Last week the European Commission triumphantly announced that the Commissioners had agreed the priority areas for its upcoming Digital Single Market Strategy, to be released on May 6th.
When published, the Strategy will outline one of this Commission’s flagship policies – a string of proposed legislative changes and initiatives which it hopes over the next five years will deliver the dream of a borderless online market in Europe.
We now know that the Commission will be focusing on three areas:
Despite the fanfare, the Digital Single Market is not a new idea. In a sense it lies at the heart of the European project, the idea that goods and services should be able to move freely within Europe. It’s the single market updated for the digital age.
But while the majority of us have, to a large extent, moved much of our lives online, to the great frustration of Brussels (as well as many consumers and businesses), many of the barriers and discrepancies that have been removed in the physical world, remain on the internet (see this handy infographic). Consumers buying services online have different rights depending on where they are in the EU, and can face difficulties when trying to access cross-border services, such as when content is geo-blocked. Businesses and organisations trying to operate in more than one member state must contend with a dizzying fragmentation of rules and regulations; some citizens have high speed internet access at home and on the move, others in the EU are not online at all.
So the idea may not be new, but with this Commission there has been a renewed push to complete the work because it believes the prize of a borderless online Europe is big: greater choice and freedom for consumers; the opportunity for businesses to scale up more easily across Europe (and compete with US competitors); more jobs and greater flexibility for workers. And because “digital” now touches all our lives, it is hoped that a Digital Single Market will play a significant role in the growth and prosperity of Europe.
As utopian as it sounds, delivering a Digital Single Market is not, of course, without its challenges, and some hard choices will need to be made. No-one disputes the ambition of helping Europe to take full advantage of the internet revolution, but the devil as usual lies in the detail of delivery. Commissioner Ansip has already highlighted one of the biggest battlegrounds likely to take place – how to square the circle of enabling consumers to access cross-border content without damaging the territorial system that has enabled producers and publishers to invest in high quality diverse EU content. Ansip may have recently said that “deep in my heart […] I hate geo-blocking”, but opening up the copyright framework to tackle it, might unleash a hornets nest. Some commentators also doubt whether the Commission will actually be able to deliver on its promises, when its previous attempts at harmonisation, such as abolishing roaming charges, have been dogged by delays and complications.
Regardless of the outcome, the Commission has now given us a teaser for the big reveal in May, so expect plenty of last minute jostling as stakeholders position themselves to offer their advice to the Commission on how it can best achieve its aim. Watch this space.