The European Commission’s Berlaymont building in Brussels is packed with top officials who want the limelight on all things tech. Out of all of them, it’s Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson who is shocking the tech sector most.
Johansson may lack the star power that colleagues like Margrethe Vestager, Thierry Breton or Věra Jourová possess through the sheer size and weight of their various portfolios, but she has managed to make a mark on Europe’s approach to tech in a way that has industry executives on their toes — and on edge.
The 58-year-old got into politics through a fringe left-wing party in Sweden before joining the Social Democrats and serving in ministerial positions for core left-wing portfolios, including schools, welfare and employment. Her office space is set up to reflect egalitarianism, with her desk tucked in a corner and a couch and coffee table at the center for political bargaining and dealmaking. She wields a style of conversation that is more reflective of a union boss than it is of the traditionally reserved EU official. And as she talks, she chews away at Swedish snus tobacco as if it’s a pack of mints.
A political bulldozer who doesn’t mince her words, Johansson is breaking deadlocks on long-standing technology issues that have pitted security officials against privacy advocates and tech firms.
An EU proposal aimed at clamping down on child sexual abuse material online will force platforms to scan messages for such illegal content. Johansson doesn’t hold back in shaming Big Tech platforms for hosting the content, telling tech executives in the room at this year’s POLITICO 28 event in March that “we are protecting copyright rights better than we are protecting children.”
On privacy issues too, she’s rolling out an agenda that favors law enforcement’s interests over those of Europe’s powerful digital rights groups and parts of the tech sector.
Under Johansson’s watch, the EU’s law enforcement agency Europol is getting a massive power boost in its ability to process large data sets, exchange personal information with private companies and develop its own crime-fighting tech. She positioned herself close to security hawks in the so-called Five Eyes countries — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — when she took aim at encryption technology that underpins global confidential and secure messaging. Encrypted messaging is an area where she’s pushing the EU’s national governments to come up with “a way forward” to access such protected messages legally for law-enforcement purposes. Johansson is also spearheading talks to revive an EU-wide data-retention scheme, blowing past half a dozen European court judgments that slammed national governments for violating privacy when forcing telecoms to retain large datasets on citizens.
What to watch out for this year: Johansson’s betting the house on her proposal to quash child sexual abuse online. Expect her to brush off criticism and pushback over privacy concerns.
What’s their superpower: Possessing sheer tenacity. Johansson has shown herself to be a combative rulemaker who knows how to get what she wants.
Influence score: 25/30