Higgins: Digital Single Market strategy needs to safeguard cross-border data flows

John Higgins [Lisbon Council/Flickr]

For a successful Digital Single Market, European policies need to guard the ICT sector against discrimination and promote transparency, says John Higgins, Director General of DigitalEurope, in an interview with EURACTIV Germany.

John Higgins is Director General of DigitalEurope and a board member of the University of Warwick and e-skills, the UK’s digital sector skills council. His other roles include the chair of several industry committees with CBI and the World IT Services Association, WITSA.

Higgins spoke with EURACTIV Germany’s Nicole Sagener.

What is your position on the Digital Agenda for Europe?

We are very supportive of the way the European Commission is driving the EU’s digital agenda. We welcome the fact that its Digital Single Market strategy has been given top priority by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The strategy contains many ambitious measures that we believe will help achieve the core objective of generating more jobs and growth in Europe.

We also welcome the strategy’s reference to transforming Europe’s existing industries and public sector. This process of digital transformation of existing organisations will generate 75% of the benefits from going digital. We, along with member state governments, would like to see even greater focus on this aspect of the strategy.

What is the role of entrepreneurship in the digital single market? Where do you see small and medium size companies in the next ten years?

Digital entrepreneurialism is critical to Europe’s future economic success. In order to allow entrepreneurs to flourish here, Europe needs to nurture its e-leaders, people who understand how to grow a business and take advantage of the disruptions and opportunities that digital technologies present.

Europe should encourage innovation by adopting simple, flexible rules for businesses and consumers. It also needs to be global in its vision of the digital economy. We see more and more micro-multinational companies, thanks to the digital tools available today. Policymakers need to make it as easy as possible for small and medium size European firms to access the global market. One important way to do that is by safeguarding cross-border data flows.

SMEs have the most to gain from a properly functioning Digital Single Market, and the most to lose if it fails to materialise. How well they fare in a decade depends largely on how successful the DSM strategy is.

How should the EU support smaller and medium size companies and encourage them to move towards digital innovation?

Cloud computing is one technology in particular that SMEs are hesitant about. We are actively involved in helping them overcome their doubts. These are the four main tools we have developed to this effect:

  • The Cloud in Practice Programme (CiPP)
  • The CloudWatchHUB, jointly with our six partners in the CloudWATCH consortium
  • The Cloud Scout questionnaire, a unique 101 course on the rewards of transitioning to the cloud and on how to get around possible roadblocks on the way
  • CloudWATCH webinars, a very successful series of 60-minute tutorials on a variety of cloud-related issues

We have been working on these projects for two years already, and it’s clear from our contacts with SMEs that the benefits of cloud in terms of improving efficiency and reducing costs are too great to be ignored.

Your organisation represents companies across the EU. Do you see big gaps between some countries in terms of digital progress and digital skills?

There is quite a wide gap between the faster adopters and the laggards. As you might expect, countries in the north of Europe are among the most enthusiastic adopters of technology. Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and Holland consistently rank in the top five countries both in terms of digital progress (in connectivity, use of the Internet, digital public services etc) and digital skills. However, with regard to digital, or eSkills, all countries need to do better. Demand for employees with eSkills outsrips supply. The problem is growing. By 2020 it is estimated that there will a shortage of over 825,000 eSkilled workers across the EU. We are trying to help at the European level by running the European Commission’s eSkills for Jobs campaign 2015.

How can the Digital Agenda help to support those people who are at risk of digital exclusion?

Many information and communication technologies offer a wide range of accessibility and inclusion benefits to users with specific profiles of abilities and preferences, such as deaf, hard of hearing, blind or partially-sighted users, other disabled users as well as ageing citizens.

Digital technologies have enabled wider participation in work, social and leisure activities, everything from home working, online shopping and social media have improved engagement and provided new opportunities for these users.

Many of these advances stem from industry-led, self-regulatory initiatives and were not triggered by regulation. We believe this is a good basis for tackling the issue of eInclusion.

There have been a lot of discussions about the rules that should govern the digital single market, and especially about net neutrality. How do you think the EU’s current neutrality proposal would affect innovation in your industries?

An open Internet, innovation and investment in all parts of the Internet ecosystem are a prerequisite for a competitive and dynamic ICT sector in Europe and the source of a wide variety of rich and innovative content and services. DigitalEurope supports competition-friendly policies that guard against discrimination and promote transparency whilst allowing for commercial arrangements that benefit consumers, businesses and public administrations alike.

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