Are EU having a laugh? Europe passes hopeless cyber-commerce rules

When compromise becomes why bother at all

Analysis The European Commission (EC) has approved a series of ecommerce rules designed to make Europe more competitive online.

In true European fashion however, the proposals contain a lengthy series of inconsistent compromises and avoid altogether the most complex policy issues, making them largely worthless.

Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, Andrus Ansip, said of the measures: "All too often people are blocked from accessing the best offers when shopping online, or decide not to buy cross-border because the delivery prices are too high, or they are worried about how to claim their rights if something goes wrong.

"We want to solve the problems that are preventing consumers and businesses from fully enjoying the opportunities of buying and selling products and services online."

Except the rules don't do that. While companies in Europe will be obliged to sell to anyone else in the European Union, they won't have to ship goods there. So a consumer in, say, Poland can now buy goods from, say, Spain. But if that Spanish company doesn't want to ship them, it can inform their Polish customer that they need to travel to Spain to pick them up.

In another sign of the hopeless EC bureaucracy mindset, there won't be rules around shipping rates across Europe (which are notoriously inconsistent), but it will spend a lot of money creating a website that will attempt to list all those rates.

"The Regulation will give national postal regulators the data they need to monitor cross-border markets and check the affordability and cost-orientation of prices," the EC announced. "It will also encourage competition by requiring transparent and non-discriminatory third-party access to cross-border parcel delivery services and infrastructure. The Commission will publish public listed prices of universal service providers to increase peer competition and tariff transparency."

It will most likely be a gigantic waste of everyone's time and become just one more service that the EC offers at great expense but which no one uses.

That's digital economy

Worst, however, is the fact that the Commission has exempted digital goods from its digital single market, so companies will be able to continue to geo-block videos and other digital files.

The proposals have found some attention – particularly outside Europe – over the plan to treat the internet in the same way as cable television and seek to require content companies like Netflix to make sure 20 per cent of their programming comes from Europe.

A Netflix spokesman responded by saying that over 20 per cent of what the company offers already comes from Europe, but questioned whether a requirement for content providers to purchase the rights to content from a specific geographic area was really going to help the European film and TV industries thrive.

As to the critical issue of "internet platforms" that offer telecommunications – such as Skype or WhatsApp – and what rules should apply to them, the Commission simply punted the issue into the long grass, ensuring that future efforts to put rules in place will be even more difficult.

While failing to come up with answers to the kinds of policy questions that the EC exists to produce, it did manage to draw up new rules for others to interpret and enact, in particular a vague "code of conduct" aimed at dealing with hate speech online that companies will have to figure out how to make work, while the EC watches over their shoulders tutting. ®

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