The European Commission’s Berlaymont building in Brussels is full of senior officials who want to shine a light on all things tech. Of all of them, it is Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson who shocks the tech sector the most.
Johansson may not have the star power that colleagues like Margrethe Vestager, Thierry Breton or Věra Jourová possess through the size and heft of their various portfolios, but she has managed to mark the European approach to technology from a way that has industry leaders on their toes – and on edge.
The 58-year-old entered politics through a left-wing fringe party in Sweden before joining the Social Democrats and taking up cabinet posts for key left-wing portfolios including schools, welfare and employment. His office space is laid out to reflect egalitarianism, with his desk tucked into a corner and a sofa and coffee table at the center of political negotiations and agreements. She uses a conversational style that reflects more that of a union boss than that of a traditionally reserved European civil servant. And as she talks, she chews Swedish snus tobacco like it’s a pack of mints.
An outspoken political bulldozer, Johansson is breaking deadlocks on longstanding technology issues that pit security officials against privacy advocates and tech companies.
An EU proposal to crack down on child sexual exploitation material online will require platforms to scan posts for such illegal content. Johansson isn’t shy about shaming Big Tech platforms for hosting content, narrative tech leaders in the room at this year’s POLITICO 28 event in March that “we protect copyrights better than we protect children.”
On privacy issues, too, she is rolling out an agenda that favors the interests of law enforcement over those of powerful European digital rights groups and parts of the tech industry.
Under Johansson’s leadership, Europe’s law enforcement agency Europol is getting a huge boost in its ability to process large datasets, exchange personal information with private companies and develop its own crime fighting technology. She positioned herself close to security hawks in the so-called Five Eyes countries – the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – when she tackled the encryption technology that underpins confidential and secure messaging globally. Encrypted messaging is an area where she is pushing national governments across the EU to find “a way forward” to lawfully access these protected messages for law enforcement purposes. Johansson is also spearheading talks to revive an EU-wide data retention system, overturning half a dozen judgments from European courts that have criticized national governments for violating privacy by forcing telecommunications to maintain large sets of citizen data.
What to watch out for this year: Johansson is betting the house on its proposal to quash online child sexual abuse. Expect her to brush off criticism and brush off privacy concerns.
What is their superpower: Possess pure tenacity. Johansson has proven herself to be a combative governess who knows how to get what she wants.
Influence Rating: 25/30