EU ‘racing to catch up’ with Digital Single Market plan

Andrus Ansip and Günther Oettinger present their plans for the Digital Single Market. [European Commission]

The European Commission has announced its long-awaited strategy for a Digital Single Market, with issues ranging from consumer rights in online retail, copyright and data protection to network expansion and the use of modern techniques for industry. EURACTIV Germany reports.

On Wednesday (6 May) the Commission presented its plans for the creation of a Digital Single Market.

The plan, a priority for the EU executive over the next few years, is intended to ensure Europe does not fall behind internationally in the internet age.

The strategy encompasses 16 central measures to be implemented by the end of 2016. It is meant to help citizens save €11.7 billion annually and is built on three pillars.

“The strategy is just the start, not the target,” explained the Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip, urging Europeans to quicken the pace. “The initiatives are interconnected and reinforce one another. They must be rapidly implemented to more strongly promote the creation of jobs and growth.”

According to the Commission, a Digital Single Market could “contribute €415 billion annually to our economic performance and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs”.

EU Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger indicated that Europe is in a race to catch up with US companies in particular.

The “prevention of unjustified geo-blocking” is one of the digital strategy’s main points.

“95% of Europeans have been prevented from visiting a website from another EU country or (have) been redirected to a different site with higher prices,” Ansip said.

“We know this is a problem and we must find a solution for this,” he pointed out.

>> Read: Brussels tackles territorial copyright in digital strategy

“Roaming for Netflix”

Instead of doing away with the discriminatory practice of geo-blocking, the Commission’s plans are only equivalent to “roaming for Netflix”, said Julia Reda, an MEP from the Pirate Party.

“Often, when people come across an error message on the internet saying, ‘this video is not available in your country’, it concerns works that are financed by advertising or public funds,” she explained.

But because the concrete measures in the strategy paper only apply to paid content, geo-blocking will remain an everyday nuisance for Europeans, Reda said.

Ansip had previously spoken in favour of quickly eliminating geo-blocking, but his words were met with opposition from Oettinger.

In March, Ansip declared that he hated geo-blocking, upon which Oettinger responded, “I hate my alarm clock at five in the morning”.

At Wednesday’s presentation of the strategy Oettinger referred to the “outstandingly internally structured” and “largely friction free” cooperation within the Commission.

Up-to-date European copyright law

By the end of 2015, the Commission hopes to submit legislative proposals for a “modern European copyright law”.

The goal is “to reduce the differences between the national copyright systems and provide comprehensive online access to protected works for users across the EU”.

According to Oettinger, the Commission is seeking a “balance” between the interests of users and those of creators such as composers, filmmakers, journalists or video game developers.

Changes are also planned for requirements in the telecommunication sector to create EU criteria for the distribution of frequencies at a national level, and equal starting conditions for all market participants.

Providers such as Deutsche Telekom are choking new modes of communication, such as WhatsApp or Skype.

In its aim for a single EU digital market, the Commission is also examining the market power of US online platforms like Facebook and Google.

Above and beyond competition law, a lack of transparency in search results, the price policy or the use of data is expected to be investigated.

As it announced in March, the Commission also began an antitrust investigation of cross-border online trade by corporations like the US company Amazon.

A separate procedure is currently underway against Google which could end in a fine in the billions for the US internet giant.

The project team for the Digital Single Market hopes to provide the results of the individual measures by the end of 2016. With support from the European Parliament and the Council, the Digital Single Market is supposed to be completed as soon as possible, and will be on the agenda for the meeting of the European Council on 25/26 June.

Herbert Reul, chairman of the centre-right CDU/CSU group in the European Parliament: “It is a strong signal, that the European Commission is serious about the Digital Single Market. Commissioner Oettinger is setting the right priorities. Standardisation and interoperability create the basis for Industry 4.0, which also entails an additional revision to the legal framework for telecommunications. Without a strong infrastructure, the digital economy cannot make a big leap.”

Deputy chairman of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Jan Philipp Albrecht, who is also the rapporteur on reforming the EU data protection regulation, said: “The Commission’s plans come too late and do not go far enough. A considerably bigger move is needed to overcome the challenges of tomorrow and, with legal standards, guarantee equal access to the digital market for all. The European Commission’s plans lack clear neutrality duties for providers of IT services to protect the rights of competitors and consumers. Platforms like app stores, search engines or social networks should no longer be allowed to practice unhindered discrimination of competing market participants. The European Commission also failed in launching legislative standards for all IT products. The European Commission must do some reworking and in the meantime we must conclude the two big regulations on data protection and the telecommunication market.”

Bert Van Roosebeke from the Centre for European Policy (CEP): “The competent EU Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip and the EU Commissioner for Digital Economy, Günther Oettinger, are proceeding quite ambitiously. By the end of next year they want to present nine legislative proposals. Most of these definitely have the potential to simplify cross-border e-commerce and promote an urgently needed innovation push in the European digital economy. Still, the main problem is convincing the member states to approve EU-wide regulation and thereby surrender some of their own competences. Every member state will be tempted to promote its own existing rules. It will be crucial whether the Juncker Commission can build up enough pressure to prevail against the member states’ interests in the lengthy and complex negotiations to come.”

"The European Commission isn't leading; it's following," said Joe McNamee, Executive Director of European Digital Rights (EDRi). "The Commission seems to seek to reinforce 'trust and security in the handling of personal data'. To do that, it proposes an unspecified 'review' of the e-Privacy Directive with no goal other than the vague 'level playing field' that certain operators have lobbied for. The analysis is so vague that even a repeal of the Directive is possible."

Vicky Ford MEP, who chairs the European Conservatives and Reformists Group's DSM policy group, said: "The ambition in this strategy is good in some parts and needs some work in others. Grand plans have stalled in the past so the Commission is right to focus much of its attention on breaking down barriers and removing unnecessary red tape. However, there is much more that entrepreneurs, businesses and consumers have suggested we could do to make trade easier and I would like to see many more suggestions from end users taken up in this area."

ETNO, the Association representing Europe’s leading telecom operators, welcomed the new Digital Single Market plans: "With this Strategy paper, the European Commission sends a signal that network deployment and investment will be prioritised in future policy action. In addition to this, it recognises that European markets suffer from under-investment, as well as a lack of regulatory predictability and consistency. If we are to ensure that Europe leads the digital race, swift and urgent action is needed as a follow-up to the Strategy paper and ahead of the broader review of telecom rules, currently planned for 2016. The main drivers of such swift action should be further harmonisation as well as the removal of barriers to investing in network deployment."

Mark Skilton, of Warwick Business School, said: "The EU’s Digital Single Market initiative aims to redress the balance that has seen US tech giants dominate the online world. The EU’s review of online practices will force companies to define their original service location and bias to help build a level playing field. The Google antitrust case is one such example."

Susanne Czech, ERRT Director General, said: “The removal of barriers within the Digital Single Market is a prerequisite for economic growth in Europe. Five years after the launch of the 'Digital Agenda for Europe' retailers still face difficulties when selling online to other countries. It is high time to level the playing field for European retailers with international ambitions.”

Jean-Claude Juncker announced last year (16 December) that the establishment of a Digital Single Market (DSM) would be one of the priorities in his first term as Commission president.

Juncker’s DSM strategy will focus on six strands: building trust and confidence, removing restrictions, ensuring access and connectivity, building the Digital economy, promoting e-society and investing in ICT research.

On the policy side, the strategy is coordinated by Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip, and will be implemented by DG CONNECT, the Commission department in charge of communications networks, content and technology.

  • By Autumn 2015: Copyright reform proposals expected to be published by Commission

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