Europe warns of global threats from digital platforms, AI, and China

European Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager recently delivered a lecture in which she asserted that digital technologies are as disruptive to the world as the invention of nuclear weapons.

Scott Bicheno

April 10, 2024

5 Min Read

The premise for this dramatic comparison was created by the venue for Vestager’s lecture - the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in the US. Among previous visiting lecturers was Robert Oppenheimer, the ‘father of the atomic bomb’. Vestager extracted the following quote from the recent movie about him as the central theme of her talk: “This is not a new weapon, it is a new world.”

Such is the globally seismic significance of current digital technologies, according to Vestager, that they are changing the global game to no less an extent than the advent of nukes. “Now fast-forward eighty years,” she said. “Today, digital technologies do not only add new ways for us to learn, to buy, to create, or keep in touch. Digital technologies change the world as we know it.”

Specifically, Vestager highlighted the following:

  • “First – with the dominance of large digital platforms, technology is challenging democracy.  

  • Second – with the rise of General Purpose Artificial Intelligence, technology is challenging humanity.   

  • And third – with the global race for the technologies we need the most, technology is challenging our economic security. And shaping a new geopolitical world order.”

Of course, the EU is totally on top of all this stuff, with Vestager insisting Europe is leading global efforts to govern tech. In fact, she seemed to be gently chiding the rest of the world for not doing as much as Europe.  “But we need a much broader range of democratic partners to do this,” said Vestager.

Somewhat paradoxically, one of the most powerful figures in the 27-country EU bloc lamented how the internet has come to be dominated by a few giant players. “Step by step, they took more space in our lives, with this space came power and with power came control,” said Vestager, who should know.

Inevitably, as we have seen in other similar recent initiatives, the real concern for this politician is loss of control over the public discussion. “Think of all the risks that this entails for our democracy,” she said, especially “the risk to see our public debate privatised.”

In a bid to reclaim power and thus control over the digital space, the EU has launched a bunch of initiatives such as GDPR, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act. One of the powers they grant the EC is ability to demand digital platforms censor speech according to its whims. Of course, Vestager doesn’t see it that way. “Don't get me wrong, at no point, and by no means, are we censoring users,” she insisted. “It is quite the opposite; we are protecting users against illegal content.” That’s not really the opposite, is it?

Vestager’s only regret about those measures is that they didn’t come sooner, a mistake she’s determined not to repeat when it comes to AI. “Probably never in history have we been confronted with a technology that has this much power, but no predefined purpose,” she said, and could well be right.

“In authoritarian parts of the world, we have seen AI developed and used for mass surveillance, for social credit systems, to oppress minorities, to censor and control information,” she continued. “We face the advent of AI-powered predictive policing. Humans targeted not for what they have done, but for what an algorithm considers they are likely to do.” We can only hope that the EU’s desire to mitigate risks to democracy doesn’t tempt it to dabble in some of the above, all in the name of safety.

There are three main ways to tackle this global problem, we’re told. The first, of course, is legislation and regulation. The second is a “need to foster an international convergence for guardrails on AI,” and the third, which follows from that, is “universal governance of AI,” meaning “we will need to find ways for the whole world to come on board, including those we fundamentally disagree with.” Even the authoritarian ones.

Which led Vestager to her final concern: economic security. “Because these are times of systemic rivalry, the world is thrown into a fierce global tech race,” she said. Europe and the US, each in their own way, depend on third countries for critical technologies, and the raw materials needed to produce them. And in this area, China has built- up a strong position, not always playing fair.”

“We saw the playbook for how China came to dominate the solar panel industry. First, attracting foreign investment into its large domestic market, usually requiring joint ventures. Second, acquiring the technology, and not always above board. Third, granting massive subsidies for domestic suppliers, while simultaneously and progressively closing the domestic market to foreign businesses. And fourth, exporting excess capacity to the rest of the world at low prices.”

The remedy seems to be for the EU to punish China when it subsidises domestic producers beyond the level it deems acceptable. “Furthermore, I can announce that today, we are launching a new inquiry into Chinese suppliers of wind turbines,” said Vestager. “We are investigating the conditions for the development of wind parks in Spain, Greece, France, Romania and Bulgaria.”

“As we further develop the strategy for clean technologies, we must reflect about the question of trustworthiness. These products become connected and more and more, they are an essential part of our critical energy and transport infrastructure. So, we must make sure that we can trust them, and we can make sure that they uphold our values.” Vestager wants the other G7 countries to follow suit.

“After the war, around 1955, politics created the International Atomic Energy Agency, to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies, which then created the conditions for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” concluded Vestager. “When it comes to digital, this is our 1955. And the policy choices we make today will shape how technology develops and how it is used, for decades to come.”

On the whole, it’s hard to argue with the concept that we’re at a global inflection point when it comes to technology and how it affects everyone. It’s good to see powerful public figures bring attention to this matter and seek greater cooperation in trying to steer things in a benign direction. But if they demand even more power in order to do so, we should also be concerned about us becoming just as authoritarian as the places we’re supposedly being protected from.

Here's the full lecture.

About the Author(s)

Scott Bicheno

As the Editorial Director of, Scott oversees all editorial activity on the site and also manages the Intelligence arm, which focuses on analysis and bespoke content.
Scott has been covering the mobile phone and broader technology industries for over ten years. Prior to Scott was the primary smartphone specialist at industry analyst Strategy Analytics’. Before that Scott was a technology journalist, covering the PC and telecoms sectors from a business perspective.
Follow him @scottbicheno

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