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Why Europe’s digital unity plans are so ambitious (and so necessary)

Although Europe is supposed to be a trade bloc with a single market, that’s not yet the reality when it comes to digital goods and services. The European Commission has now sketched out its plans for fixing that – but it still faces major hurdles.

EU vice president Andrus Ansip, who is coordinating the digital single market push across various Commission departments, on Wednesday said he wants to see an end to most kinds of geoblocking – e.g., the technical restrictions that can stop someone in France from seeing a Czech TV program online – and modernize European copyright rules.

The Commission also wants to:

  • Harmonize the use of radio spectrum across the EU so that 4G can be rolled out more quickly.
  • Smooth the way for cross-border e-commerce so that people can sell to and buy from other EU countries more easily.
  • Encourage the interoperability of electronic services in areas from government to healthcare.

Some of this would be a matter of technical standardization, but Ansip and his colleagues also will have to fend off serious opposition from the likes of major music and movie studios, and national governments that don’t want to cede control to Brussels.

Breaking down walls

Ansip’s oft-stated hatred for geoblocking is shared by many Europeans. The Estonian is fond of talking about how he cannot watch his favorite shows while in Belgium, but the problem extends beyond audiovisual content.

By way of example, when I moved from the UK to Germany a few years ago, I found I could no longer re-download some of the expensive iPad apps I had bought while there. To be able to do so, I had to deregister my accurate German details from iTunes, re-register my old British address and credit card number, download the apps and then virtually “move” to Germany again.

In a bloc of 28 countries through which people can travel without a passport, these limitations seem absurd. However, the Commission will have to deal with a content creration industry that is used to formulating fine-grained release windows across multiple countries, based on exclusive deals with various broadcasters and web video firms.

It may make sense for a British consumer to be able to catch up on their favorite BBC show while vacationing in Spain, for example, but the BBC may only want to make that show available to Spaniards through a lucrative deal with a certain Spanish TV station. If geoblocking were to be abolished, it would no longer be able to enforce this segmentation, although there might be new opportunities for selling directly to people in other countries.

“Today’s situation is a lose-lose situation,” Ansip said at a Wednesday press conference. “People would like to enjoy masterpieces created by creators but they cannot, they are blocked. People are ready to pay but we are not accepting their money. We would like to create a win-win situation.”

The revamping of Europe’s copyright rules might give Ansip and the commissioner with the copyright brief, Günther Oettinger, some bargaining room on this front. One thing the Commission mentioned is that it wants to ensure “better enforcement of rights,” which would be music to the ears of the creative industries, but the striking of such bargains remains some way off for now.

The roaming blocker

Even if this kind of quid pro quo can be achieved, there’s still a big blocker to any real digital single market: The lack of a unified telecommunications market.

Ansip’s frustrations over this problem bubbled to the surface in an earlier speech, in which he lambasted the member states for trying to water down a package of laws that was intended to abolish roaming fees for people travelling between member states, and to harmonize EU net neutrality rules.

The roaming issue is particularly problematic. The Commission and the European Parliament had agreed that, by year-end, Europeans should no longer have to pay a surcharge for using mobile devices in other European countries.

But earlier this month, the member states came back saying they would accept a daily “basic roaming allowance” of just five megabytes, beyond which carriers should be able to still charge more than they would charge at home. On Tuesday, Ansip called this proposal “a joke”.

It’s not hard to see why. Not only is five megabytes barely enough to send a couple of emails and check a Twitter feed, but roaming surcharges act as a barrier to the free use of digital products and services across borders. There’s little point in being allowed to watch that TV show from back home if doing so would be prohibitively expensive.

Roaming fees also stymie the business plans of any new company that wants to target the hundreds of millions of Europeans who venture between countries each year. The Commission, which has been trying to get rid of roaming fees for almost a decade now, is very keen to stimulate the tech startup sector.

Similarly, the failure of the member states to agree to clearly-defined, uniform net neutrality rules across the EU will discourage the creation of a true digital single market, by not allowing the establishment of a level regulatory playing field for content providers and carriers alike.

There are many more hurdles that Ansip and his colleagues must leap. Recently-introduced sales tax rules have led some British digital service providers to stop serving customers outside the UK, for example. The harmonization of radio spectrum allocation rules, too, was actually in the hotly-contested telecoms reform package alongside roaming and net neutrality, but the member states, which make a lot of money from spectrum auctions, want to excise those passages entirely.

However, the goal of a digital single market is a necessary one for those, such as Ansip, who want to see European countries drawn more closely together into a competitive whole.

The current state of affairs puts the EU at a major disadvantage to less-fragmented rivals such as the U.S. and – with digital industry being the future – this disparity would prove disastrous in the long term. Dealing with a multitude of languages and cultures is difficult enough.

David Meyer (@superglaze) is a technology writer based in Berlin, covering issues ranging from policy and privacy to emerging technologies and markets.

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