Outgoing Digital Commissioner: A lot more work is needed to clarify the ‘right to be forgotten’

Neelie Kroes believes the EU needs to change its attitude to business failure. [James Crisp]

The EU has to do quite a lot more work to make the “right to be forgotten” clear, says Neelie Kroes. In a wide-ranging interview, she also reflects on the new Juncker Commission and what’s missing from Europe’s digital economy.

Neelie Kroes is Vice-President of the European Commission, and in charge of the EU’s Digital Agenda. She will leave the executive after ten years, during which time she was also Competition Commissioner, when the Juncker Commission begins its term on 1 November. She spoke to EURACTIV’s deputy news editor James Crisp.

Let’s talk about the new Commission. Andrus Ansip has been appointed Vice–President for the Digital Single Market, a kind of digital tsar.

It is even more interesting when you look at the whole structure.  Jean-Claude Juncker said if he was elected, he would have a digital presidency. Juncker has now organised an organisational scheme with Vice-Presidents coordinating Commissioners.

I will be replaced by three men: Günther Oettinger [Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society], Andrus Ansip [Vice-President for Digital Single Market] and Jyrki Katainen [Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness]. There is no economy now without digital.

You could say it takes three men to do one woman’s job… speaking of women, is nine female Commissioners enough? [Kroes was involved in a campaign calling for greater female representation on the executive].

It’s never enough as long as the system isn’t unbalanced. But we were asking for ten female Commissioners, so I am missing one finger [see photo at bottom of interview].

Will you be keeping an eye on the progress of your replacements?

I will follow their progress. It gives me hope that we have two former prime ministers from countries, Finland and Estonia, that are not starting the digital process, and we have Günther as well.

The structure could make a lot of sense. But in the end there are 28 Commissioners who are responsible for their own portfolios, but they are all connected to digital.

The idea is to make sure that digital is incorporated across all the portfolios?

Yes, I am certain of that.

What advice would you give your successors?

Be aware that it’s a global game on a global scene. It’s not just Europe anymore. There are a lot of competitors all over the globe. If we want to get back in the driving seat, where we were to an extent in the 1990s, we have to do absolutely our upmost to get there.

-Right to be forgotten-

Speaking of a global game, you have these large multinationals active in the EU’s digital market. Apple and Google are being looked at for their tax practices. That must bring its own tensions.

That is still on the table. The relevant departments are looking at that.

Or closer to your department, there’s Google and their behaviour after the European Court of Justice ruling on the “right to be forgotten”.  There’s legislation in the works on this, but the judges went too far, too quickly.  [The ECJ judgment backed part of a 2012 European Commission proposal to revise EU privacy law. It gives people the right to demand web companies, such as Google, and delete personal information from their servers. Although adopted by the European Parliament, the draft law has still not been approved by the Council of the EU. But the ECJ ruling means a form of the right to be forgotten is already in practice.]

I am very careful with judges. That’s also a system we need in a democracy but, sometimes, judgments do not help.

News stories about people are being taken down from search engine results – it’s clearly not ideal [read more here]

This [the digital world] is a whole new world. Sometimes you are blaming the system – that it’s too slow to give us guidance, sometimes too quick.

But we have to do quite a lot of work to make the right to be forgotten clear.

-Digital economy-

You’ve said in the past that Europe is the biggest app developer in the world. But it is not the most successful app developer in the world, is it?

I am not that certain. We do have a couple of excellent, very successful companies such as Spotify and Rovio [who created Angry Birds].

But in terms of access to finance, for example, the big money to invest in these companies is still coming from the ‘States, isn’t it?

Yes and no. There are far more initiatives within Europe than we are aware. We are mostly looking at Silicon Valley and the Boston area but in fact, the number of app developers is higher in the EU than there. There are quite a number of successful ones. There are also quite a lot failures but that’s part of the business model.

94% of start-ups are failures, but then entrepreneurs start again. The mentality about failure is different between the US and Europe. The bankruptcy legislation in most of the countries in Europe takes so much time and is so damaging – it doesn’t accept that failure is part of a learning process.

A consequence of that is that people are less likely to be risk takers or fund risk takers. If you are within the approved limits you can manage [to get funding], but if you are taking an entrepreneurial initiative…

I’ve had far more failures than successes. The successes for me were normal. I worked like hell, so why shouldn’t I have success? But I learnt from the failures.

A result of that more risk-averse climate is that there is a lot of EU public money stepping in to fill the gap. Perhaps the EU industry isn’t strong enough to stand on its own two feet?

In general, there is a difference between Silicon Valley and the EU. There you go to Starbucks, and start talking to your neighbour, begin explaining your invention, and you can get funding.

Is the EU at a disadvantage to competitors such as the US, because it has 28 member states? The US can move unilaterally.

Yes and no. I am a strong believer in democracy and the different cultures in Europe are an asset. Time is needed more here than in the US, and it sometimes takes quite a bit of time to take action.  But, by the way, it’s a completely different system. We shouldn’t compare our system to theirs, but be the master in our own house and make it as strong as possible.

Take research and innovation for example. We are doing quite a job with €80 billion earmarked for Horizon 2020 and quite a bit of that is set aside for research and development for ICT-related issues.

How comfortable are you with the amounts of public money being spent on innovation and start-ups? Aren’t you just guaranteeing a lower level of quality and success?

That is too easy to say. My experience is that the problem is not the start-up, but the later phases of business growth. When you have your invention, the financing and product development phase after that. And it’s there where things like private equity, venture capital and banks are absolutely needed. But with the banking crisis, it is not easy.

-Red tape-

Juncker has talked of unlocking investment finance through transparent, regulated securitisation. Securitisation is blamed by some for the financial crisis. Is it worth the risk?

We should have less risk-avoidance, so that businesses have a good opportunity to find financing.

We should also be critical of our own rules. I was told by one entrepreneur with a start-up that he was asking for €10,000. He said there were two issues. The first was the lists you have to fill in. Bigger businesses have their own systems to take care of that but as a lowly start-up, he said, I can’t afford to spend so much time on it or wait for so long. The longer your wait, the bigger the likelihood your chance is long gone. And in the case of the €10,000, he didn’t get it because the amount he asked for was too low!

It seems that there would be a role for Timmermans to cut red tape like that. [Frans Timmermans is Jean-Claude Juncker’s Vice-President for Better Regulation in the new Commission].

Yes, and I’ve discussed it with my people too. Of course it’s taxpayers’ money, so you have to be very careful. We can’t waste it. On the other hand, there’s a certain level where you can see that even if a venture is not a success, it was not so bad to try it.

I suppose the difficulty is getting a large institution like the Commission to be a bit more nimble and responsive?

Yes. We’ve provided platforms and websites where businesses can get more information. And we have teams in the Commission who spend their days talking to start-ups and giving them advice. But we need to be critical of ourselves. How can you have an honest approach to the taxpayer, but also not an overregulated system, in which you are killing those initiatives?

What are you going to do next?

Well, let’s just say I won’t be pruning the roses in my garden!

Looking back at your term, what achievement are you proudest of? Is there anything you wish you wish you could have done?

I am proud that digital is now recognised by everybody. Now people are congratulating me, but when I started this job, people were saying, ‘’poor you’’.

But I thought it was the most fascinating portfolio, close to the people, and with never a dull moment. So raising the awareness of digital and its importance for the EU, the economy and society [is something I am proud of].

It’s important in the future we don’t allow a split between the digital haves and the have-nots. There are still 40% of Europeans who have never visited the internet. People are interested in it but are not trusting it or afraid of it. So there is still a lot to do.

And we need to achieve the telecoms single market. The telecoms single market is 100% connected with the digital single market. If we don’t complete the telecoms market, we won’t ever have a digital single market.

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