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What Italy can bring to the TTC’s table

With the first summit of the Trade and Technology Council looming, here’s how recent evolutions in the Italian cybersecurity infrastructure may inform the West’s future approach

European Commission Vice-Presidents Margrethe Vestager and Valdis Dombrovskis are already in the United States for the inauguration of the EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC), to be held tomorrow in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The latter has already spoken at the John Hopkins University, citing Woodrow Wilson to underline the historic link between the EU and the US and explaining that the two must “join forces and ensure that democracies write the rules for the 21st Century.”

Among the goals of the TTC is the consolidation of a common tech-and-trade front against autocracies, China first and foremost. This is especially true for the ongoing tech arms race, given that marketable technological advancements (such as 5G) are becoming ever more strategically significant.

The US’ bid to steer its European allies away from the Dragon’s 5G tech has produced mixed results so far. Only a handful of countries (including Sweden and several Eastern European nations) have banned it altogether, whereas most decided to adopt hybrid approaches to fend off security threats while keeping an open market.

Larger EU countries including France, Germany and Italy have opted for extra operating requirements and restrictions along with expanded state oversight and powers. Meaning that security standards – informed by a core understanding of what direction digital technology should take in a democracy – ultimately play a crucial role in the country’s cybersecurity. And that’s where the TTC comes in.

The Council will comprise several working groups focussing on different issues, such as building shared standards on emerging tech (including the internet of things, where 5G serves as the backbone), data security standards, securing the infrastructure supply chain and 5G/6G tech specifically.

Other matters range from the misuse of tech, export control and investment screening, with the ultimate aim of countering anti-democratic practices piggybacking on Western infrastructures. Among the challenges: how to infuse Western tech with these characteristics while keeping Western markets characteristically open and innovation-driven.

The initiative’s success is far from guaranteed. For instance, France’s rage over the AUKUS affair became an attempt to leverage it to bog down the first round of talks. Recently Paris has rowed in the opposite direction than the rest of the 26. Still, the American side will face a plethora of European approaches to these intricate matters.

Among all, Italy has been stepping up its long-lagging cyber game. Its two-pronged drive to a secure digital transition began with the expansion of the state’s “Golden Power” (i.e. the lawful intervention of the government in the dealing of private companies for the sake of national security) to include 5G equipment. Mario Draghi’s government has been exerting this power at an increasing rate (roughly once a month), setting regulations and limitations upon the installation of Chinese-built equipment in sensitive telecommunications infrastructures.

The second prong of Rome’s approach entails an equipment-vetting process (based on strict security and oversight standards) and a brand new equipment monitoring infrastructure, dubbed Cyber Perimeter, to be built under the country’s new National Cybersecurity Agency.

Foreign providers will have to open up their firmwares for inspection (updates included) and double encryption on sensitive public data will ensure that one “key” is always in the hands of the State. Finally, the national cybersecurity protection will cover both the nascent national cloud computing system and selected private sectors deemed strategic.

As is happens, Italian diplomacy is working together with its European counterpart to soften Paris’ demands and finalise a unitary EU position. The aim is to keep the TTC process running without lowering (at least, not excessively) the level of ambition, so that the text of the final joint statement can actually aid in relaunching Transatlantic ties instead of simply being the umpteenth declaration of intent.

Washington, too, seems willing to foster the success of an EU-US tech partnership. Politico just reported encouraging progress on the US Congress’ Transatlantic Telecommunications Security Act, under which the US would finance private projects (preferably those already supported by the European Commission) for building 5G networks in 22 European countries.

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