Tech industry relieved there will be new digital Commissioner after lengthy gap

New EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel will start work on an EU response to fake news this autumn. [European Parliament]

The tech industry is relieved that Bulgaria’s nominee for Commissioner will oversee digital policies, filling a gap left open for four months after Günther Oettinger transferred to the budget post.

The European Commission approved Bulgarian centre-right MEP Mariya Gabriel for the job today (16 May), and tech lobbyists want her to step in and save a handful of pending draft bills that are trudging through rocky negotiations among EU member states and in the European Parliament.

Two years after the EU executive started its Digital Single Market initiative, a 16-point strategy to improve technology policies across the EU, the Commission is stuck in trialogue discussions over some of its most controversial legal proposals, including overhauls of copyright and telecoms laws.

Gabriel is a 37-year-old MEP who was elected into the Parliament in 2009, where she has focused in part on security and foreign affairs. Bulgaria officially nominated her last week and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker met with her today and gave her his seal of approval.

Gabriel still needs to be confirmed for the job by the European Parliament. Bulgaria’s former Commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, left Brussels at the end of last year when she took a job at the World Bank.

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The Commissioner role in charge of the digital economy and society would make Gabriel responsible for DG Connect, the executive’s tech policy arm. She would report to Commission Vice-Presidents Andrus Ansip and Jyrki Katainen. Ansip controls the Digital Single Market policies and temporarily took on the role overseeing DG Connect after Oettinger left the job in January.

Several tech and telecoms lobbyists said that a new Commissioner dedicated to that role could strengthen the EU executive’s hand in negotiations over its own legislative proposals, even though Gabriel was not involved in drafting those bills.

Those issues are so contentious in three-way negotiations with the Parliament and member states that the Commission will need a “complete institutional setting” to fight its corner in the talks, which are set to start after the summer.

“We were missing a Commissioner who has a direct link with the DG, which needs to take orders from that person,” one industry source said.

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MEPs and national governments have ripped up parts of the proposals on copyright and telecoms in heated talks over the last few months. Ansip has recently lashed out at member state opposition to the Commission’s proposal to overhaul rules on how they auction off radio spectrum to mobile telecoms operators and publicly disagreed with parts of the European Parliament’s changes to its copyright bill.

Lise Fuhr, director general of telecom operators association ETNO, said Gabriel and Ansip “will have a crucial role in ensuring that the on-going telecoms reform is positively finalised and achieves more innovation, investment and consumer choice for all Europeans”.

Negotiations are currently underway on the Commission’s proposal to overhaul a broad telecoms law, and a separate bill outlining privacy rules for telecoms operators and digital communications services like WhatsApp.

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Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, director general of DigitalEurope, an association representing Google, Microsoft and other tech companies, said that Gabriel should continue “Oettinger’s excellent work helping major traditional industries adapt to the digital era” and improve Europe’s regulatory environment to keep small tech companies from moving abroad.

But the tech industry is divided over Oettinger’s legacy in the digital job.

Some of the Commission’s recent draft technology bills are “hostile to digital innovations and try to protect established business models,” said James Waterworth, vice president of the Brussels office of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a lobby group that represents tech firms including Google and Facebook.

The Commission’s January proposal to update its so-called ePrivacy law, which applies to telecoms companies, also pulled WhatsApp and other communications apps under the rules for the first time, causing uproar among tech companies. Draft copyright rules have upset tech companies too, by proposing a change to how online platforms are regulated if users post copyrighted material.

We hope she will bring with her youth and dynamism and be progressive on technology,” Waterworth said.

Bulgaria has come in 27th place in the Commission’s 2017 and 2016 rankings of digital performance in the 28 EU countries.

Asked about Bulgaria’s low marks when Gabriel was nominated last week, Ansip said, “I don’t think it has to play such an important role in which place some countries are in this ranking list. Digital is easy.”

Ansip’s native Estonia will take on the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in July and be followed by Bulgaria in January 2018.

He told journalists the lineup of Estonia and Bulgaria at the helm of the Council will be “even good for the process” as the two governments will guide member states’ negotiations over the remaining digital legislation.

The Commission has proposed 25 new pieces of legislative as part of its digital single market initiative. Under Malta’s Council presidency, which ends next month, rules were approved to coordinate the use of 700 MHz spectrum bands. The European Parliament will vote this week on the Commission’s so-called portability proposal to allow people to use digital content when they travel temporarily between EU countries.

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