In October, DuckDuckGo announced a record number of people had been using its privacy-oriented search engine.
During a tumultuous era of data privacy scandals, breaches and shady operations there appears to be a shift toward using search engines and browsers that place privacy control in the hands of the user; and not at the mercy of a multi-national conglomerate.
In France, this shift is currently underway. Last month the French Army Ministry and French National Assembly announced it would stop using Google as the default search engine on government devices.
Instead, these institutions will use a French-German search engine, Qwant, which models itself in a similar style to DuckDuckGo – increased privacy and security.
Taking Back Control
“We have to set the example. Security and digital sovereignty are at stake here, which is anything but an issue only for geeks,” said Florian Bachelier, an MP on the Assembly’s cybersecurity and digital sovereignty taskforce.
The task force, which was launched in April of this year, aims to protect French organisations and companies from cyber attacks and is taking a stand against this growing trend of foreign data dependency.
This defiant, self-determinant mindset, which France and its people have often displayed in the past, is no longer focused upon repulsing belligerent neighbouring states but is instead focusing on the monopolisation of data by foreign tech companies – and the governments under which they operate.
French politicians have been outspoken in recent years over French digital sovereignty and are keen to avoid becoming a cog in the growing digital empires forged by China and the US. Days before the decision to dump Google, the nation’s Secretary of State for Digital Affairs, Mounir Mahjoubi, criticised the US Cloud Act.
The Cloud Act will allow the US to access data stored on American companies’ cloud networks – regardless of where they are located.
This stance isn’t a case of paranoia among French politicians and industry figures, however, it is a deep-seated concern that took hold five years ago when Edward Snowden cascaded his way into the global spotlight.
When Snowden revealed that the NSA was spying on foreign political leaders and had the ability to access data stored on cloud platforms, for many in France and beyond it was a cause for serious concern.
A Senate report that very year suggested that France and the European Union were becoming “digital colonies” – a term which caused both concern and anger. Recent developments have stood to confirm what France has suspected for some time; that data cannot be entrusted to foreign entities.
Cambridge Analytica still rumbles on in the background of our lives, and within the last week, governments across Europe have called upon Mark Zuckerberg to testify before a myriad of committees investigating the subject.
There are two issues at play running parallel to one another. Citizens across the globe are beginning to take data privacy into their own hands; as displayed with the surge in privacy-oriented search engines and web browsers.
DuckDuckGo and Qwant aren’t alone in this theatre and are accompanied by a host of other companies that are capitalising on consumer worries and providing services.
Running parallel to this trend is the growing concern among government’s in Europe – and the world – that their digital sovereignty is being slowly eroded by larger powers. This doesn’t just apply to control and ownership of citizens’ data. It also affects the nation’s ability to defend itself militarily and maintain a vibrant digital economy.
Over the past several years there has been a rise in the number of state-sponsored cyber attacks, particularly with WannaCry in mid-2017, proving how services or infrastructure can be devastated by sophisticated attacks. For the French Government, ensuring the nation can develop offensive and defensive cybersecurity strategies is critical to national security; doing so without relying on foreign-made technology is central to this.
In an economic sense, the debate spans a broad range of areas. Taxation of tech giants is a recurring issue in France – and the rest of the European Union – while digital sovereignty also has an effect on the development of homegrown companies.
France may not be the last nation to pursue policies such as these. In a world where US-based digital dominance is encroached upon by Chinese manoeuvres, other European states may follow suit in order to secure their digital sovereignty.