Digital sovereignty is not anti-American. It’s an essential ingredient in the French recipe to protect democracy, argues Ambassador Henri Verdier, France’s Ambassador for Digital Affairs.
Verdier was appointed in 2018. Previously, he served as the French government’s Chief Technology Officer and headed up Etalab, the French agency for public open data. He began his career in the private sector, launching a startup involved in social data mining and creating the e-learning subsidiary of the publisher Odile Jacob.
Verdier spoke with CEPA President and CEO Alina Polyakova. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ambassador, for a long time, France has advocated for more European and French autonomy in the digital domain. This idea of digital sovereignty has become a bit politically loaded, as autocratic governments use a version of this term. What does digital sovereignty mean to you, and what does it mean for France?
You’re completely right. France has advocated for a long time for European digital sovereignty.
Yes, some authoritarian regimes speak about sovereignty to say that the state can do what it wants. It’s absolutely not the French vision. We’re not speaking about the right of the state to control the internet. We’re speaking about being free on the Internet.
In France, we link sovereignty to democracy. If we want the people to be sovereign, it is not sovereign without the state being strong and autonomous enough to implement what the people decide.
That’s what we’re trying to explain to Europe – it's not about controlling the Internet. It's not about protectionism. It’s not about hegemony. It’s about the need to be autonomous to make proper decisions about issues such as privacy. We cannot afford a world where huge big companies say “we don’t like your regulation, I won't implement them.”
Ambassador, you have laid out quite an expansive vision. Is this vision of sovereignty in the digital domain really compatible with having the open-access model to data? Once we begin having so many different cloud services, for example, is it possible to have free, open data flows across European countries, across the Atlantic?
Thank you for your question. It's a very important question, and something that authoritarian regimes don’t understand.
In 1970, we invented the Internet. It's a unique, open, free network for humanity with multi-stakeholder governance. We have to fight, for this free and open Internet.
In 1990, in Europe, Tim Berners Lee, a Brit, invented the web. The web is different than the Internet. With the web, we have user-generated content and face issues such as child abuse content and terrorist content. We adopted some regulations. But basically, in Europe and US, we decided that hosting services are not in charge of the content.
Then in 2004, at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook. In 2005, came YouTube and in 2006 Twitter. These are companies, with dedicated business models. While the Internet is neutral, decentralized, free, and open, social networks are not neutral. They promote and curate certain content with algorithms. It's not open. I cannot add my own services freely, I cannot observe and analyze the algorithms.
In Europe, we consider that these companies must be regulated to protect the unique and shared Internet. If China wants to disconnect the US internet, the US will disconnect the Chinese internet. But there is no need for a single global data market. It’s not a fundamental right.
For example, in Europe, we prioritize privacy. I visited a campaign team during your election and discovered the huge database about every American voter, with 200 pieces of information about each voter. You can have a driver's license. You can own a gun. Your children attend private schools. In Europe, this is impossible.
Well, Ambassador, we all want a free, open, interoperable internet we know that the internet looks very different to Chinese citizens than it does to European or American citizens. What we can to do ensure that there is a remaining space for a democratic and open internet?
Yes of course the digital space in China is completely different, with different rules. We dislike this approach. But it’s the same technical Internet, the same PCP ICP protocol, the same Huawei or Cisco equipment. It's separate digital spaces, and that’s sad, but it’s the same technical infrastructure.
As you, of course, are aware, there are quite expansive and growing discussions and debates here in Washington on competition policy and regulation. At the same time, at the EU level, there are quite significant legislative proposals on the table, including Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act. What specifics is the French government planning to pursue to ensure EU competitiveness especially in these critical technologies?
As you said, we need innovation. But innovation is not automatically tied to big monopolistic companies. We need to create more diversity, more space for things we share together, more resources for small companies,
So yes, we need champions in Europe and in France. We need destructive innovation. When President Macron was elected we had three unicorns, companies worth $1 billion. Today, we have 25. We want these unicorns to go to the IPO and to become big international companies.
Some people in Europe say half-joking that the US invents, China copies, and Europe regulates. But as I told you, sometimes Europe invents too.
My final question: you talked a lot about the French vision for sovereignty, about how France plans to invest and encourage European investment in innovation, but I wanted to close us off with a broader question on the opportunities for transatlantic cooperation on tech. How can we make sure that we’re united in our approach and that we don’t end up with a fragmented policy?
The opportunity is bright. After January 6, we agree that it's time for some kind of regulation. We understand that we won't be sovereign without real big companies, so we did start a kind of convergence.
Under the Biden administration, the US is returning the multilateral process. We make progress, in the UN, in the OECD, in the OSCE, and in the Trade and Technology Council.
When I traveled in the US, some Americans tend to ignore that you also regulate. But everywhere in the world, the last 30 years were mostly about deregulation.
In two weeks in France, I will publish a book entitled the Business of Hate: Democracy, Internet, and the Social Network. In it, I explain how the Supreme Court adopted the Fairness Doctrine in 1943. It was smart.
In 1963 the Court decided that the First Amendment protected democracy, and for the right of citizens to have a variety of information was more important than for a company to say whatever it wants. So, you have a long tradition of brilliant regulation. We should exchange on this. Otherwise, we will help big companies – but lose democracy.
January 31, 2022