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Europe urged to do more with industry data trove

Europe needs to help its companies do more with their vast output of industrial data to help them stave off competition from the US and China, according to the EU commissioner charged with overseeing the digital economy.

Thierry Breton told the Financial Times he was preparing plans to help EU companies to better capitalise on the electronic information they generate, in the latest sign of concern in Brussels over how far the bloc’s companies lag their rivals.

The proposals include common rules to ease intra-EU transfers in what would amount to a single market for data, according to people with direct knowledge of the plans.

“I will make sure we will not miss the new wave of industrial data,” Mr Breton said in an interview. “The most important thing is to evaluate how we create data . . . and how we will be able to use this data.”

The initiative comes as Europe has looks to build tech groups that can compete with Silicon Valley.

Mr Breton said the potential for Europe to gain ownership of its industrial data was enormous and noted that most was in the hands of a few companies.

“I don’t blame anyone, I just say it will have to change,” said Mr Breton, who last month became the EU’s commissioner for the internal market.

Some of the world’s largest manufacturers are European but there are concerns that companies are failing to make the most of data generated — everything from companies exploiting information generated by smart energy meters to more efficient access to data in the logistics and automotive sectors.

“In the world today companies are dealing with something like 35 zettabytes,” Mr Breton said. One zettabyte is equal to 1tn gigabytes.

He added: “Companies are producing more and more data: transportation, hospitals, patients, cars, planes. At the end of the mandate [of the commission in 2024] the planet will [have] 175 zettabytes of data.

“My goal is to prepare ourselves so the data will be used for Europeans, by Europeans and with our values.”

Last November, German chancellor Angela Merkel urged the EU to develop its own platform to manage data and reduce its reliance on US-based cloud services.

Peter Altmaier, German economy minister, has said the data of companies such as carmaker Volkswagen, and the German interior ministry and social security system, were increasingly stored on the servers of Microsoft and Amazon. “In this, we are losing part of our sovereignty,” he has argued.

Europe’s arrangements for sharing commercial data between countries and companies are hampered by patchy rules on how transfers should take place, a lack of common standards and insufficient technology to exploit the information.

Companies are also not always able to access data generated by the machines they use because the makers of the technology retain the right to access the information.

Many national systems lack basic means to facilitate data transfers: for example, not all EU countries keep health records in a digital format, making it difficult to access them for research purposes.

EU officials think innovation will be increased if data can be transferred more freely and public data is re-used as much as possible. Discussions have not been settled, but a formal announcement on the strategy of how to remove local restrictions on transfers of industrial data is expected in early March, they said.

EU member states have recently put forward proposals on how to boost data sharing at a national and European level. The Netherlands said last year it favoured voluntary sharing of information between companies but would consider regulation, ideally at an EU level, to force companies to share data.

The plans from Mr Breton, a former French finance minister, are part of a bigger EU push for the bloc to claim “digital sovereignty” over Silicon Valley. This also includes considering tougher action against non-EU internet companies.

Mr Breton challenged online platforms to become better at policing hate speech and dissemination of terrorist acts, saying that the EU would otherwise be ready to impose tougher rules.

The commissioner left open the possibility of revising the EU’s ecommerce directive, a 20-year-old set of rules governing internet platforms.

“I am not naive, I know how long it took to put together [the old rule book] and I want to make it work,” he said. “But things have changed a lot. We have to cope with some fears, complaints from governments, citizens for the responsibility of the platforms regarding some illegal or inappropriate content, like counterfeiting, hate speech, fake news . . . Big companies cannot say it is not my fault or it is not my responsibility.”

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