Europe’s route to 5G

France, United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy and Romania recently captured the limelight when they adopted security measures for the installation of 5G technology. The potential of these new generation mobile telecommunication networks appears substantial with the additional growth of automatic applications based on data collection. However, the traditional race towards upgrading has come to a halt. For two years now the United States has been exposing the risks which Chinese companies represent, notably Huawei or ZTE, for new generation mobile networks. According to Washington, Chinese technology in 5G networks could provide Beiing with the opportunity to capture information. Washington denounces the potential collection of data on the part of Chinese companies which not only represents a danger in itself, but also due to the added risk represented by the operations of global databases.

Many European countries, France and the United Kingdom first and foremost, but Italy as well, have taken the US warnings seriously and created a security and authorization system to evaluate the risks represented by Chinese suppliers of new generation mobile networks before deciding whether to authorize them. In general, their position is not one of complete closure, but of strong control. In this regard we should recall for example the stance taken by Copasir who heeded the US waning. We should also cite the instance of France who has excluded Huawei from certain geographical areas considered sensitive due to the high number of military bases or national security bodies (Toulon, Brest, Paris).

We have, however, also witnessed a countermove on behalf of Chinese suppliers. Huawei is investing 200 million Euros to set up a 5G component factory near Strasbourg in France so as to justify a production on European territory which would meet European standards and thereby earn access to the market from within. In Italy also, in March, Huawei unveiled its Cyber Security Transparency Center in order to convey an image of reliability.

The issue of data collection, which is at the heart of the 5G debate, but above all the possibility of creating vast databases which can subsequently be used through a variety of applications means Europe faces a series of difficult choices.

Currently the flow of Europe’s data is captured and then processed by major American platforms, known as GAFAM, and therefore ends up deposited in data centres located within the American territory. The mass of applications we use daily feed a transatlantic flow of information which already causes a series of problems: since 2013 the action by Max Schrems before the European courts has led to the regime which regulates this data transfer to be reviewed, also in the name of respect for the rights of European citizens by American authorities. In 2020, following further developments in the “Schrems case” the primary data transfer agreement between the EU and the United States, the so-called privacy shield, was declared invalid. We can already identify how a number of US regulations, for example laws combating terrorism, can undermine the protection of the rights of European citizens who could find their data being used directly by US administrations. But besides this problem, which appears particularly tricky in terms of political sovereignty and rights, we should remember that European citizens rely heavily on US digital applications which collect and stock data for commercial purposes. Web giants have created a true data industry with a complete collection of individual’s data in order to increase profits, a model where the ultimate objective is to enhance marketing abilities and therefore sales.

Such a scenario could appear confounding. It portrays a world where some companies accumulate such power as to be cause for worry on the consequences it can have on sovereignty, and therefore on the rule of law, to the extent of giving the impression of being a threat to States and their power. The assumption of a “Chinese” 5G threat however introduces yet another variant: that of companies directly linked to the Beijing political regime and which would be able to transfer the data used not for the optimization of commercial intents as in the classic example of the GAFAM, but with the purpose of a political dominance. This would mean a global rendering of the already existing “social control” by Chinese technologies, not to mention the Orwellian possibilities looming in the field of automated spying through AI technologies. The “classic” scenario of 5G mistrust however conceals another global issue: that of data sovereignty and the protection of rights in a digital context, a topic which was also addressed in the recent European regulation of artificial intelligence.

We need to make a fundamental distinction. The collection of data on the part of big tech US companies represents a substantial problem. However, it remains within the bounds of private entities trying to increase their profits. With China, there is the suspicion that there might be a much more direct relation between the technological system based on data and political power, which represents a greater degree of danger. From this point of view, although the concerns remain extremely sensitive, there is a clear difference between the EU’s position with respect to the US and to China, with the latter raising more concerns.

We can also note how the Biden administration is pressing for a further upsurge in the technological competition with China, even beyond the strict definition of “5G”. A topical issue is that of semiconductors, an essential technology, in which China currently finds itself in an inferior position, lagging behind other Asian manufacturers (Taiwan and South Korea), but also with respect to the key roles played by US and European technologies. Both the American decision to invest in further production capacity on US territory and the embargoes against Beijing are causing China to become watchful.

There are other kinds of technology, such as quantum computing or software development, also for AI, where we can see how the US is pushing to maintain its advantage to preserve the technological divide with China. In the 5G domain as well, the software segment is becoming increasingly important and therefore could make the embargo against Chinese technology even more relative.

In essence, 5G today does not appear as a problem ‘in itself’, but as the expression of a technological puzzle which uncovers what is at stake in each compartment. The problem is that of being present and carrying out innovation in every technological area, a global vision which is not so obvious for the European Union which is used to operating in a much more consolidated transatlantic market. It is therefore necessary for us find the right equilibrium between the development of our own technologies and the ability to negotiate and to raise the level of requests to the US, also in the name of a convergence of rights and democracy. The contest is far from simple, yet we should highlight the promising work done by the European Commission in ramping up its industrial politics, increasing investments and defining a pioneering regulation of the digital sphere.