Kroes stilted but tough at parliamentary hearing

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“We will call member states to order if they don’t respect a liberal and competitive market” was one of many tough messages Neelie Kroes, EU commissioner-designate for the ‘Digital Agenda’ portfolio, delivered to MEPs at her European Parliament hearing yesterday (14 January).

The hearing, which allows MEPs to decide whether they will vote for the new Commission line up, showed that the former competition commissioner, who extracted multibillion fines from Microsoft, would likely be just as tough in her new assignment. 

However, the commissioner-designate often struggled to find the right words to say exactly how she would carry out the EU’s Digital Agenda. 

On several issues, Kroes showed that markets were her first priority, and clamping down on anti-competitive behaviour her second. 

The commissioner-designate also said she would prefer if markets were self-regulated but would ensure that players in the market properly behaved. 

MEPS grilled Kroes on a litany of technical issues like roaming charges, net neutrality, personal Internet freedoms and tackling anti-competitive players in the digital market. 

Her predecessor, Luxembourg’s Viviane Reding, was widely credited for lowering mobile roaming charges in her role as information society commissioner. 

Kroes said she would rather it was the markets’ job to regulate roaming tariffs, “but first the market should deserve it”. 

MEPs repeatedly asked Kroes whether she was committed to net neutrality – unrestricted digital servives – an issue the Parliament intends to address in 2010. 

She answered that she would work to improve net neutrality and that for legitimate reasons, like spam or security issues, it was acceptable for operators to cut off certain services. 

“But for commercially-motivated reasons, no way,” she added. 

At the hearing, Kroes also emphasised her intention to boost investment into high-speed broadband infrastructure across the EU. 

Towards a copyright framework 

Kroes was also asked how she would address the digitisation of published works, an area that has pitted European publishers against the likes of Google, which has led the eBooks market. 

In a fairly stilted answer, Kroes said she feared that “the other ones would pass Europe by” and that she would sit down with the commissioner-designate for the internal market, Michel Barnier, to create a copyright framework that is fair to consumers in the first instance. 

Internet piracy back to the future 

MEP Catherine Trautman touched on a highly-sensitive issue which marred talks surrounding the telecoms package last summer (EURACTIV 12/06/09). 

A fear that the package would allow governments to disconnect people accused of Internet piracy from the Web without a fair trial or procedure delayed the adoption of the telecoms package until last November. 

Now Trautman said she feared parallel talks at the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a trilateral forum involving the US, Japan and the European Commission, would give governments the basis to cut off users without a due process. 

Kroes said without question she would champion fundamental rights first and reassured Trautman that ACTA had not yet agreed a text. 

“The objective of ACTA negotiations is to provide the same safeguards as the EU did in the telecoms package,” Kroes added. 

“So we stick to our line and that’s it.”

The commissioner-designate also showed a sense of humour when an MEP quizzed her about the brooch on her jacket, which was in the shape of a question mark. 

“The brooch is there because I do not know the outcome of this hearing,” she replied. 

Neelie Kroes began her political career as a member of the Dutch parliament for the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). Later she was the Dutch state secretary and minister of transport, public works and water management. 

Kroes stepped into her European political career as competition commissioner in 2004. In her first round of hearings for the competition portfolio in 2004, she came under fire over allegations that she had accepted bribes (EURACTIV 05/10/04). 

Since then, she has become known as an outspoken commissioner who takes on dominant players in the market. Between 2004 and 2009, she extracted $2.4 billion in fines from Microsoft. 

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