Meta’s threat is the result of European hypocrisy and cultural subordination to North American models

Like a sovereign state, Meta-Facebook is announcing possible “sanctions” against another (non-)sovereign state, the European Union, because of its policy choices on personal data protection. After decades of guilty inertia, some national data protection authorities (the Austrian and German ones, in particular) have woken up from their torpor and discovered that Google’s ecosystem creates some problems for the rights of citizens of EU Member States. Better late than never? Comments on the news superficially focused on the tired narrative of ‘privacy protection’ and the risk that US authorities might access data imported by Google. However, these analyses fail to grasp some structural aspects of the affair.  by Andrea Monti – Initially published in Italian on Strategikon – an Italian Tech blog.

The first one is the twenty years-long abstention of national governments in building a continental technological and regulatory ecosystem that would favour national companies and free us from electronic slavery. In Italy, it has been a known subject since at least 2000. However, the executives and parliaments have always had other things to think about and, indeed, have recently handed over essential parts of education, justice and health to non-EU companies. It matters little that these companies have ‘European VAT numbers’ with subsidiaries based somewhere in the EU economic area. In the end, everything – data, money and market share – ends up in the United States.

The second aspect that characterises Meta-Facebook’s ‘sanctions notice’ is the absence of alternatives for non-US companies and institutions. If, overnight, social media, search engines and digital marketing tools were no longer available, the economy of the Member States would suffer a considerable blow. Of course, the market for cloud and analytics platforms is quite populated and, led by Germany. Some products can provide services (almost) equivalent to those in North America. NextCloud is an open-source alternative to GoogleWorkspace. Matomo is the competitor of Analytics. France, The Netherland and Germany (yet!) have their search engines. However, over time, attempts to build truly alternative search engines to Altavista, Yahoo! and, of course, Google have failed miserably (does anyone remember iStella?), have not yielded the desired results, or are relying – to varying degrees – on Google. Moreover, as far as social networks are concerned, why does Splinder no longer exist? What are the (real) alternatives based within the European Economic Area?

To summarise: enterprises cannot wait for the convenience of (supra)national institutions to be able to use customer contact tools. Public institutions did not even bother to think about alternatives when it came to choosing which tools to use for interaction with citizens. The result is that, over time, everyone used what the market offered. Once the investments have been made in terms of budget, infrastructure, customisation of applications and, above all, training of human resources, it is difficult to change course. It would cost too much in terms of money and effort. It is called technological lock-in, it is a technique for acquiring and keeping market shares, and it has always been used. However, no European authority – political or regulatory – has ever bothered about it.

The third and most worrying aspect is the lack of coolness of European products that are not ‘cool’ enough to attract users. European alternatives to US products are, quite simply, boring and do not speak to people’s bellies. They try to convince people to break away from Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp etc., by using intimidating messages about ‘rights dangers’. However, they are empty messages because they are not (and cannot be) understood.

So, while crowds of zealous ‘privacy defenders’ (whose good faith, in some cases, is also open to question) invade newspaper columns and social media profiles with wrinkled expressions and millenarianism messages, ordinary people apply the same cultural patterns that characterise other components of social life to electronic communication services.

If cinema is North American, if music is made in the USA, if coffee and sandwiches are consumed at Starbucks and McDonald’s, if American English has become a variant of Italian in every form of public and private conversation, why should people not, consistently, prefer the lightness of US platforms over the tedious, bureaucratic and pedantic approaches of the ‘disinterested’ sellers of fundamental rights ‘made in EU’?

This anthropological component of the problem is, compared to the others mentioned in this article, the most relevant because it highlights the essential vulnerability of the Old Continent: the absence of a common culture. Beyond the institutional narrative, the reality is that “European citizens” do not exist, just as a “European interest” and, consequently, a “European nation” do not exist. Unless the process of transforming the EU into a politically sovereign entity – blocked in 2005 by France and the Netherlands by refusing to ratify the treaty establishing the European Constitution – is restarted, it is impossible to build a shared cultural identity.

Until then, I am afraid, the authorities (and their ‘unofficial’ spokesmen) may continue to block, ban and threaten, but the people will continue to trust their gutsand not (what has left of) their brains.

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