December 19, 2017

Our Digital Future

Europe needs the political will to adopt important decisions

Europe’s single market has been working successfully for several decades, guaranteeing the free movement of people, services, goods and capital. But when it comes to digital, there is still a long way to go.
In May 2015, the European Commission presented a comprehensive plan to turn Europe digital, to remove barriers that should not exist in the 21st century. Since then, only a handful of our proposed initiatives have made it through the EU’s decision-making process and are now in effect. The rest are sitting on the negotiating table. We still have work to do to build a Digital Single Market (DSM).
That said, we are starting to see some welcome results from our efforts. But what does that mean for people on the street?
Roaming surcharges have been consigned to history. As from June 2017, people can switch on mobile services—especially data—without fear of high bills while travelling in the European Union. From April 2018, Europeans who have subscribed to their favourite series, music and sports events at home will be able to access them when they are moving around EU countries.
Today, only a third of EU online customers are able to buy goods or services in another EU country without difficulty. By next Christmas, everyone will be able to shop online without being blocked, re-routed or discriminated against on grounds of nationality or where they—or their credit cards—are located.
In practical terms, this means a good deal to a lot of people in their daily lives. There is a real tangible effect. But we have not yet finished. What Europe needs now is strong political commitment to take the remaining decisions—in key areas such as copyright, telecommunications, cybersecurity and the free flow of non-personal data. On all of these, we are not out of the woods yet.
Here is another. A quarter of Europeans are interested in accessing online content across country borders. But the reality is that 67% of all films are only shown in one country. We want to facilitate the cross-border online transmission of TV and radio programmes and retransmission of channels from other EU countries.
Telecommunications are the backbone of the digital world. Without a decent, reliable, high-quality online connection—everywhere, and for everyone—not much will follow. Updating Europe’s telecoms rules and improving country coordination on wireless bandwidths will stimulate the investment in very high capacity networks that Europe needs.
The DSM—as well as everyone’s digital future—depends on data. Data is the basis of everything digital, driving competitiveness and economic growth.
Since we are all using increasing amounts of data, it must remain safe and secure. Deficiencies in cybersecurity directly affect our prosperity, security and democracy—so we take cybersecurity very seriously. No EU country can face a large-scale cyber-threat alone.
We recently proposed ways to strengthen EU-wide resilience against cyber-attacks; to improve information exchange between EU countries; to increase cyber-hygiene; and to promote technological innovation to create a strong European cybersecurity industry.
Data is also a valuable resource in itself. To keep it locked away unnecessarily in national data centres or in certain sectors means that it cannot be used to its full potential. Data’s real value will only come out if it can be used to the full.
For that to happen, it has to flow without constraints. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which enters into force in May 2018, already addresses the free flow of personal data. To complement this, we have also proposed removing unjustified restrictions on the free movement of non-personal data. This is a first step to making it easier to operate cross-border services for the storage, processing, analysis and sharing of non-personal data.
The automotive industry is a good example of the potential benefits of these developments. Connected and self-driving vehicles will generate large amounts of complex data, either internally or by interacting with other vehicles and infrastructure. New growth areas like artificial intelligence, robotics and big data analytics should be able to access, reuse, combine and integrate massive and diverse amounts of data. They will help to support EU industry as it goes digital, increase the competitiveness of EU business, and create more jobs.
With data, we need to go even further. In the spring of 2018, we will start by reviewing the legislation and principles on reusing public and publicly funded data. The idea is to encourage new discoveries and enhance the impact of big data and innovative services—for example, in transport, utilities and healthcare.
At the same time, we know that Europe has to raise its high-performance computing (HPC) capability to make the most of increasing amounts of data. EU industry now provides about 5% of HPC resources worldwide, but consumes about 30%. If we stay dependent on others for this critical technology, we risk getting technologically ‘locked’, delayed or deprived of strategic know-how.
Scientists, researchers and engineers are among the major users of HPC today. Companies across many industry sectors are coming to rely on supercomputer power to innovate, cut costs and reduce the time taken to get their products and services to market.
Many EU countries have already committed to HPC and signed up to our plan to establish integrated world-class exascale infrastructure across the EU. However, Baltic and Nordic countries have not yet done so—which is hard to understand.
All the DSM proposals are interlinked, but they are also important in their own right. For Europe to embrace and exploit the new technologies, some initiatives need to be agreed first in order for others to follow.
To illustrate this, just take data as an example. Without a secure Internet of Things and seamless plug-and-play systems, there will be less big data. Without 5G and common technical standards, we will not realise the full potential of the IoT or new digital services. Without the cloud, the growth of big data will be held back. And without good e-government services working across EU national borders, businesses will lose out in efficiency.
Estonia’s EU Presidency made digital one of its top priorities. It brought us the Tallinn Digital Summit and the cyber-exercise involving EU defence ministers; it made digital an integral part of many policy areas, such as development and e-justice. Following the great work done by Estonia, the Commission will now work closely with the incoming Bulgarian and Austrian presidencies to make sure that we reach agreement on the remaining DSM initiatives.
This is a lot of food for thought. But we cannot afford to take too long about it.

The article was written in cooperation with the European Commission Representation in Estonia.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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