This article is part of our special report Broadband: driving recovery?.
European institutions and governments should throw their weight behind joint procurement of computing services to encourage the use of cloud computing, says Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes.
Neelie Kroes is a Commission vice president responsible for the Digital Agenda portfolio. Born in Rotterdam, she was previously (2004-2010) the Competition Commissioner in the Barroso I Commission. She answered questions put by EURACTIV’s Jeremy Fleming in Brussels.
How much can the digital agenda and European cloud partnership realistically produce growth?
Our digital economy in Europe is much bigger than people realise. It's bigger than the Belgian economy and if it were a country it could claim membership of the G20! It's growing at Chinese-level rates of about 12% a year, and produces about 2.6 jobs for every job lost due to the change it generates. Demand for skilled IT workers is outstripping supply. So it matters. In a tough economic environment digital is now a backbone for jobs and growth. If we push ahead and the member states implement the digital agenda, we'd see GDP growth one percentage point higher than otherwise. And the cloud is at the heart of this.
The cloud will be a revolution for small business in particular, but also the public sector if we can give it the right momentum. That is why the European Cloud Partnership is so important. It is using the lever of public-sector procurement to push the cloud forward for all businesses and individuals in Europe.
How does Europe currently stand against its rival competitor economies (China, the US, Russia, South America) on ICT?
It's a mixed picture. We are the leaders in many aspects of mobile and broadband. But we are behind on very fast broadband, our high-performance computing is lagging, we aren't investing in the way many Asian economies are. But unlike virtually all our competitors, we have an over-arching digital strategy, the Digital Agenda, I am in charge of. We won't see all of the benefits immediately – but I will tell you this, the digital agenda is going to pay big dividends over the long term for Europe. It will be Europe setting the pace on e-commerce, e-health, on copyright, on standards, on data protection, you name it. It's literally the best investment Europe could be making and that's why I am so excited about it.
Why does adoption of the cloud matter to small enterprise?
Having broadband access as a base helps small companies' double growth and exports. The cloud lets them take it to the next level. Instead of having to buy and maintain expensive infrastructure and software, they can effectively rent these as services. It's a massive increase in flexibility, in cost-control. And it really lowers barriers for businesses that struggle to access credit for example. Together this will have a significant impact on productivity across the whole economy, enterprises large and small.
The issues that you want to address with the partnership – such as privacy, interoperability, lock-in and legal certainty – are all issues that the Commission and governments have to be satisfied with before they fully embrace the cloud. Will companies start using the cloud before governments and institutions have fully embraced it?
More than half of European companies are already using it. Anyone with a webmail account or a company Facebook page is using the cloud. But instead of dipping in their toes, companies will be better placed to embrace the cloud if there are more services serving their specific needs, and if they know that can fully trust what will happen with their data, for example, if something goes wrong.
The usage we see today, primarily in the private sector, happens despite the challenges in the fields you mention. We need to make sure to turn them into assets. And we need to bring the public procurers into play as well in a systematic fashion. The big punch of public procurement should increase competition in cloud supply overall, to everybody's benefit.
Although it is a European cloud partnership, much of the technology behind cloud is foreign. Is that a problem? Would you like to see more European cloud technology before uptake here?
We treat all businesses the same in the EU. What matters much more than where a company originates is whether it gives European companies and citizens services they need and want and that they have access to an overall environment which lets them support jobs in Europe. That said, I want to see a vibrant digital sector in Europe because it's clear how important this is for jobs and growth – so the more European cloud successes the better. We aren't picking winners; we are just creating an environment where there can be more winners.
Can the Commission or governments regulate the cloud, or is it too big to control?
There is a clear role for public authorities to ensure trust and security. But that doesn't mean we can control the cloud. Or that it should be regulated beyond general rules on data protection, for example. Our goal must be to protect the internet playing field rather than take it over.
Voluntary approaches like codes of conduct can't provide that protection on their own. For example, who will be liable if something goes wrong in the cloud and data is lost or compromised? Which rules and which jurisdiction will apply? These are not questions that “codes of conduct” on their own can answer in a satisfactory way.
How much of a difference will using the cloud make? What are the new opportunities that are most important?
It's a game-changer for the European economy. Plain and simple. The cloud can be the difference between literally hundreds of thousands of small businesses succeeding or failing. It can make government services so much more effective and affordable. So I think it's small business and government that can benefit most as organisations. Anyone who's ever watched a video website can tell you the benefits for individuals.
In general getting the cloud right will mean the internet can continue to be a generator of innovation, growth and freedom. It's also going to help green our economy by making ICT use more efficient and tied to exact needs.