Five years ago in my first CIO column, I wrote about the final act of the last Labour government, enacting the Digital Economy Bill into UK law - and asked whether it would be a lame duck. Fast forward to the day before the general election last week and, to fanfares in Europe but not much acclaim in the UK, the European Commission launched its Digital Agenda plan to create a Digital Single Market (DSM) in the EU.
If the EU plan has the same effect as the Digital Economy Act, the lame duck moniker will be well earned. But the eminent Richard Sykes has already written about the likely positive effects of the DSM plan's central goal to open digital borders across Europe and increase the competitiveness of European ICT vendors. And, like Richard, I have more expectations of the Commission's plans. There are likely to be material effects on the market for digital and online services - although whether you see these as positive or negative may depend upon your point of view and country of origin.
On the same day as the DSM announcement, the Commission also announced an enquiry into the e-commerce sector, intended to gather information on barriers to trade set up by companies supplying goods and services online, and assess them in the light of EU antitrust rules. While the Commission's overt intent from this pair of announcement is to unite consumers of digital services across all 28 EU countries and create a stronger European digital economy, the subtext to the proposals is the Commission's desire to address inequalities in the market for digital services, which it sees as being dominated by global digital superpowers, largely headquartered outside the EU.
There is a strong feeling in the Commission that the EU has surrendered ground to non-EU based digital superpowers and essentially forfeited its digital independence. In announcing the DSM and e-commerce sector review, European Digital Economy and Society Commissioner Günther Oettinger stressed that the EU's aim is to move towards a strategy which will reinforce Europe's digital authority and its digital sovereignty.
The Commission recognises that 28 separate national laws addressing issues relevant to the e-commerce sector are likely to represent a barrier to competition; but, at the same time, the Commission also believes that EU-based digital providers are potentially harmed by non-EU global providers accessing the EU market through low, water-mark countries and failing to comply with the EU's national based rules to the same extent as EU-based providers.
The DSM strategy focuses on three pillars - access, environment, and economy and society. What this really means is: (i) creating better access for consumers and businesses to digital goods and services around Europe; (ii) creating the right conditions and a level playing field for digital networks and innovative services to flourish; and (iii) investing in a Europe-based and Europe-owned digital economy with long-term growth potential.
Each of the three pillars includes a number of key actions which provide details of how the Commission expects to achieve its aims, ultimately breaking down into 16 specific target areas and a timeline currently stretching to the end of 2016. The specific proposals can broadly be compartmentalised into two areas: those which aim to unify the fragmented European digital market, and those which aim to crack down on potential abuses of market power.
While this programme of reforms is likely to be welcomed by tech companies in Europe, there is a feeling outside the EU - especially in the US - that the DSM is another step in a series of calculated moves on the part of the EU to combat the dominance of US-based technology firms in Europe. In particular, the introduction of European-only technology standards is likely to increase cost for non-European firms wishing to operate within Europe. At the same time, the antitrust inquiry into the European e-commerce sector is likely to directly target US firms, given their market dominance.
Questions also exist over the feasibility of the proposals. Member States are likely to be reluctant to allow the Commission to intrude on what are traditionally seen to be national competencies without more detailed proposals and further negotiation. Equally, the strategy contains none of the supporting documents required in the short term to allow the Commission to meet its ambitious 2016 deadline. Even if Member States sign up to the proposals without resistance or further negotiation, it would be an impressive achievement for the Commission to meet its schedule for implementation.