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EU Digital Single Market plan: We will compromise fast, and compromise early

Wild goose chase across level playing field begins

The European Commission has finally unveiled its big Digital Single Market Strategy (DSM). Despite leak after leak over recent weeks, Digi Commissioners Andrus “The Robot” Ansip and Gunther H-dot Oettinger took to the podium together (for the first time) with due pomp and ceremony on Wednesday.

But what they presented was a rather damp squip - no actual legislation, just a list of “things we’d like to do”.

The “Three Pillars” upon which the edifice of the DSM will be built are: “(1) better access for consumers and businesses to digital goods and services across Europe; (2) creating the right conditions and a level playing field for digital networks and innovative services to flourish; (3) maximising the growth potential of the digital economy.”

So far, so ho-hum.

The two biggest bits of planning most commentators wanted to see are the two Commissioners' pet projects - geo-blocking (deep in his heart Ansip hates it) and copyright (Oetti wants to tax Google).

But both seem to have been watered down a little. The document pledges to “end UNJUSTIFIED geo-blocking” – a telling wording that leaves the door open for, presumably, justified geo-blocking. But for consumers the upshot could be good if the Commish really can, for example, stop car rental companies arbitrarily charging British customers more than German customers for the same car in the same destination (some companies set their prices based on the country of the credit card used).

The DSM plan also promises both a more modern AND a more European copyright law - we will have to wait and see whether such a chimera can exist. The aim is to keep everyone happy: “to improve people's access to cultural content online – thereby nurturing cultural diversity – while opening new opportunities for creators and the content industry”.

The Commish also promises to “look at the role of online intermediaries in relation to copyright-protected work”. Again no actual legal obligation to do anything other than “look at” the situation.

The 16-point plan promises reviews of current laws, including the Satellite and Cable Directive, the audiovisual media framework and the telecoms rules (a package that is still being agreed), as well as an investigation into the role of online platforms and a more targeted competition investigation into European e-commerce markets.

The DSM plan, unsurprisingly for such an overarching package, strays into the area of so-called “national competencies" including parcel delivery. According to the Commish this is one of the biggest barriers to cross-border buying and selling in the EU: “Currently 62% of companies trying to sell online say that too-high parcel delivery costs are a barrier.”

Spectrum is the other big area where the DSM plan could step on the toes of national regulators. Bandwidth assignment at EU level has been ongoing for years without undue difficulty and will likely continue, But it is hard to see how the European Commission can “create level playing fields” and “incentivise investment” within individual EU countries. It will look at the role of platforms, including how to tackle illegal content on the Internet.

The plan is also to reduce the administrative burden businesses face from different VAT regimes “so that sellers of physical goods to other countries also benefit from single electronic registration and payment; and with a common VAT threshold to help smaller start-ups selling online.” The Commission was already on warning from the UK in particular about the new VAT rules that came into force at the beginning of this year.

In one of the vaguest proposals the Commish promises to “define priorities for standards and interoperability in areas critical to the Digital Single Market, such as e-health, transport planning or energy (for example smart metering)”. So, we have a priority paper amongst whose priorities is, er, defining priorities.

Finally a new e-government plan will force different national systems to work together so that businesses and citizens only have to give their data to a public administration once. The Commish estimates that this will cut red tape to the tune of around €5 billion per year by 2017. It sounds a fairly sensible idea, but expect red flags to be waved over data sovereignty.

And there you have it - 16 vaguely nice sounding things that could help boost a digital single market in Europe. Without any backbone behind them and obvious opposition in the offing from interested parties, they may never see the light of day.

As Caroline de Cock, coordinator of the C4C Coalition on copyright, put it: “Going for a toned down compromise is a normal feature of the Brussels scene, but toning down so early in the process is a bit disappointing. One can only hope that this is not due to tough compromises having to be struck within a single institution, rather than the usual inter-institution dialogue. Let's hope it doesn't get too ugly.” ®

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