Regulation is good. Until it becomes bad. Make no mistake, regulation is one of the pillars of the rule of law and it is needed to ensure a fair and competitive environment in which innovation thrives. But ill thought out laws risk killing innovation, warns Lise Fuhr.
Lise Fuhr is Director General of ETNO – the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association.
However, if we develop rules without fully taking into account technology and consumer habits, we risk killing innovation rather than fostering it. After all, it is a matter of creating value for citizens and for the economy in the context of high levels of trust.
The European digital ecosystem — with big and small companies coming up with new, exciting services virtually every day — offers several untold stories of innovation. Unfortunately, it is not only about those who made it, but also about those who could have made it but were stopped — or risk to be stopped — by regulation.
I gathered some of these stories in the hope that the on-going legislative debate addresses these issues and, finally, allows Europe to unleash its full innovative potential.
Video-on-demand: you are no Netflix
Europeans love video-on-demand and streaming. Above and beyond linear TV, citizens enjoy accessing a diverse offer of content on different platforms, at the time and place of their choice. This is done via IPTV, Pay-TV or online platforms. However, regulation often holds traditional players from offering improved customer services. Take the consent rules in the current ePrivacy regime: If applied strictly, telecoms are prevented from offering suggestions based on viewing history. This is, instead, a very common and valued feature of online services like Netflix.
A similar situation applies to proposed rules on conveyance of signal in the Electronic Communications Code. Unless corrected, a strict application of such rules could prohibit current IPTV services by adding unnecessary obligations which were designed for old telephony services.
Connected fridge: red tape bonanza
Conveyance of signal rules could also get in the way of your grocery shopping! This might sound odd, but it helps me illustrate the mysterious case of the white appliances in the service regulation debate. Already today, smart home functionalities range from reducing energy consumption, to improving living conditions and facilitating food shopping. If the most restrictive rules on conveyance of signal are approved, the Internet of Things (IOT) industry might be forced to create endless red tape. Among others, customers will need to be informed on the technical connectivity features behind their connected fridge. I would say that customers simply want to buy a fridge that works, and that it should be up to engineers to sort out all the underlying technical features that ensure quality.
While no clear benefit for consumers is in sight, once again product developers are gearing up for another wave of red tape that might restrict innovative ideas.
Automated driving: park for consent
Car manufacturers and telecom operators are improving the way we drive by leveraging connectivity and digital services. Today, our cars are already able to send automatic emergency messages, offer advanced entertainment and improve fuel consumption. With technologies like 5G, driving will further evolve and we can expect improved safety, a better traffic flow and a richer passenger experience.
Most of this will depend on whether telcos and car manufacturers are allowed to meaningfully use data to support safety, but also to develop services that improve the driving experience as a whole. Think of maintenance, location services or finding the best routes to reduce time spent in traffic. Too bad that, due to privacy rules targeting network operators, all of this might be made extremely difficult. Among others, the requirement to repeatedly seek consent from users might come in the way of the most innovative services. I think we should spare connected driving from the “cookie-box nightmare”. Our privacy rules can be so much better in providing consistent and meaningful protection, without harming innovation and degrading user experience.
A possible way forward
Innovation is important for citizens, because it enriches their lives, not only as consumers but also as entrepreneurs, job seekers and students. Innovation is also important to ensure that our Continent grows in a sustained way and that it competes successfully in a global world. At the same time, ensuring high standards in privacy and consumer protection is fundamental to European values and to our way of life.
We live in digital times and sector-specific regulation should more and more be a thing of the past. Citizens are better protected through laws, such as the General Data Protection Regulation, the Consumer Rights or the e-Commerce Directives. They apply to all players in the value chain: they empower citizens with the same rights no matter who the service provider is. Also, they ensure that European companies can compete on the same footing as others. Increased innovation and extensive gains in consumer choice await us. Let Europe seize the opportunity and leave behind the times in which innovation was lost in a regulatory labyrinth.