The European Commission’s digital single market strategy turns one year old today. With seven months left in the 16-point policy plan, the executive has only scratched the surface.
The Commission published a timetable of its flagship tech policy programme on 6 May 2015, indicating that it would present at least six of its 16 priority issues by the end of last year. The executive has missed the mark on that timetable, but insists it will still present the rest of its 16 policy plans in 2016.
Commission spokeswoman Nathalie Vandystadt said the executive is still “on track and expects to deliver our strategy by the end of the year”.
Some tech industry lobbyists are frustrated by the setbacks. Two major legislative proposals on copyright and telecoms regulations were delayed several months and are now expected this autumn.
Estonian Reform Party MEP Kaja Kallas (ALDE), author of the non-binding digital single market report backed by the European Parliament, said the Commission needs to pick up its pace.
“The main criticism is about timing. Although the digital single market strategy was good and everybody welcomed it, all the specific proposals have taken too much time to come up with from the Commission,” Kallas told euractiv.com.
Despite their criticism about the executive’s sluggish pace, several lobbyists described the digital single market strategy as more focused than the Barroso Commission’s “digital agenda”. In 2010, former Commissioner Neelie Kroes introduced 101 digital policy points, which one lobbyist described as “almost impossible to follow”.
Two major pieces of telecoms legislation left over from Kroes’ digital agenda have received a lot of attention in the last few months: net neutrality and the end of mobile roaming charges in the EU were passed last summer after years of negotiations.
Under its digital single market plans, the European Commission has so far proposed a crowd-pleasing new law to allow people to use digital content subscriptions like Netflix when they travel to other EU countries. The executive also came out with proposals to reform online contracts and open the 700 MHz spectrum band for mobile internet and outlined non-legislative measures to make industrial manufacturing more digital.
Paul Meller, spokesman for tech industry association DigitalEurope, said the digital single market plans are “far more ambitious than any previous Commission efforts in this area”.
But there could be dramatic twists ahead: the executive’s announcements, still planned for later this year, are some of the most controversial ones in the strategy.
Commission criticised over platforms
Internet companies have been gnashing their teeth over the European Commission’s concerns over online platforms.
A leaked draft of the executive’s communication on platforms suggested the Commission won’t—or at least won’t yet—propose an ‘across the board’ regulation of all platforms when it announces what measures it will take later this month. The executive named Facebook, Google and Amazon Marketplace as examples of platforms. But the document also indicated that the Commission may take action in specific areas, including on how platforms use copyrighted material.
Jakob Kucharczyk, director of CCIA Europe, an association that represents Google, Facebook and Amazon, called it a positive sign that the executive does not want to introduce a sweeping regulation of platforms. “But the jury is still out on how much this will deliver for businesses and for consumers,” he added.
The European Commission’s interest in online platforms has ignited tense controversy and drawn accusations that the executive might be unfairly targeting American companies.
Some lobbyists criticised the Commission for keeping them in the dark. While internet firms grew increasingly anxious about a potential regulation, it was never clear what companies and services would fall under the executive’s definition of online platforms.
Agustín Reyna, who heads up the European Consumer Organisation’s work on the digital single market, said the executive’s public consultation on platforms last autumn was “messy”.
“It was not clear what they mean or what the objective is. It’s like asking stakeholders, ‘What do you think about the internet?’ It’s very abstract,” Reyna said.
Battle lines drawn on copyright
Tensions are high ahead of the delayed proposals on copyright and telecoms regulations.
Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger has indicated that he may include a so-called ancillary copyright law, or ‘Google tax’, in the copyright proposal. Oettinger’s native Germany, as well as Spain, already has controversial ancillary copyright laws that allow news publishers to charge online search engines to list their content.
Joe McNamee, managing director of NGO European Digital Rights, called the Commission’s consideration of an ancillary copyright law “baffling” and said it would “add to the chaos of EU copyright law”.
In addition to ancillary copyright law, geo-blocking, the practice of restricting access to copyrighted content from a certain country, is another hot-button issue expected to surface in the Commission’s proposal. Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip drew support from civil society groups and open access campaigners when he declared his “hate” for geoblocking last year.
But companies in the audiovisual industry have protested that getting rid of geo-blocking and forcing them to make content available online across the EU would destroy their business.
Telecoms rules come last
Several telecoms lobbyists told EURACTIV it’s still too soon to judge how the digital single market will play out for the industry.
The European Commission pushed two proposals on telecoms regulations and the ePrivacy directive to the very end of the 16-point plan. Recently, the executive has flip-flopped on when it will propose changes to the seven-year-old ePrivacy directive, which created data protection rules that apply specifically to telecoms operators. One Commission official indicated that the proposal would come out in 2017, but the executive has since said the proposal will be in autumn 2016.
Lise Fuhr, director general of ETNO, the association representing large incumbent telecoms operators, said, “We support swift delivery of legislative proposals, especially around investment in connectivity and ePrivacy rules,” Fuhr added.