The European Commission is gearing up to solve some longstanding problems with outdated copyright and data protection laws and move ahead on new rules for roaming charges and net neutrality.
During the past week, the Commission made public its work agenda for 2015, and high on the list is the ongoing effort to break down national barriers to create what it calls a digital single market.
While there are many policy issues involved in building such a market, the Commission will focus on areas where it can make "a real and tangible difference to people's lives" by acting on a European, rather than a national, basis, said Andrus Ansip, Commission vice president responsible for the digital single market, in a blog post.
These are the four key issues the Commission will focus on in 2015:
One of the top priorities next year will be to modernize the EU copyright rules, as the current rules stem from 2001 and are badly in need of an update. They were created years before sites like Facebook and YouTube and under the current system much of what is posted online could run afoul of copyright law, unless it is covered by a specific exception. Those exceptions are narrow and old, note critics. As a result, everyday online habits, such as linking to copyrighted content in a blog post or posting a video with some footage from an existing movie or song, could be considered illegal.
In addition, different countries embrace different aspects of the list of exceptions. This can be confusing, making what is perfectly legal in one country possibly illegal in another. This fragmentation also causes difficulties for companies like Spotify and Netflix when rolling out services in the EU, as they face long negotiations with copyright-collecting societies in each country.
The Commission wants the copyright rules to fit the new digital reality so that citizens and businesses will have online access to digital services between and across the EU's own borders. How that is going to pan out exactly remains to be seen. Günther Oettinger, commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, has started working with the European Parliament on the reform. The Commission expects a plan to be drawn up before next fall.
New telecom legislation
Ansip says the Commission "will keep pushing hard for an agreement" among EU institutions on planned telecom legislation. Key issues in this legislative package are net neutrality and the abolition of roaming charges. The bill is currently under negotiation by the Council of the EU, the legislative body comprising European ministers from different governments.
While the Parliament favored a net neutrality approach that treats all Internet traffic equally, without imposing restrictions, the Council could seek to water it down. Italy, which will hand over the rotating presidency of the Council to Latvia on Jan. 1, has been pushing to remove the very definition of "net neutrality" from the bill, and also wishes to allow differential charging for services. This move would be welcomed by the telecom industry.
The Council might also be looking to delay the elimination of roaming charges beyond the planned target date of Dec. 15, 2015. Discussion on the issue will continue in the Council next year.
New data protection rules
The Commission is also planning to conclude the ongoing negotiations on common EU data protection rules as soon as possible. The current Data Protection Directive dates back to 1995 and needs reform. Proposed changes seek to reinforce consumer confidence in online services while also updating rules to take new technologies into account and reduce administrative burdens, potentially saving businesses €2.3 billion (US$2.8 billion) a year.
The Commission proposed new data protection regulations in January 2012 and the Parliament approved the draft regulation with minor modifications in March.
The Council, though, is trying to change things by proposing less stringent rules for protecting personal data not considered to be highly sensitive. While this proposal was welcomed by an industry lobby group backed by Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and other big tech companies, they said the proposed data protection rules still impose unnecessary burdens on the industry. The proposed rules would still require companies with more than 250 employees to keep a register for regulators of all the data they control or process, even data that is not considered extremely sensitive.
The legislation can only move forward when national justice ministers have reached an agreement, and discussions will continue in 2015.
Next year, the Commission will set out a long-term digital strategy for the years ahead, looking to simplify consumer rules for online purchases, stimulate e-commerce and enhance cybersecurity.
To do that, the Commission will listen to interested parties. For example, outside speakers will be brought in to a conference in Brussels in February where the EU's priorities for online commerce, copyright and data protection will be discussed. The Commission will also send experts to all countries to explain its plans.
In addition, Ansip will also host another Twitter chat like he did in October. "Not only did I pick up a lot of ideas from all the tweets that came in, but also got a clear feeling of the themes and issues that really matter to you," he said, adding that he will also invite people to give their views in other ways online.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org