Article published on July 12, 2004
community published
Article published on July 12, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Who controls the internet? What’s the EU’s role? Are we in a position to cope with the challenges of the new century? Although the outlook isn’t too bleak, Europe’s technology gap continues to impede its development.

The technology gap in figures.

The EU currently has 197 million internet users, a number which represents 25.1% of the total number of internet users in the world and a market penetration of 43.4% of the European population. At first sight, these indicators appear healthy but you only have to compare them with US indicators to realise that they’re not that good. With 150 million fewer inhabitants than the EU, the US has 10 million more internet users than the Union. In other terms, it has a market penetration of 70.4% of the population, which equates to 26.4% of users around the world. It is obvious that the EU is behind the US in this respect but the problem appears even worse when you look beneath the surface and discover the enormous internal inequalities that divide us. It could be thought that the statistics have been distorted by the new member states as a consequence of enlargement. However, there is no clear pattern dividing the older member states from the new ones. Sweden, with 76.8% of market penetration, is the only member state which tops the US. At the other end of the spectrum we find Greece, with a worrying 15.3%, followed by Hungary, Portugal, and Lithuania, each with less than 20% of the population connected to the internet. The statistics for the 6 largest countries of the EU aren’t harmonious either, and vary between the acceptable percentages of the United Kingdom (60.6%), Germany (54.9%) and Italy (50.9%), and the mediocre ones of France (38%), Spain (34.5%) and Poland’s tiny 23.5%. The EU can’t just sit around and wait for something to happen. It must act immediately to cancel out these enormous differences. Countries such as South Korea (with a level of development similar to that of Portugal) became aware of the importance of the internet some time ago, and implemented policies destined to lower the price of broadband connections, subsidise the purchase of hardware, and provide lessons in computer literacy. As a consequence, in the space of just a few years, 62% of South Koreans have gained access to the internet.

One body, fourteen (open) hearts?

The European technology lag goes far deeper than mere statistics. If the internet was a circulatory system, it would have 14 hearts to make it work, pumping out information to even the most distant of modems. 10 of these ‘hearts’ –or root servers- are in the US and only 3 are in Europe (United Kingdom, Sweden, and Spain). All the information circulating on the World Wide Web goes through one of these primary servers, which means that the majority of it goes through the US. Is this a problem? Yes it is. And not just because the servers are located in the United States, but because of the existence of the so-called Carnivore and Echelon programmes developed by the FBI and the NSA (National Security Agency). Both projects started off with good intentions: one was destined to combat international terrorism; the other was born of the Cold War. It wasn’t long before both were being used for other ends. Both programmes are capable of intercepting millions of exchanges per second, be it through the internet, telephone, or radio. Although the US government has not officially acknowledged their existence, the European Parliament has, owing to a number of cases of industrial espionage, in which European firms were being ‘attacked’ in order to make their ideas accessible to other firms such as Boeing or Lockheed, and, more generally, to the big firms of the founder countries of the system, which, as well as the US, include the United Kingdom (!!!), Canada, Australia and New Zealand. From that point on, the EU realised it had to adopt measures in order to lessen the gap with the US. One of the first such measures was the creation of a new ‘supersafe’ system of encryption as a response to Echelon. The question is: should we resign ourselves to adopting defensive counter measures or, on the contrary, should we be more active and hit back instead of protecting ourselves? The debate is open: the EU must decide whether or not to create its own Echelon programme. Several projects are being bandied about but we must not forget that these types of system can usually be used to violate our civil liberties with comparative ease. Associations of internet users have already taken a stand against a putative ‘EuroEchelon’ system, and they’re not wholly unjustified in doing so. One thing is for sure: it’s time to act. We must find a way of devising our own espionage system without becoming the pawns of Big Brother. We must launch a counterattack against those who attack us by turning their own weapons against them. However, we must not renounce our own principles. This last point is the most difficult part to achieve, but achieve it we must; otherwise we would be close to introducing into our society the very defects that we on this side of the Atlantic criticise in American society.