Europe mounts digital offensive

“We have to rethink our understanding of platforms,” said Krzysztof Szubert.

Interview with Krzysztof Szubert, Poland’s digital maestro


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On the heels of the Tallinn Digital Summit, and a faster than ever pace in the regulation of Europe’s Digital Single Market, Poland’s Krzysztof Szubert has led the charge not just internally for reform in his own country – but at the EU level by rallying Institutions and member states in a common direction.

As of March, Szubert has moved from position strategic advisor to the Minister, to become Deputy Minister, and Secretary of State at the Ministry of Digital Affairs, responsible for international relations – including regulation, European Parliament, European Commission, bilateral relations with ambassadors, tech companies and more.

His bold plan to an integrated approach when it comes to digital affairs has won over the country’s Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, who has positioned Szubert to reach out and coordinate beyond the confines of his Ministry.

Szubert is now the plenipotentiary of the Polish government of all ministers who touch upon the digital space; in essence, he coordinates Poland’s the digital single market strategy across eight ministries.

Szubert sat down with New Europe’s Editor Alexandros Koronakis, and discussed the rapidly evolving digital landscape in Europe. Asked how he managed to win over the trust of his own political leadership – particularly in such a sensitive portfolio, Szubert attributed the success to hard work.

“I think we’ve been able to provide enough details, successful actions, and ideas, to build this trust over the last two years. We had this discussion before my appointment, and the idea was to make some changes that will allow us to spend our time very effectively. We are still considered a very technical and expert-oriented ministry,” he explained.

“We were able to present in front of the whole cabinet and the Prime Minister our activities on the European level and our ideas which we would like to develop in Poland and it was quite a big surprise for many ministers and our Prime Minister. We can build such a positive agenda without large support. Just being active, having good ideas and being able to create coalitions at the European level around our ideas.”

The DSM and data

“We decided over a year ago that if we, as Poland, would like to be considered as the leader in any field in the digital space at a European level, there is no sense – in our perspective – to concentrate on the different technologies we are talking about like 5G, internet of things, autonomous cars, cloud, etc. They are very important, but in the end, all of those technologies will survive if they will be accessing enough data. The data is the most important source. We decided to address the data, and the other technology areas will follow us; there will be no need for us to follow them.” Szubert’s perspective on data is that member states must open non-personal data, and build one European 500m citizen market. “This is how we will be able to convince startups, investors, and entrepreneurs to innovate around this. Otherwise, we will be too fragmented. Otherwise, we will not be able, even the big economies like Germany or France, to really compete with the US, China or India. We can do together, otherwise, in my opinion, it will not be successful.

p1QBA_2713One critical element for Szubert is the measurement of data – what does the free flow data flow actually mean from the economic perspective? Szubert’s ministry has worked with a leading university in Warsaw, to develop a new way to measurement, a new data index that compares different economies from a data perspective.

“We have at the European level the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), which is a little old and should be updated in quite a few fields… for example, the mobile technologies do not have a strong enough value in this index. This data index can become a part of DESI as data is important in the economy. We see that now there is a moment of transition from the older industries based on natural resources, mining, and others, to data-oriented industries. These will be much more successful in the future as we will be having more and more data generated. They are not organised geographically, and this could be a chance for all the countries which are interested and have ideas about how to address this field to focus on the data economy. The most important element will be to access and analyse the data.

The discussion led to a 17-country coalition led by Poland that brought forth their ideas for more prominent discussions on EU digital policy; culminating  in discussions at the Tallinn Digital Summit in Estonia at the end of September. With more than half of the EU’s member states on board, at the last minute four countries – Germany, France, Italy and Spain – drafted a paper outlining their own priorities which came at odds with the 17-country coalition. The major difference in the two papers was that of platform taxation.

But as a political move, the move by the big-four perplexed Szubert. “Some of the countries were a bit confused, as to why they came up with more or less the same document three days before the summit… and to not ask other member states to join… I had this feeling from the Presidency perspective that it was a little bit strange. The letter of the 17 is still open.” Since then, Bulgaria, the next country to hold the EU Presidency has also joined.

Szubert touted the summit as a success, highlighting that the importance of digital transformation is now at the head-of-state level. But this does not mean that achieving results will be easy. 

“The biggest threat I see right now is to how to govern and manage this transformation at the member-state level and here in Brussels at the European level. We have more and more Commissioners on digital files, and we have the same in the member countries. Actually, most of the ministers are involved in digital files,” Szubert says. 

Going deeper into the situation at the EU, Szubert says the Commission has to change: “[In digital matters] At the Commission, we have Ansip, Gabriel, King, Jurova; there’s more people involved than one year ago. This might make things more difficult. Perhaps this is a good moment to discuss different changes from the portfolio perspective before the next term of the European Commission. So maybe this is a good moment to discuss how to divide the files, because they are overlapping in many areas… the hierarchy needs to be redefined.”

Cybersecurity

With European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker announcing at his State of the Union address in September that the EU will develop its cybersecurity capabilities further, Szubert sees a positive development where countries are alligned.

“It was very good to see that ENISA will be stronger from the mandate perspective and the budget. There are also some discussions in place regarding the relocation of the Heraklion office; it should be moved I think. In the end, what we see that in cybersecurity we are all on the same page as member-states. The most important thing will be to really work together and exchange information. We are doing this at the national level; we’ve built our strategy which has been approved by the cabinet and the Prime Minister, and are now working on the legislation.”

Platform tax

On the issue of platform taxation, Szubert was not unsupportive. “The discussion was initiated by France a couple of weeks ago, and we had had a discussion begin in 2012 in the same way initiated by France.

In general, we are supportive what the four countries are saying on the paper, but we would like to see more details.

We are not supporting the CCTB and CCCTB models. We are more in favour of supporting the equalisation tax or to do it through the OECD model. In our opinion, the platforms should pay taxes in the place where they create profits. Whether it will be a turnover-based tax or a profit-based tax we will have to see. We had some thoughts and discussions on that with the ministry of finance, but we have decided to wait till the four countries who initiated the discussion will propose more concrete things to talk about.”

Are platforms becoming dangerous?

The discussion with Szubert took an interesting tangent. In discussing elements of fake news, extremist content, and growth of platforms, Szubert explained his thoughts. “In general we would like to support a secure internet environment, and if you ask people if they would like to have such a secure environment, they answer yes. But if you ask them if they would like to have the government look at what they are doing, they would be against. It’s like having police on the streets, without having any right to do anything.

In Poland, it is a very difficult discussion from this perspective, so we are looking to the EU for guidelines or ideas about how to do it. Everything touching on human rights is very fragile. Even the discussion of cookies is problematic.

“We have to rethink our understanding of platforms. In many cases the big platforms are bigger as economies, they have a bigger market capitalisation than most of the countries in the EU. So they are something between a country and a tech company. They have much bigger potential than single countries to change anything in our perception of the market, to react and change economies.”

“It is important to make sure the platforms are not changing reality, lives; not being involved too much in fake news or disinformation – because they change the perception of many different areas of our understanding of what’s going on.”

Asked if he was thinking about the Russian influence on the US elections through advertising on Facebook through fake accounts, Szubert’s response was surprising.

“This is even small; the potential is much bigger I think … I can understand that these are technology companies, that they are successful and would like to keep dominant positions and make money out of that, but on the other hand, they have too much power; in many cases of European Union countries larger economic and political power. They can change much more.”

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