interview  | 

Is technology moving too fast? With Christoph Steck

Interview with Christoph Steck, Director of Public Policy and Internet at Telefonica and Chairman of the Internet Governance workgroup of the European Network Operators Association.

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Christoph Steck is Director Public Policy & Internet at Telefonica. In this role, he oversees the strategy and management of Telefonica´s global Public Policy work. He steers the advocacy and defines its positions on Internet Policies and Governance and other policy issues that shape the Digital Economy. He is also Chairman of the Internet Governance workgroup of the European Network Operators Association (ETNO), Vice-chair of the Committee on Digital Economy of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and Vice-Chairman of the Digital Economy Committee of Business-at-OECD (BIAC).

Are we facing a digital emergency and what key challenges do we face in Europe?

I think in general it’s good that we are using technology and digitalisation to improve our lives. The problem is that things are moving very fast. Developments are happening faster and faster and the pandemic has accelerated this. We’ve seen at Telefonica how businesses of all kinds have had to digitise their services. They are working in weeks on something they wouldn’t maybe have done in years. That creates uncertainties for citizens and it also creates problems because our regulatory frameworks and policies are not moving at the same pace.

The emergency is that we have to adapt to this kind of fast paced, moving world, which is going to be much more digitalised.

What role has Telefonica played during the pandemic and what key lessons can be learnt from the crisis?

Imagine just for a second, if we had had the same pandemic 20 years ago without any Internet usage on a massive scale, without the possibilities of working from home, for at least the people that could work from home, without the possibility of having home schooling, of entertaining yourself via means of the Internet, doing e-commerce, all these kind of things.

Our lives, especially during the lockdown phase and so on, have totally depended on connectivity. At Telefonica, we have done what we had to do to keep networks running to cope with this demand. We are very lucky that we had planned for resilient networks and for networks that could cope with that. We have also done a lot of work to help with anonymized data, for example, and to help governments control the pandemic, to see if the measures they were taking were effective.

What key Public Policies do we need to ensure digital transformation ultimately improves all our lives, leaving no one behind, and what tools can be used to help put people at the centre of public decision making as we move forwards?

We have asked for what we call a new digital deal. The idea behind it is that we have to take this moment of crisis, where we have, to a certain degree, learned that things might not continue as they have before, and use it as an opportunity to set everything in the right direction.

So we talk about the ‘twin transitions’ – the digital and the green transition. And from our point of view, these are very closely linked because we feel that to become greener and to be able to fight climate change, we will have to use a lot of technology. It will not happen without technology. And connectivity and other solutions will help in basically getting there. So you have to see both these transitions together.

The second thing is then, of course, what do we need to do to ensure no one is left behind? I mean, it’s not one thing you have to do. It’s a lot of things you have to do at the same time, which makes it complex. So it starts with connecting everyone. Let’s not forget that in Spain, for example, connectivity is very good. I mean, we’re one of the leaders in the world on connectivity, but there are other countries where this is not the case.

If I would say we need to do one thing, it is education, because what we see are asymmetries and inequalities in society. But then you also have the whole issue of the digitalisation of public administrations. We have seen that during the pandemic that in some areas we did not have sufficient knowledge and skills to be able to to cope with what we had to do.

Beyond access, what strategies is the private sector implementing to reduce the digital divide?

Cooperation between the public and private needs to be improved. I don´t think the private nor the public sector can really solve the whole equation on its own. We will have to work together. But at the same time, I think that the private sector can play and has to play a key role in working together with the public to create a safe environment for all.

In the end, again, we have a common interest. That’s one of the key messages we should not forget. Governments have an interest in digitalising in a sustainable way. Business has exactly the same interest. We have an interest in a safe and secure environment online. We have to come together to work in different ways and forget about the old distinction that we have a public administration and the private sector and there is a clear role and separation between two. I think we have to come together, discuss more, and that’s why Digital Future Society is a great initiative.

How will the use of Big Data change the way public decisions are made and how important is an ethical framework for data extraction and usage?

First of all, it would be nice if the administration would understand that there is big data available and that they can use it to try to make better decisions. I think there is a little bit of an unfortunate situation that depends on the administration’s belief that using data somehow is bad. And I think the response to that is that they should and they can use big data if they do it in the right way.

There is no smart city without the use of big data. The important thing is to do it with the right kind of guarantees that you do not infringe on the privacy of people. And I think, therefore, public administration should use it because they can become much more efficient in offering a good service to citizens.

What is your opinion on the current debate around the proposed risk-based approach to AI?

I think that AI for me is a good example of how a really revolutionary technology, how a technology that is really disruptive has been used, up to now, quite responsibly, at least regarding the Western world. We have seen that all the businesses that are involved in AI, have understood right from the start that this is not just another technology and that basically we have to use it in a more responsible way.

Telefonica is one example. In the very beginning, we already set out principles for how we use AI and there are checks and balances and internal development processes to make sure that we basically use it in a good way and not in a bad way.

When you speak about the risk based approach and the proposals from the European Union we are speaking about regulation. That’s not self-regulation. That’s regulation. It’s basically setting up a system for supervision by public authorities of users of AI systems. And I think that’s logical. It’s good to have a risk based approach. It’s normal that we’ll have some form of supervision by public authorities for the use of such a technology.

Why is it so important that Europe becomes a tech superpower in it’s own right and what are European policy makers doing to ensure that Europe is not left behind?

Well, I think a good way of putting it is that if you want to defend your values, you also have to think about the economic value you create. A lot of these technological movements and contests are happening between big companies, between big industries. Currently this is between the US system and the Chinese system, the big tech companies are focused and usually based in these two countries.

And so I think Europe has to ask if it’s good enough just to regulate? Europe has great power because the European single market is still one of the biggest markets in the world. So it has great attraction for international companies and they have to play by the rules. But we also have to think longer term about how we can create value in the future. We are a continent that cannot become a museum. We’ll have to defend our ideas by creating these kinds of industries, by becoming the leader in some technologies and a lighthouse for the world by creating a kind of human centric technology. And that’s where I think Europe is currently not doing so well.

I think we’ve seen the first steps in that direction with the latest programmes from the European Union, designed to help us out of the crisis following the pandemic by investmenting in technologies that will help us to become greener and more digital. But things like big data and quantum computing are the big disruptive technologies of the future. And Europe needs to be there. Just being the referee between the two teams on the pitch is not enough because the referee will never win this match.

We’ve already witnessed the US government’s attempt to break up Facebook and Europe's Digital Markets act, among other attempts to get a handle on the power of big tech. How do you see this challenge evolving over the next few years?

I think in the end, these are companies in which we need to find the right, balanced regulation. We need to build capacity on the side of the regulators to be able to supervise.

I mean, basically a social network is free to use. You’re not paying for it. So in the end, you are basically paying with data or, as people say, you’re the product. So that’s a very technical debate. The usage of data, not as a right, but as a value, has not really been incorporated in any way into competition policy or regulatory strategies and that’s really a shortcoming.

I think there was a little bit of sleepiness on the side of authorities, regulators and politicians. They have not reacted to the disruption. They have not understood fast enough what’s going on in the world. We have a lack of knowledge on the public side and a lot of knowledge on the private side.

We need to try to balance it out, try to investigate more, try to understand better what’s going on, and then try to come up with good models. Europe is taking a lead here in the world, to be honest, and I hope that we are going to come up with good solutions because they would be copied around the world for sure.

Are you hopeful that we will use this moment of massive change to think collectively about the kind of future we want to live in?

Business is more open than ever to listen to people, to listen to stakeholders, to understand what’s going on in society and to be part of that development. There’s clearly a will to be a good corporate citizen and to improve the world and not make it more complex or worse. To not just focus on making more money all the time.

How important are organisations like DFS when it comes to ensuring a productive dialogue between policymakers, organisations and citizens?

I think Digital Future Society is a great example of how people can come together, how institutions can come together from various sides, to create a space for debate, a space for creating not just debate, but solutions to the problems that we see. We need more solutions. We need to experiment more, test things, discuss things, and then we will come out of that in a good shape.