Digital development plan promotes EU tech laws

European Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip

Andrus Ansip said that despite Estonia's tech success, it can't be a model for every country. [Baltic Development Forum/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Progress and Partnerships in Development.

A new European Commission aid plan promises to channel more development funds into building internet networks in Africa, in the hope that the bloc’s fresh privacy and net neutrality rules could become a template for other countries.

The Commission is promoting the digital-focused development strategy as a potential “win-win” for African countries with sparse internet networks and European companies that might invest there.

Andrus Ansip, the Commissioner in charge of EU technology policies, told an EU development days conference in Brussels this week that he wants to multiply the amount of EU aid money earmarked for technology projects.

Currently, the share of EU aid budget allocated for digital infrastructure stood at “almost nothing,” Ansip said.

The plans for beefed up digital infrastructure funds was published last month in a 27-page strategy paper that outlines areas where money already budgeted for development aid could be directed. It does not call for a budget increase, which would require a lengthier approval process.

Ansip insists the plans will affect how EU money is used.

Tens of millions of euros could flow into projects that have already started — without EU money — to build fast fibre telecoms networks in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and other countries, the strategy paper said.

“The whole Commission is working on the basis of this document. It means in all those development projects there has to be also a digital component. I believe it will be really useful for all African countries,” Ansip said.

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Campaign groups have said the plan signals a shift in the Commission’s tech policy thinking and could benefit African countries.

“It’s good that the Commission has started to work on bridging the gap between developing countries and developed countries in this area,” Zuzana Sladkova, a policy coordinator at the NGO Concord, told EURACTIV.com.

Ben Wagner, director of the Centre for Internet and Human Rights at the European University Viadrina, said it shows that technology has taken root in other policy areas.

“We can’t even talk about development anymore without talking about digital,” he said in a recent interview.

Ansip also wants the strategy to boost investment in African telecoms networks and said companies could be willing to invest if African countries create more legal certainty.

On top of that, the aid plan could encourage other countries to see European policies as templates for their own laws, according to the Commission’s strategy document.

“’Made-in-Europe’ solutions can help address the needs of developing countries and in parallel promote EU policies and standards, as well as create opportunities for European companies to extend their presence in new markets”.

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One telecoms industry source said dedicated EU funds were unlikely to attract foreign operators to build internet networks. But policy guidelines attached to the aid money could push African governments to regulate in a way that might make it easier for European firms to invest with or without the aid money.

The strategy document names legal changes the Commission is encouraging in developing countries. Digital technologies need “the appropriate framework (e.g. net neutrality rules, independent regulatory authorities, state aid schemes for rural or low population density areas, etc.) for sound competition for the private sector,” it reads.

“It won’t do everything, but it could be useful,” the industry source said.

Sladkova said the Commission should make sure investors use the EU money to build fast networks.

“They should not use all technologies and sell all solutions. It needs to be the latest ones. Any other change, like going from 3G to 4G in broadband, costs a lot of money,” she said, referring to mobile networks.

EU TAKES LEAD ON NET NEUTRALITY?

An EU-wide net neutrality law was approved in 2015 after intense lobbying and squabbling in the European Parliament. In contrast, the United States’ telecoms regulator is threatening to repeal the country’s net neutrality rules later this year.

“Now that net neutrality is being rolled back in the US, it is crucial to see even more European leadership. The EU should see net neutrality as an integral part of its policies, principles and objectives, whether it affects EU citizens or internet users elsewhere in the world,” Dutch Liberal MEP Marietje Schaake told EURACTIV.

The strategy also says EU aid should “protect human rights, including privacy”. Countries outside the EU will need to prove that their own privacy rules are on par with a strict EU law that is set to go into effect next year in order for companies to transfer Europeans’ personal data abroad.

But Leon Willems, director of the NGO Free Press Unlimited, said the development strategy doesn’t match the ambition of an earlier Commission programme designed to promote internet freedom.

After some governments censored internet users during the Arab Spring protests, the Commission announced in 2011 that it would invest in software to circumvent censorship outside the EU. The programme was later quietly shelved.

“The whole internet freedom domain remains undernurtured, underfunded and unmaterialised,” Willems said.

Sladkova wants the Commission to advise on potential risks of technology in its development programme, like how companies process internet users’ personal data.

“We should be telling developing countries to be careful,” she said.

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