History of digital sovereignty initiatives in Europe

I come across many projects, events and inventions as I research digital sovereignty in the EU. Some of them fall under different pillars but for the ones listed below I hope to tie them with a common thread – that is technological self determination attempted via public and industrial initiatives in response to a political, security or economic threat from the 1960s to today.

This post focuses on public-private projects and this one traces the history of bottom up and grassroots digital sovereignty projects. Tracing such events from mid 20th century – and later – coincides well with the creation/strengthening of a shared European (community) vision, and slowly creating a shared vision of technological interests.

In addition to the somewhat of a definition provided above, what comes below features two other disclaimers. This aims to be light touch tracing of observations and not as deep of a dive as the respectable quoted authors have done.

Lastly, this is a living post that will be constantly updated and refined in an attempt to present as correct a picture as possible on the history of European digital sovereignty initiatives as possible.

I'm always humbled by those who know more than me or who can help and if you'd like to do so please don't hesitate to let me know what can be corrected, added or otherwise improved.

1960s

Plan Calcul was initiated by the French government in 1966-67 to create a new national champion computing firm to rival IBM and help decrease its reliance on the US.

This happened because a year earlier, the US blocked IBM’s selling of its supercomputer that the French required for finalising its nuclear program and the American General Electric buying a majority stake of the French Bull – the largest French computer manufacturer which today belongs to Atos.

After spending $100 million, the project was discontinued for political reasons. Nevertheless, national decision makers realised that “an indigenous computer industry [is] vital to French national interests”.

1970s

A 1978 report on the “informatization of society” and its emphasis on seizing the new wave of technology was backed by the French president at the time, Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing, and was the backdrop for the creation of national and European transmission and interworking systems including Télétel, its precursor CYCLADES – which started in 1971 and worked on the exchange of data packets – and the European Informatics Network (later Euronet) which was joined by Euratom and several countries including, Britain, France and Italy.

1980s

Euronet was launched on the 13th of February 1980 and interconnected the national data networks of nine member states of the European Economic Community. It was envisioned by the European Commission starting from 1971 as a Pan European Network that enhances the coordination of European states for academic/scientific purposes at first but with ambitions to connect everyone around the world later on.

Its Direct Information Access Network Europe (DIANE) combined hundreds of databases enabling access to scientific, technical, social, economic and legal information. Writing at the time, the Director for Information Management of the European Communities in Luxembourg – Professor Georges Anderla, stated that Euronet arose as a response to the situation in which Europe was constantly lagging behind the USA.

Unfortunately, Euronet gradually lost its significance due to the rise and faster adoption of TCP/IP technologies that were superior to the X.25 protocol that was used in the European internet.

1990s

One of the first initiatives in the area of telecommunications and networking infrastructure development – to be funded by the EC – was the Research and Development in Advanced Communications in Europe (RACE) program. Running from 1985-1994, RACE was intended “to establish European competence in broadband communications by developing the equipment, standards and technology necessary for an Integrated Broadband Communications System”.

The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) was set up in 1998 to “produce and perform the maintenance of the technical standards which are necessary to achieve a large unified European market for telecommunications”. It is still active today and develops standards for key global technologies including 5G.

Running from 1994-1998, the TELEMATICS2 program was set up under Maastricht Treaty's Fourth Framework R&D Programme. TELEMATICS2 is important to mention here as a it was an EU wide research initiative that focused on identifying ICT standards and interoperability. Interesting to mention also is that this program was only 50% funded by the EC, thereby requiring the rest to come from industry.

2000s

Starting out as a French-German project that launched in 2005, Quaero intended to develop a European search engine for both professional and general public use cases.

The project involved major companies – including France Telecom and Exalead which specialises in search based applications – as well as public research institutes such as the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (created under Plan Calcul), Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany and others. At the time it was described as a Google competitor.

Not long after its start, Germany sought to develop its own technology with a specific set of goals outside of the competitive realm of Quaero. Named Theseus, the project aimed to become the “world's most advanced multimedia search engine, creating a set of tools for translating, identifying and indexing images, sound and text”.

Quaero's official website states that the project was officially discontinued on 31st December 2013. After completing its intended purpose (and €200 million later), work on Theseus drew to a close in 2012.

2010s

Andromède Cloud was a project set up by the French government to create a national cloud/infrastructure as a service champion. The motivation behind it was to guarantee data security and privacy that was at the time stored on US companies' servers and subject to the PATRIOT Act which requires these companies to hand over the data to security services.

Although the project was announced by the French prime minister at the time in late 2009, most of the work towards this vision took place in the second decade of the century. The sovereign cloud initiative was envisioned as a public-private partnership with national telecommunication industry and military contractors as shareholders.

Not long after the project's start, disagreement between the parties about the strategic direction – resulted in two companies leading the charge instead of one; these were Numergy and Cloudwatt. The total pool of funding for the project was therefore also split with each standing to receive over €100 million.

Cloudwatt launched an open-source based self service cloud storage solution aimed at small businesses and organisations. At the time of its creation in 2012, the aerospace and defence company Thales, the telecommunications corporation Orange, and the investment arm of the French state, CDS were its shareholders.

Numergy, on the other hand, was backed by the telecommunications corporation SFR, and software and aircraft manufacturer Dassault. The IT corporation Bull later replaced Dassault, after the latter's departure from the originally envisioned project. Numergy was intended to be an enterprise offering in stark difference to Cloudwatt.

Four years into its operation Numergy shut down because of not hitting the commercial goals that were put forward. Meanwhile, Cloudwatt stopped its service in 2020.

In October 2019, the German government put forward the proposal for GAIA-X. It is a layer – that is standard – of cloud and edge computing operated with respect to data protection and interoperability – initiated by Germany with backing from the French government.

Originally proposed as a cooperative structure, the federated cloud is now managed by a non profit foundation (GAIA-X AISBL) that is based in Brussels with a yearly budget of €1.5 million. It counts 22 German and French organisations – including research centres – among its founding members including Deutsche Telekom, BMW, Orange, Amadeus, OVH Cloud and others.

By establishing a standard for data security and portability among participating cloud providers and other IT companies, GAIA-X's aim is to eliminate the EU' dependence on American and Chinese cloud providers that make up the majority of the market offering and capture the (economic) benefits of artificial intelligence other technologies that are built on top of the large amount of data that is produced in Europe.

The first GAIA-X output is a cloud service search engine which aggregates service offerings and a prototype is scheduled for release in early 2021.


Honourable mentions

Post WWII period saw the creation and growth of many computer and workplace technology companies. The urge for cross industry and market compatibility and standardisation (to compete with IBM) resulted in the creation of the European Computer Manufacturing Association in 1961.

It was a private institution that was charged with coordinating internationally and between manufacturers and standardise hardware as well as data processing systems (previous attempts – for standardising paper tapes and codes – only did so on national levels).

The first meeting was attended by members from French, British, Dutch, Swedish, Italian, and West German firms. Thereafter there were regular semi-annual exchanges among the participants but bridging commercial fragmentation was facilitated elsewhere. It is based in Geneva and operates to this day.

Eurodata was a project in the beginning of the 1960s between Siemens, Olivetti and Bull to collaborate in the field of integrated electronic control systems. A year after the three companies met, ICT became the British counterpart in the negotiations.

Critical of former competitors, the participants proposed the name European Electronics for the new venture to be set up in neutral Switzerland. It was a pragmatic industry response to IBM's rise on the continent and each participant was looking to complete their range of data processing machines and market the finished product in their country.

After a short series of negotiations, exploring the idea came to an end because of different business visions and corporate cultures and underestimating the level of involvement required. (The name Eurodata was used for another project by different European industrial players in 1969 to build a new computer for the European Space Research Organization.)

IBM's continued spread across the European market and the initiation of Plan Calcul gave impetus to Unidata. Seen perhaps as a second iteration of Eurodata, Unidata's vision was also to build a strong IT industry at home to rival IBM.

Starting from early 1970s, Siemens, Philipps and Bull were in talks to develop the first product and the venture ultimately launched the X-series, imitating IBM’s 360 and 370 systems. Visions by the new national government in France came in the way and the cooperation was short lived and the project was dissolved in 1974-5.

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication – SWIFT – was established out of worry about what might happen if a single private and fully American entity controlled global financial flows. In the 1970s, the First National City Bank (FNCB) of New York – later Citibank – developed “a proprietary system known as Machine Readable Telegraphic Input (MARTI)”.

The bank had hoped that this system that tied previously disconnected financial institutions around the world would be adopted globally by replacing the insecure and slow public telegram alternatives used by that time. In response to MARTI, FNCB's European and American competitors cooperated and built “a[n] [alternative] messaging system that could replace the public providers and speed up the payment process”.

That became the SWIFT protocol which sent its first message in 1977. The entity in charge of running and maintaining it is set up as a cooperative with headquarters in Belgium.

The 2005 Europeana project aimed to digitize European cultural heritage. It was set up in objection to the idea that peoples’ access to French culture online should not be facilitated by an “Anglo-American machine” (Google books at the time).

Speaking at the time EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding framed the issue revolving ultimately around copyright issue requiring “harmoniz[ation of] several aspects of copyright legislation in the EU in order to facilitate EU’s economic potential in the digital sphere.”