The last few weeks have been pretty exciting for those of us in Brussels. We watched with great interest as President-Elect of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, unveiled his proposed team for the new Commission, including both a Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society and a Vice-President with responsibility for the Digital Single Market. These are promising signs that Mr. Juncker recognizes the tremendous social and economic benefits that technology can deliver.
Today, Europe stands at a digital crossroads. Many Europeans still cannot access a dependable, high-speed Internet connection. Small businesses struggle to reach beyond national borders with Internet sales and services. And we have yet to achieve full digital literacy. These are important challenges for the new Commission, but the rewards for success are clear.
Mr. Juncker wrote this past July that if we succeed in forging a true digital single market, Europe could net an additional €250 billion in growth over the next five years. In addition to creating more jobs here in Europe, a single market for digital products and services means more choice and more transparency for European consumers.
The new Commission has its work cut out to deliver this vision. From day one, Europe’s new Commissioners will be faced with a number of tough regulatory issues, in areas such as data protection, telecommunications, audio-visual media services, and copyright. On many issues, fresh thinking will be needed to move beyond old impasses.
There is one issue, however, where a “quick win” could be achievable: open Internet principles.
Protecting the open Internet – or net neutrality – has as its starting point the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally by Internet access providers and network operators, regardless of source, destination and ownership. This may sound straightforward, but recently, open Internet principles have been the subject of an active debate, in Europe and beyond.
Currently, the Council of the EU is negotiating the draft Telecoms Single Market Regulation. This proposal will result in the eventual abolition of roaming charges, and better coordination on the way spectrum frequencies – which allow communication over the airwaves – are allocated. Its provisions will likely also implement the open Internet principles in some way.
We don’t yet know what these final provisions will look like, but do congratulate the Italian presidency in pushing the file forward. It is now imperative that the new legislation is rooted in several key principles which can be applied in a consistent manner across all 28 EU member states.
Any agreement on protecting access to the open Internet must ensure that there is no restriction, blocking or degradation to the free flow of (legal) Internet content, products or services. And it must prohibit unreasonable or arbitrary discrimination between different types of traffic flows.
At the same time, a properly balanced solution should take into account the legitimate concerns of network operators. It is important to make sure that network operators’ ability to manage traffic reasonably is not curtailed and that they have the opportunity to develop, alongside regular open Internet provision, parallel specialized services which require dedicated capacity. An agreement must also mandate customer transparency from network operators concerning the way they manage Internet traffic, the performance Internet users can expect, and their terms and conditions.
Finally, it is essential that the form of the open Internet principles is transparent and easy to understand for anyone implicated in Internet usage: from network operators and content providers or creators, to everyday browsers of the worldwide web. There also needs to be a degree of flexibility built in, so that they can evolve and adapt just as swiftly as the digital world does.
Integrating all these principles-based elements into fair, focused and practical legislation is not easy, but a balanced solution will benefit both Europe’s consumers and businesses, by strengthening trust, equality, access, and innovation within the digital arena. If we fail, we risk increased fragmentation of the rules, moving us further away from achieving a digital single market. The Commission has an important role to play in bringing this process to a successful close, but speed is of the essence. If agreed quickly, this reform will serve as a first, very meaningful step in the right direction – towards a truly European, truly digital single market.