By Petra Sorge
BERLIN--The German government is pushing for the development of a European digital cloud to counter the growing reach of Silicon Valley's technology giants.
The project, named Gaia-X in reference to the Earth goddess in Greek mythology, aims to create an alternative to U.S. digital platforms.
It will connect smaller cloud providers via an open network and is expected to be presented to the public at a digital summit at the end of October.
"The question of data sovereignty is key for our competitiveness," Germany's economy minister Peter Altmaier said.
The majority of German businesses support Mr. Altmaier's position. In a survey published by German digital-industry association Eco earlier this month, 80% of managers and executives polled said digital sovereignty was critical for their future success.
Fears of industrial espionage have remained high in Europe since leaks by the National Security Agency in 2013 demonstrated the scope of U.S. surveillance. Germany's Economic Ministry is convinced that "reliable data availability can only be ensured in an infrastructure with security standards 'made in Europe'", a spokesperson told Dow Jones Newswires.
The German initiative comes alongside efforts by the European Commission to get a tighter grip on Google and other American technology companies.
"It is not acceptable that they make profits, but they are barely paying any taxes because they play our tax system," Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission's president-elect, said in July. She has also pledged to prioritize investment in artificial intelligence and strengthen the EU's rules around digital platforms.
Several German companies have joined Gaia-X. Deutsche Telekom AG said it wants to "support the global network economy and enable new, innovative business models". SAP SE (SAP.XE)--a major provider of business software--said it welcomes "efforts to contribute to Europe's digital empowerment".
German industrial giant Siemens AG has said the project could help shield against China's efforts to build a digital hegemony. Its participation is "a precautionary measure" and showed "that there is indeed a decoupling" between Beijing and the West, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser said, shortly after returning from a trip with Chancellor Angela Merkel to China in September.
With many German companies already involved, others on the continent have been left wondering about their own participation. No tenders have yet been published. A European Commission spokesperson said "any such project of course will need to comply with EU competition and public procurement rules where applicable".
One interested onlooker is U.S.-based Mozilla Corp., whose Foundation executive director Mark Surman sees Europe as "probably the single greatest hope" when it comes to creating alternatives to the U.S. tech giants.
"We want to continue to do more, work in more areas than just the [Firefox] browser," he said, promising "to invest a lot" to help Europe in building data-friendly digital companies.
However, torn between worries over data protection and the economic need for powerful digital capacity, many German entities have opted for the U.S. giants' services. A spokesperson for Amazon Web Services said "we have tens of thousands of active customers" in Germany, including more than 80% of the 30 leading companies on the German stock market. Even the country's federal police chose Amazon to store video recordings from body cameras, a decision fiercely criticized by the government's data protection officer.
Facebook declined to comment on the Gaia-X project. A Google spokesperson stated that "we are looking forward to learning more about it".
Expectations are building ahead of the project's public launch. German newspaper Handelsblatt recently reported that planners are hoping to bring Microsoft on board in the medium term. The government declined to comment, and a Microsoft spokesperson said the company had not yet been contacted.
"However, of course we speak to public authorities about projects that could intersect with Gaia-X."
Write to Petra Sorge at email@example.com