The Digital Assembly 2016: is EU legislation fit for future changes?

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On 28-29 September was organized in Bratislava as part of the Presidency of Slovakia to the Council of the EU, the Digital Assembly 2016. Ecommerce Europe attended and participated in the event, as Marlene ten Ham, Secretary General of Ecommerce Europe, moderated a session entitled “Future trends in e-commerce”.

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Adapting policy to future changes in e-commerce

The first panel “Future trends in e-commerce” focused on the upcoming changes in the e-commerce industry over the next 2-5 years and how EU policy can adapt to them. Digital and technological advances are changing society and businesses, and are already having a huge impact on the e-commerce market. But are policy-makers prepared for the future? Are they investing in the right policy updates and improvements? Online payments have been identified by the Ecommerce Europe Cross-border Ecommerce Barometer 2016 as one of the main barriers to cross-border e-commerce in Europe. This was also the conclusion of the session, and was in particular raised by Georg Schardt, Managing Director of SOFORT Gmbh, as well as Agustin Reyna, Senior Legal Officer and Digital Team Leader at BEUC, the European Consumers’ Organization. Participants also mentioned two other main challenges for the e-commerce sector: the question of other big markets outside Europe, like the USA and China, and how to compete with them, and the issue of geo-blocking.

The changing role of online platforms

The panel on online platforms showed the radical way in which online platforms have transformed the nature of the economy, and presented unique questions for regulators. Speakers explained that the current legislation is not a good fit for online platforms, and more flexibility is needed. Vili Lehdonvirta, senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute stated that the working conditions in the platform economy should not conform to conventional norms. Also Peter Irivkosky called on the EU to simplify and streamline its legislation in order to allow companies more freedom to experiment. But there are also divergent approaches between Member States, which can be a major issue for the Digital Single Market (DSM). We should, however go forwards and further with the DSM as it aims at breaking barriers for the digital sector, which is the core mission of Ecommerce Europe. However, some barriers seem difficult to overcome, such as language and currency differences. Another threat to the DSM is external: European companies, especially SMEs, should be supported in the digital sector in order to be able to compete with US and Asian giants.

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Divergent views over the review of the ePrivacy Directive

The discussion on the review of the ePrivacy Directive was opened by Pierre Chastanet, Deputy Head of Unit Cybersecurity & Digital Privacy, DG CONNECT who explained that the review aims at providing a high level of protection, and a level playing field for all the market. He stated that there are elements of the directive that overlap with elements of other items of legislation, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as was further stressed by Cristina Vela, Senior Advisor at Telefonica. Finally, he discussed the specific problem in that the current legislation doesn’t apply to VoIP services or webmail services, which was also raised by Staffan Lindmark, Deputy Head of Section at the Swedish Post and Telecom Authority. Thomas Myrup Kristensen, Managing Director for EU Affairs at Facebook, argued against the inclusion, stating that different tools should be regulated differently. Pierre Chastanet stated that the Commission has committing itself to solving this issue.

The panel discussion revealed a tension between the representatives of industry and those of regulators and consumer organisations. While Estelle Massé, Policy Analyst at Access Now, repeatedly defended the importance of the ePrivacy Directive, and the status of privacy as a fundamental right independent of the right to data protection, the panelists representing the private sector were less favorable. MEP Michał Boni (EPP, Poland) closed the session by recognizing the meaningful role that is played by self-regulation and co-regulation in the sector, while also stating that legislation must not impair innovation in technology. He identified the question of whether the same regulatory framework should be applied to different services as a key issue, and stressed the need to achieve an ePrivacy Directive in a way that is complementary to the GDPR.

Building the foundations for our digital future

During his speech on 29 September, Andrus Ansip, Vice-President of the European Commission for the Digital Single Market, stressed that the EU needs a radical shift. He particularly discussed the issue of data, which he said was crucial to the digital revolution through which the EU is going. A key priority for the European Commission is the removal of legal and technical barriers to the free flow of data. For that, it is important to remove forcible data location regulations currently in place at the national level. Finally, he announced that the Commission will introduce an initiative aimed at tackling unnecessary restrictions on where data is located.

Digital revolution: digital transforms all other sectors of the economy

In his speech, Commissioner Gunther Oettinger stressed the need for a European digital strategy, which requires intense cooperation between Member States, industry, the creative sector and European policymakers. He particularly highlighted the Commission’s measures concerning connectivity, copyright and data. In terms of connectivity, he referred to the Commission’s ‘ambitious targets’ including the expansion of 5G and the provision of at least 100mb connectivity to every European household. With regards to data, he emphasized the difficult issues associated with it, such as questions of data ownership, and the need to ensure a free European flow of data. To conclude, he expressed hopes that the Digital Single Market could provide a framework for the EU’s economic and cultural future for decades to come.

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