Europe wants to do more to boost cross-border data flows

The European Commission has published a mid-term review of its Digital Single Market (DSM) strategy that’s aimed at breaking down barriers to e-commerce and fostering digital activity across the region.

Its priority areas at this stage are three-fold:

  • Doing more to encourage the free flow of (non-personal) data across European boards
  • Beefing up regional cybersecurity defenses
  • Tackling online platforms that step out of line, be that by imposing unfair contractual clauses that damage others’ competitiveness, or by enabling the spread of illegal content online

On the data front, the commission says it is preparing a legislative initiative on the cross-border free flow of non-personal data — due this fall. It says this will be based on “principles such as free movement of data, porting data and/or availability of certain data for regulatory control purposes.”

The commission has already secured an agreement to end geoblocks on EU travelers’ digital subscriptions by 2018, but it looks like it has more to come on this front.

It also says it’s keen to boost accessibility and reuse of public and publicly funded data, such as in the areas of public transport and public utilities, and is preparing to legislate on this in spring 2018.

It adds that it’s continuing its work on liability and other “emerging data issues.”  (On this front, also today, the commission published its final report of an e-commerce sector inquiry — in which it notes in passing “possible” competition concerns relating to data-collection and usage, citing the example of the exchange of “competitively sensitive data, such as on prices and sold quantities, between marketplaces and third party sellers or manufacturers with own shops and retailers.” And although this area was not a core focus of the review, it’s clear questions about the power of big data are at least on the commission’s mind.

Meanwhile, on cybersecurity, the EC says it will review the EU Cybersecurity Strategy and the mandate of the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security by September to align it to the new EU-wide framework on cybersecurity.

The security nightmare of the Internet of Things is also on the commission’s radar: It says it will work to propose additional measures on cybersecurity standards, certification and labeling to bolster the security of connected devices.

When it comes to online platforms, the commission says that by the end of the year it will have an initiative prepared aimed at tackling unfair contractual clauses and trading practices identified in platform-to-business relationships — citing “recent competition enforcement decisions related to this” (which likely refers to a stack of competition charges filed against Google, including its Android mobile OS).

But it’s not just thinking about competition concerns here. The EC also flags conversations it’s been having with online platforms in other areas — such as illegal online hate speech, and the sale of counterfeit goods online — saying it plans to co-ordinate these various dialogues better.

“One of the aims is to move forward with the procedural aspects and principles on removal of illegal content — notice and action — based on transparency and protecting the fundamental rights,” it adds.

Individual EU member states have been taking a harder line on social media platforms and hate speech, with German lawmakers recently backing a call for large fines for tech firms that do not promptly remove illegal posts following a report… which may be encouraging the commission to take a closer look at its own approach here.

Other areas the EU executive body is intending to focus on to further its DSM strategy include digital skills, and the need for additional investment in digital infrastructure and technologies in areas where it says investment needs to go far beyond the capacity of single member states — such as high-performance computing.

The EC says it will propose by the end of 2017 a legal instrument that provides a procurement framework for an integrated world-class high-performance computing infrastructure capable of at least 1018 calculations per second (aka “exascale computers”) and data infrastructure to ensure that Europe is in “the top-3 facilities in the world by 2022-2023.”

It also wants to promote the use of high-performance computing capacity for advanced data analytics to derive health insights from big data — to try to foster the development of medicines and early detection of emerging infectious diseases.

The EC says it has delivered 35 legislative proposals and policy initiatives pertaining to the DMS since May 2015, adding that its focus now is on obtaining political agreement with the European Parliament and the Council on all proposals (a requirement to implement law across the bloc) — including updated EU telecoms rules, which it argues will help boost investments in the high-speed, high-capacity networks needed to underpin the digital economy.

Commenting on the mid-term review of the DSM, Andrus Ansip, VP for the strategy, said in a statement: “Two years on, we propose to update our strategy to reflect new challenges and technologies. We need cyber-secure infrastructure across all parts of the EU so that everyone –- everywhere –- can enjoy high-speed connectivity safely.

“We have already agreed on strong EU rules for personal data protection; we now need to make sure that non-personal data can flow freely to assist connected cars and eHealth services. We need high-performance computing along with a digitally skilled workforce to make the most out of the data economy. All these areas are essential for Europe’s digital future.”