Can the EU and US Cooperate on Digital Rules?

Shout out to our friends at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC for hosting European Commissioner for Justice and Consumers Vera Jourová this week in Washington DC. Now, I know that bureaucrats making speeches aren’t everyone’s (anyone’s?) cup of tea. What’s said at these things however could help or hurt your plans to make a living writing code or launching a digital business. In this case there’s room for, and the threat of, both.

The name Jourová may not ring any bells with developers in the US, but many in the EU developer community know the Commissioner and understand her influence. She’s one of those people that still see the promise in our digital future despite the current growing pains. Rather than break things, she advocates steering them in better directions. In fact, so many believe in her vision for the future, she was just named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019. Commissioner Jourová isn’t going anywhere either, as she’ll likely have a place the next EU administration. Great vision, staying power, so far, so good.

The fact that the person behind the wheel has a pretty big impact over the final destination (not to mention the scenery along the way) is important. So far the EU is driving and the US is asleep (at the wheel! Yikes!). Don’t doubt that Americans will wake up one day and wonder how we got here.

In the Commissioner’s words, Europe sees two digital worlds out there:

To simplify, today I see two camps, globally: a people-friendly camp that understands that we should have more control over our data including in the online environment. A camp that shares the view that all players, including governments, have to respect limitations when it comes to the processing of personal data and be transparent. Europe is a proud member of this club because it is based on our values; on who we are.

And there is the other camp that has a lax approach to privacy prioritizes uninhibited and uncontrolled access to data in the name of business or government  interests.

Spoiler: Europe thinks that second camp is you, America.

One of the biggest challenges in communicating across cultures is unpacking the unspoken assumptions on the two sides. We may use many of the same words, but the devil is in the details. The nuance is in the meaning. This results in misaligned policy areas.

“Values” is the key word in the Commissioner’s statement above.

While the EU and the US do share many fundamental values, and are close neighbors on many more, we differ on a key few. EU-created digital regulation will NOT work perfectly in the US, any more than US rules will work in Europe. We need to have some tough conversations where we acknowledge these differences between the EU and US to identify where we’re aligned and where we’re not. Then we can avoid, inadvertently, establishing conflicting frameworks.

My dream (or potential nightmare) for the two paths forward is a little different than the Commissioner’s. In the one we’d all prefer, the EU and US find the time and energy for wide-ranging and inclusive digital cooperation, crafting rules and establishing incentives that anchor the important values we share while allowing flexibility for each of us to express our unique character. In the other, the digital community finds itself caught in the vice of conflicting rules that make the same action both mandatory and illegal, depending on which side of the ocean is keeping score.

For developers, Commissioner Jerouvá’s conclusion applies as much to our digital community as it does to the great nations she’s speaking to: “if we will become rivals and promote conflicting models, none of us will win.”