral damages.
This being said, it would be a mistake for both regions to ignore this digital wake-up call and pretend that the old state of play remains unchanged after the Edward Snowden revelations. The confrontational path taken initially by Brazil, which advocated a more conciliatory approach during Bali's IGF , demonstrates that a lot is at stake. Because data is the oil of the future global economy, no single country can be left alone controlling it.
Using the access to their regional markets as leverage to obtain concessions from Washington and the Silicon Valley, Asian and European foreign ministers of the 51 member countries of the Asia-Europe Meeting shall touch upon the subject when they convene in mid-November in New Delhi, India. Though obviously tempted by a "wait and see" attitude, Asian governments have nothing to lose by exchanging ideas and positions with their European counterparts on digital diplomacy and internet governance.
Soon after the Asem ministerial conference, the International Telecommunication Union Telecom World conference will take place on Nov 20-23 in Bangkok. Thousands of experts, key players of the digital world and regulating bodies (from governments to UN organisations) will again debate this global digital deadlock, even if very few stakeholders are in favour of seeing the ITU play a bigger role.
Nevertheless, as the NSA ball continues to roll, Europe and Asia shall beware of appearing defenceless vis-a-vis US digital domination. For a forum in search of a meaning, the choice to remain silent would be a very wrong signal to send to digital enterprises and citizens from Asia and Europe.
Richard Werly is an international correspondent for the Swiss daily Le Temps and an associate fellow of the EU Centre in Singapore and Diplofoundation in Geneva.