The intermingling of the information, communications and technology sector with the space industry has ramifications that are obvious, such as the global navigation and location-based services available to anyone with a computer; and less obvious, such as who controls data capture, storage, access and exploitation.
It’s a package deal, and that bothers some European government officials, who don’t like the idea of Europe spending billions of euros on its own global environment-monitoring network, called Copernicus, only to have its data stored in clouds owned by U.S.-based giants such as Amazon and Google.

“Ninety percent of Copernicus data use GAFAs. If we are not careful, we in Europe will have invested in an infrastructure that will be controlled by the GAFAs. Ninety percent! I think this is odd, given how difficult it is to enter the U.S. market.”

— Genevieve Fioraso

The mixture of fear, admiration and suspicion about the power of these companies has given birth to an acronym, apparently born in Europe: the GAFAs, for Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple.

Copernicus has been a godsend not only to GAFA map-making services — Copernicus’s raw satellite data is made available, free of charge, to anyone — but also to multiple small companies in Europe and elsewhere that now have the makings of a data library.

When the U.S. Defense Department agreed that GPS signals would be available anywhere, to anyone, the inevitable next step was to elaborate a navigation-warfare policy to mitigate the side effects of the Pentagon’s own policy.

So it may be with Copernicus. It’s too late for the European Commission, which owns Copernicus, and the European Space Agency to roll back the free-and-open policy, which uses the GPS model and the U.S. Landsat data-access policy as a reference point. Free data creates new markets and economic growth, and that benefits everyone.

But the same Europe in which Google’s search engine has a higher market share than in the United States is now starting to worry about the consequences.

Genevieve Fioraso, a former French minister responsible for space who is now preparing on a space-policy document for the French government, has been sounding the alarm.

“Ninety percent of Copernicus data use GAFAs,” Fioraso said in late June at the Toulouse Space Show in France. “If we are not careful, we in Europe will have invested in an infrastructure that will be controlled by the GAFAs. Ninety percent! I think this is odd, given how difficult it is to enter the U.S. market.”

European policymakers have expressed three separate concerns about GAFAs’ growing global power: the possible invasion of European citizens’ privacy, which under U.S. law is less protected; the possible use of GAFA-stored cloud data by the U.S. government; and the competitive disadvantage of European companies, which cannot match the GAFA reach.

Some European leaders see no real issue. Fioraso said she shared her concerns with Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders. “He told me, ‘At the end of the day, GAFAs are users, customers. I want to be attractive to them. It’s good for me to work with them,’” Fioraso said.

Some of the worries flow from an instinctive distrust of concentrated power. A European Maritime Safety Agency official said his agency has seen the consequences of Google’s expanding reach. EMSA, he said, was dealing with a European reseller of satellite data from Terra Bella, then called Skybox Imaging. Google’s purchase of Terra Bella, he said, put an end to the relationship.

Ed Parsons, a geospatial technologist at Google — who did not want to be drawn into a Who’s-Afraid-of-GAFA debate — said corporate realignments are only normal in a dynamic market such as geospatial imaging. But the advent of Planet and other geospatial imagery providers, he said, should ease the fears of those worried about a GAFA oligopoly in imagery.
Imagery collection is one thing; cloud storage is another, and here Google and Amazon are dominant.

Jacques Cremer, a member of France’s National Digital Board, agreed that “it does create a problem to have all-American platforms,” but he said the GAFAs cannot be blamed for flourishing in the “exceptional culture of innovation” in Silicon Valley.
“Many people ask me: ‘How do we control them?’ The first question should be: How do we use them? They provide an exceptional service. Let’s be careful how we regulate them to be sure they remain as useful as possible for European consumers. They are gathering huge amounts of data. Even if they are using it legitimately, it gives them a big competitive advantage because they have the technology to use it efficiently. This is an issue yet to be resolved.”

Guenther Kohlhammer is the European Space Agency’s chief data officer for the agency’s Digital Agenda Strategy. He described how Copernicus data is distributed.

“It’s what I call a cascading system,” Kohlhammer said. “We have a couple of central hubs, usually managed by the EU or ESA, that then distribute the data to a second layer of hubs, which can be thematic in nature, or national, or Google or Amazon. Then they distribute the data to a third layer. In this situation, there is no problem if Google is one of these hubs — absolutely not.”
Kohlhammer said the hub system does not prevent individual governments to host, in parallel, collaborative cloud environments where intellectual property rights, especially for small and midsize companies, are protected.

“It’s a coexistence,” Kohlhammer said. “We are absolutely happy that Google or Amazon or whoever has an outreach capacity that probably nobody else could get. That’s good. But whether smaller companies would want to use that environment to share their processing algorithms is another question. This is where it becomes difficult.”

Marc Pircher, director of the Toulouse Space Center at the French space agency, CNES, said the same small companies that might worry about intellectual property rights now have access to a data trove that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago — in part because of GAFA.

Watching the debate over GAFA power are several European cloud service providers whose businesses would benefit if GAFA became associated with U.S. dominance, privacy violations and digital rights infringement.

“The European players are here to create a cloud with all the security of a sovereign, trusted entity,” said Philippe Laplane, senior vice president at Orange Cloud for Business. “Security, the guarantee of the location of data, reversibility — meaning the ability to bring back data that you want to change — all of this is what the European providers are putting on the table.”