“Today, France has the main assets to establish itself as a major scientific and industrial competitor in quantum technologies” affirms the government. But, in terms of technology, do France and Europe really have the means to prevail against GAFAM and other Big Tech, which own submarine cable networks, globally used service platforms and a mass important data? Explanations with Ophélie Coelho, author of the book “Digital Geopolitics – Imperialism in Giant Steps” (Les éditions de l’atelier).
Independent researcher, specialist in digital geopolitics, Ophélie Coelho is a member of the Scientific Council of the Rousseau Institute. His work addresses issues relating to the geopolitics of infrastructure and digital technologies. As such, she also studies the phenomena of technical and industrial dependencies, their consequences on the formation of digital law and their negative externalities on the environment.
Engineering Techniques: you devote a few pages to “failed projects of European digital sovereignty” such as the Quaero search engine and multiple French cloud projects. In many cases, failures are attributable to policymakers who favor large companies over a coherent strategy.
Ophélie Coelho: There is a belief among policymakers and business leaders that it is better to create large entities rather than trusting smaller companies. We chase the “European champion” and we often take Airbus as a reference. This is a reassuring speech for the decision-maker, who believes that he is not taking risks with small entities that are not yet mature. In reality, in Europe and in France, there are start-ups and SMEs which have reached a good level of maturity, but which do not know how to sell their solutions. In the world of software, you don’t need armies of developers to create a viable product. But, on the other hand, there are very experienced companies that come out with marketing brochures to sell “off-the-shelf” solutions, even technologies that do not yet exist, such as quantum computing.
Associated with problems of financing capacity, these psychological mechanisms – rather than ideological – have repercussions on technological choices. This is a known problem in our digital history, one of the most famous examples being the missed opportunity in the cloud, with investment in telecoms with Numergy and Cloudwatt even though SMEs were already offering technologies on the market. mature in the field, which could have benefited from a public order at the time.
Is history likely to repeat itself with quantum computing?
For several years, we have noticed a desire in Europe and in France to reach more than technological sovereignty. Is absolute sovereignty realistic, or even desirable? What seems important to me is in any case to be able to protect society as a whole from the risks of becoming dependent on actors whose compass is not the common good. One of the pillars would be to master key technologies or essential links of dependence.
Obviously, very fragile foundations have existed for a very long time, in IT in general. In my book, I like to recall the historical and geopolitical origins of our computer dependencies from the middle of the 20th century. Without even talking about quantum computing, we can also mention the case of supercomputers which are developed by IBM, Fujitsu, etc. rather than by European companies. There is a chain of technological dependencies that complicates projects. Furthermore, Europe is chasing new technologies which are not mature and which are very integrated into an ideological discourse. As a result, they benefit from significant financing plans, without us knowing precisely what could be done with them. Furthermore, these financing plans do not take into account the dependence of technological projects, such as AI, for example, on electronic components and solutions that are not European.
Why have submarine cables become a strategic issue?
The development of digital technology and internet networks has occurred in parallel with that of globalization. On the one hand, the submarine cables as well as satellite networks make it possible to connect the terrestrial networks of different countries. There is nevertheless a change in configuration in the sector, with a form of predation on these key infrastructures on the part of digital giants. Initially, having submarine cables allows them to reduce the costs of “transcontinental transport” of data in the long term. But also to extend their technologies throughout the world. They are obviously not alone on this infrastructural layer, but by getting their hands on these submarine cables, digital multinationals also become access controllers, “customs officers” on the digital data routes. For these giants, these cables as well as the software are a lever of power to negotiate with States and prevent the implementation of overly restrictive regulations.
Here too, Europe no longer has the means to resist?
Not yet ! Europe is, in fact, losing a little sovereignty because telecoms no longer create underwater “routes”. Recent construction sites tend to be on sections of road, cables connecting islands, etc. However, what is important in a situation of interdependence is that there are many levers of power. For example, there is still the possibility of acting by controlling another link of dependence, via those involved in laying and maintaining these cables. France’s strength in this area is Orange Marine, which operates six cable vessels and a survey vessel.
There is growing concern about the high water consumption of data centers. You cite the case of Google which swallows 15 billion liters per year to cool its servers! This daily supply leads to water stress. As a result, more and more cities are concerned about the establishment of a data center on their territory.
For Google, reducing the consumption of its data centers is not its priority. It does not invest in this area because it has other priorities and because no legislation slows down its expansion by prohibiting the construction of a data center consuming more than this or that much energy. When Google finishes its biggest projects, it will certainly tackle the water consumption. In the meantime, it is doing like all digital multinationals to green its image: excessive marketing on a few data centers that consume less water. But the tree cannot hide the forest.