Summary of the European Commission White Paper on Data


The volume of data produced in the world is predicted to grow from 33 zettabytes in 2018 to 175 zettabytes in 2025. Data has become an important currency and many industries are now becoming data driven as more data enables efficient decision making in industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, automotive, telecoms, healthcare and pharmaceuticals. The importance of using high quality, freely available data has been highlighted by the spread of COVID-19. For example, data on the number and whereabouts of cases is being used to feed machine learning algorithms to predict the spread of the disease. In another example, data on the structural proteins that make up the coronavirus RNA is being used to discover potential antibodies to nullify the virus.

In order to keep pace with the growing ‘data economy’ the European Commission (EC) released its White Paper on 19 February 2020, which sets out a plan of action for the next five years to ensure Europe’s competitiveness in this field. Its overall aim is to create a free flowing single market for data while preserving privacy, security and safety.

The White Paper outlines the challenges and the strategy (the EC’s ‘four pillars’) for realising this aim. Set out below are the ‘Challenges’:

  1. Availability of data. Data needs to be shared in order for everyone to benefit. Specifically greater sharing between businesses, governments and between public authorities needs to be encouraged;
  2. Imbalances in market power. Some large companies hold a disproportionate share of data which gives them power to set rules. This imbalance  needs to be readdressed;
  3. Data interoperability and quality. Data sets from different sources are usually combined to get a fuller picture. In order to combine data sets from different sources they need to be in a compatible format and the protocols to obtain the data must also be standardised to ensure quality. The ICT standardisation and the European Interoperability Framework aim to address this;
  4. Data governance. The privacy, security and safety of data needs to be maintained to protect the public and industry. To an extent the  FFD ( the ‘Regulation on Free Flow of non-personal data’), the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), the CSA (Cyber Security Act) and the Open Data Directive are already addressing these issues but attention needs to be given to any overlaps or oversights;
  5. Data infrastructure. The EU makes up a small percentage of the cloud providers of the global cloud market which needs to increase if the EU is to remain competitive with the US and Asia;
  6. Empowering individuals to exercise their rights. Individuals are already protected by the GDPR and ePrivacy regulation – however individuals may be unaware of this. Further work is needed to raise awareness of these rights and make it easier for individuals to use them;
  7. Skills and data literacy. There is a skills gap in data literacy. In 2017 there was a shortage of 496,000 skilled workers in big data and analytics in the EU. Training is required to bridge the gap; and
  8. Cybersecurity. The EU has already set up the EU cyber security framework. However, there will be new challenges as data moves from being stored in data centres to ‘the edge’ of cloud computing networks.
The Strategy (The Four Pillars)

Pillar 1: A cross-sectoral governance framework for data access and use.

The EC proposes:

  • a Legislative Framework for the governance of common European data spaces by Q4 2020. This will explain what data can be used in which situations, and it will enable cross border data use and propose interoperability requirements and standards;
  • an Act on High Value Data Sets by Q2 2021 under the Open Data Directive. High-value data sets are defined as “documents the re-use of which is associated with important benefits for society, the environment and the economy, in particular because of their suitability for the creation of value-added services, applications and new, high-quality and decent jobs, and of the number of potential beneficiaries of the value-added services and applications based on those dataset[1].” The purpose of this is to make high quality public sector data available for re-use by SMEs. In addition, it will make these data sets available across the EU for free, in machine-readable format and through standardised Application Programming Interfaces (“APIs”); and
  • a ‘Data Act’ by 2021 to make legislative provision for issues that may affect relations between participants in the data-agile economy and to provide incentives for horizontal data sharing across sectors between businesses, governments and public authorities.

Pillar 2: Investments in data and strengthening Europe’s capabilities and infrastructures for hosting, processing and using data, and interoperability.

The EC proposes:

  • to invest in a high impact project on EU data spaces (2021-2027). The project would encompass data sharing architectures (including standards for data sharing, best practices, tools) and governance mechanisms, as well as the European federation of energy-efficient and trustworthy cloud infrastructures and related services, with a view to facilitating combined investments of €4-6 billion, of which the Commission could aim at investing €2 billion;
  • a plan to sign a memorandum on cloud federation by Q3 2020;
  • to launch a EU cloud services marketplace; and
  • to develop a EU cloud rulebook by Q2 2022. The cloud rulebook will offer a compendium of existing cloud codes of conduct and certification on security, energy efficiency, quality of service, data protection and data portability

Pillar 3: Empowering individuals, investing in skills and in SMEs

Empowering individuals

  • the White Paper sets out plans to explore how to enhance the portability right for individuals under Article 20 of the GDPR, providing  individuals with more control over who can access and use machine-generated data (possibly as part of the Data Act in 2021);

Investing in Skills

  • the EC proposes funding dedicated to improving skills under the Digital Europe programme which  it is hoped will contribute to narrowing the gap in terms of big data and analytics capacities. The programme will make funding available to expand the digital talent pool in the order of 250,000 people;
  • in terms of general data literacy, the ‘Reinforced Skills Agenda’ will set out a pathway showing how EU and Member State action can increase the proportion of the EU population with basic digital skills, from the current 57% to 65% by 2025; and
  • the EC proposes the updated Digital Education Action Plan to reinforce better access to and use of data as one of its key priorities, in order to make education and training institutions fit for the digital age and equip them with the capabilities needed for making better decisions and improving skills and competences.

Investing in SMEs

  • the forthcoming European SME strategy will define measures to build capacity for SMEs and start-ups; and
  • setting out how the Horizon Europe and Digital Europe programmes, as well as the structural and investment funds, will create opportunities for SMEs in the data economy.

Pillar 4: Common European data spaces in strategic sectors and domains of public interest

  • The EC proposes the creation of nine specific data spaces for manufacturing, environment, mobility, health, finance, energy, agriculture, public administration and skills across the EU.

The EC has provided an outline of its strategy and many of the points from the four pillars (although not all) include clear objectives and time frames to complete them. It remains to be seen whether the EC can adhere to these timeframes. The EC’s strategy for data appears much more comprehensive than the corresponding strategy for AI.

[1]  Definition of high-value dataset: Directive (EU) 2019/1024 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 June 2019 on open data and the re-use of public sector information (recast)”, article 2.10