GAIA-X: the European digital project

Most web services, software developments, internet standards, and digital infrastructure come from Silicon Valley or elsewhere in the US. Amazon and Google, for example, overwhelmingly drive global digital communication. Europe, on the other hand, has played a much smaller part. The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) marked a controversial move in reimagining the internet’s future. Now, the EU’s next step is the initiation of GAIA-X: a data infrastructure by and for Europe that places value on security, transparency, and data protection. At the helm of the project is the German government and actors and stakeholders in the German industry.

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The goals of GAIA-X

The project is still in its infancy, meaning that it’s not yet well-defined. You’ll see the term data infrastructure used often in connection with GAIA-X, which refers to a combination of services, technological circumstances, and know-how. So we’re not talking about a single concrete measure, even though cloud computing is a prominent part of initial discussions.

The goal is rather to strengthen the European digital economy. Independence from the digital infrastructure of other global players like the US and China is one of the goals of GAIA-X. In the course of digitalization, European companies have become heavily dependent on a few large companies, which typically do not share Europe’s views on data protection and transparency.

In this case, independence from large internet corporations such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba, and Uber will initially require support for smaller European companies. The key players behind GAIA-X want to loosen restrictions and make financing easier. This should lead to more support for innovation and increase willingness to invest in European companies. In addition, they want to create more uniform rules, so that, for example, companies outside the EU have to pay more attention to consumer protection. This should give rise to more equal opportunities.

First, GAIA-X aims to support the economy. As a secondary goal, the project aims to improve user experience. Both B2B and B2C customers can expect to benefit from GAIA-X. Increased transparency, data protection, and security will be among the advantages for consumers and companies.

In addition, GAIA-X will support various societal actors. Data will be made as freely accessible as possible, which will be helpful for science, business, and society as a whole. A decentral approach is meant to ensure maximal stability and security.

The goals of GAIA-X can be succinctly summed up as in this list:

  • Data protection
  • Encouraging innovation
  • Internet safety
  • Open data
  • Transparency
  • Independence
  • Chances for collaboration

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The key players behind GAIA-X

GAIA-X is being developed by a diverse mix of stakeholders from across government, business, industry, science, and academic sectors. At the helm is the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs. The Federal Ministries for Health and Education as well as the Ministry of the Interior are also involved. In practice, representatives from the digital economy have taken on the largest role in the project. Large industrial companies like Siemens, Bosch, Festo, SAP, and Deutsche Telekom, in particular, have provided support for the project. German interest groups such as Bitkom, IG Metall, and the Federation of German Industry are also making their voices heard in the project. Microsoft has shown interest, making it one of the few non-German corporations involved.

IONOS is also taking part in GAIA-X.

Various scientific institutions have also shown an interest in the project. The Fraunhofer Institute for Applied and Integrated Security and the German Aerospace Center are taking part, as are organizations from the healthcare sector such as the Berlin Charité teaching hospital and the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg.

Fact

GAIA-X is set up as a European project, but it has its origins in Germany. So far it’s been difficult to engage actors from other European countries.

Focus on the cloud

Even though no concrete measures have emerged from GAIA-X just yet, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy published a brochure in which cloud computing is placed at the center of the project. The availability of memory and computing power are becoming increasingly important in the context of digitalization. Small and medium-sized companies in particular are disadvantaged in this regard. Since it doesn’t make sense for them to build their own computing centers, they end up putting their data in the hands of others. This is exactly the kind of transaction that GAIA-X aims to make more secure and transparent.

The digitalization of business and industry is often cut short due to the fact that businesses would have to give sensitive data to external providers and become dependent on them. If a cloud service provider ceases its service or can no longer work with certain clients (due to, for example, political tension), the businesses using its services are left to cope with the consequences on their own. Additionally, when it comes to working with companies outside of Europe, many questions surrounding data protection have still not been satisfactorily resolved.

GAIA-X aims to tackle the problems posed by this kind of dependence with a decentral and transparent approach. Exchanging data between different cloud providers will be made significantly easier. Open interfaces, open source solutions, and international standards should make interoperability possible. However, the goal is not to compete to existing hyperscalers, who are already working on horizontal scaling in cloud computing. The aim is to build a structure that simplifies exchange among companies, and creates and benefits from synergy effects.

Criticism of GAIA-X

GAIA-X seems to have admirable goals at its core: data transparency, data security, collaboration, and open source work. However, despite these values, not everyone is satisfied with the project. There are various points of criticism. Some say that there is not enough clarity on the start of the project – concrete plans won’t be introduced until the end of 2020. At the beginning of 2020, it wasn’t clear how the project would be implemented or by whom. A related worry is that the project won’t make it past the planning phase due to the bureaucratic hurdles set out by the EU.

Other critics are bothered more generally by the idea of the project itself. They say that it provides a regional solution to what is actually a global problem. And despite announcements that the project hopes for international collaboration, Germany is very much at the center of planning so far. Finally, critics point out that current offers from established providers like Amazon are already so well developed that GAIA-X stands little chance of catching up.

Conclusion

GAIA-X is still in the early phases of development. In the course of the 2020, further information and more concrete plans will be announced.

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