Status update from Brussels: the European Commission identified clear policy priorities regarding digitalization for the year 2016. But there are still no Europe-wide security and liability standards. A look back with mixed feelings at internet politics in Brussels.
iRights.Media: What events and development were particularly important for EU digitalization policy in 2016?
Jan Philipp Albrecht: First of all, this year saw the passage of a major digitalization-related legislative project in the form of the General Data Protection Regulation. In addition, the European Commission presented a whole package of proposed regulation for the internal digital market, including, for example, contractual conditions for digital content and the locking of content when one is abroad, known as geolocking. The various policy processes within this package are all at very different stages.
What does that mean exactly?
Some proposals don’t exist at all yet; the Commission has only hinted at them in communications papers. Analysis is ongoing, looking at how platform regulation fits into the whole picture. In the other cases, the Commission has already proposed some laws, such as, for example, a reform of copyright laws. This means that the Commission has made a proposal and the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers will now start debating it. In addition, there are also projects which have already been in the works for a long time and so now are already at the stage of being passed into law. For example, at the start of the year we agreed on a network and information security directive.
Is that a result of Junker’s statement that digitalization would be made one of the priorities of his administration?
Yes, it must be said that the Commission has absolutely promoted digitalization as one of its priorities. Legislative procedures are being followed with more vigour than was previously the case. That need not necessarily show in the number of proposals, but new proposals are being pursued more intensively and with more energy and staff.
Are you satisfied overall with the Commission’s work?
I would say that it is rather patchy. There are areas where the Commission has done a lot and is on the right track, for example data protection, competition regulation or copyright, and in particular contractual law in the digital sector. But then there are areas where the commission has made proposals for legislation which are inadequate, or where they just refuse to draw up proposals at all.
In which areas are the proposals insufficient, and why?
This is the case, for example, when it comes to copyright, or IT security. The directive on security only refers to sensitive infrastructure such as airports or water supply. That is far too little: we need general product security in this area too, new standards and legislation on liability.
And where, in your view, are there simply no proposals from the Commission at all?
On platform regulation, the Commission is almost saying that there is no need for it to act. That totally contradicts reality! The Commission is relying here on self-regulation and sparse recommendations for action. Likewise for health apps, where all that is in the works is a general recommendation for protection of health data: that is far too little, the Commission must deliver a lot more.
Why this reticence?
On the one hand, the Commission has prioritized less—but better regulations. On the other hand, the industry lobby, in particular for bigger and older branches of industry, is still taking an incredibly hard line against any regulation. That is something which, for this sector, I think is not right, because we have to catch up on a lot of things which we have missed in recent years.
What have we missed?
For example, we have missed the fact that we need new European standards in the realm of digitalization, because else 28 different standards will be applied across the member states, which will all go against each other. One example is the absurd behaviour of Federal Minister for Transport Dobrindt, when it comes to driverless cars. If Germany were to regulate the market for driverless cars on its own, you would have to stop your car at the borders of Poland, Denmark, France or Germany. That such an inappropriate opposition against European regulations is accepted is down to the fact that the EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger is taking lobby interests at face value. For me it is clear that the biggest stumbling block for innovation and growth in this area is a lack of valid security and liability standards.
What role are EU member states playing here? Are you also unhappy with them?
Yes. It is absolutely clear that the European Commission and the legislators, i.e. the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, can only do as much as national governments are prepared to let them. And when big countries like Germany block or hinder them, then the whole process is held up. One would hope that a country like Germany would be a driving force in shaping digitalization. But the ministers responsible for digitalization, de Maizière, Dobrindt and Gabriel are only concerned for themselves and just want to discuss German regulatory proposals, instead of promoting rational EU-wide regulation.
Are there other member states where you see constructive steps being taken, for example on platform regulation, which you have mentioned?
Yes. There are initiatives on platform regulation, for example, in the Netherlands and in France. Their governments and parliaments are in a lot of areas much more active than the European Parliament and Commission. There is a similar exchange between countries like Denmark, Estonia, Iceland and Finland. It is also much clearer for smaller countries that it is not possible to impose national standards, and that instead one must proceed within the market regulatory context of the European market.
What surprised you in 2016 in terms of European internet policy?
It was surprising to see that the European internet regulators warned the Commission, and in particular Mr Oettinger, and clearly told them that there could only be very limited criteria for exceptions to net neutrality, with demanding requirements. That was a good surprise. It was also surprising for me that the Competition Commissioner Vestager, for whom digitalization is by no means a core responsibility, nevertheless gave an important push towards regulating businesses in the digital realm. She was very ambitious, in particular, about promoting platform regulation.
What else was important in 2016? What remains important for 2017?
The debates about internal security and the fight against terror, but also hate crime and dangers online, received a lot of attention. There needs to be more discussion here at the European level. It is important that we combine our freedom online, and in particular our freedom from surveillance and censorship, with effective law enforcement: especially when it comes to crime and terrorism. I am certain that this will remain a topic of discussion in which I myself will also be very heavily involved.
Interview by Eike Gräf.
“Das Netz – digitalization and Society. English edition” gathers writers, activists, scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs to think about the developments of our digital life. More than 50 contributions reflect on the digital transformation of society. It is available as a free PDF. Download here!