The digital future of Europe mapped out
Since its 2015 Work Programme, the European Commission has made no mystery of its intention to take the proverbial bull by the horns with reference to the digital sector and the related market. The Strategy should make for an exciting two years with regard to the building up of a digital single market. Some initiatives arouse particular interest.
The copyright conundrum
The debate on the topic is currently raging in Brussels and the outcome of the process will have to get as close as possible to finding the ‘silver bullet’ needed to reconcile the rights of both authors and users in a ‘perilous’ and constantly evolving digital environment.
In its proposal for autumn this year, the Commission envisages reducing the differences between national regimes, e.g. with regard to portability of legally acquired content; cross-border access to legally purchased online services; and harmonised exceptions for the cross-border use of content for specific purposes (e.g. research and education). For 2016, the goal is to put on the table an initiative to modernise enforcement of intellectual property rights, focusing on commercial-scale infringements and cross-border applicability.
At the European Parliament’s level, in the meantime, the ‘Reda’ initiative report on the key 2001/29/EC Directive (harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society) is under the spotlight. The EU-wide effectiveness of the Directive at issue has been criticised and the need to bring the text up-to-date is apparent.
Audiovisual services: many implications at play
The Strategy also foresees an evaluation and revision of the so-called Audiovisual Media Services Directive (2016), with particular regard to its scope and to the nature of the rules applicable to all market players.
The Audiovisual Media Services Directive, has a quite marked focus on child protection, but more specific areas are featured, such as religious programming and the fight against incitement to hatred, including on grounds like race and religion, as well as against promotion of discrimination based on the same grounds in audiovisual commercial communications. In these regards, no watering down of concepts or standards should derive from this reviewing exercise, as the importance of the relevant provisions cannot be subordinated to the goal of achieving a single market. Similar points were also made by the COMECE Secretariat as far back as 2003, when it contributed to the consultation on its predecessor, the “Television Without Frontiers” Directive.
Prioritising the protection of minors online
The Audiovisual Media Services Directive is not the only context in which protection of minors will come into play with the new Strategy. The Commission is supposed to launch a comprehensive assessment of the role of platforms and online intermediaries. One of the aims is that of identifying instruments to tackle illegal content on the Internet (e.g. child pornography), including possibly increased responsibilities for Internet intermediary service providers.
With regard to illegal online contents and protection of minors, the Strategy has also surfaced in a quite busy time for ‘digital matters’, as Council and Parliament have just found an agreement on the important ‘Connected Continent’ Regulation: provisions in this text have a direct impact on child protection in the online environment, including with reference to the role of parents.
Protection of personal data (again)
Apparently not intimidated by the rather bumpy experience with the (ongoing) inter-institutional negotiations on the data protection reform, the Commission Strategy commits to review the 2002 ePrivacy Directive on processing of personal data and the protection of privacy in the electronic communications sector. Particularly problematic is the current exclusion from its scope of Information society service providers that use the Internet to provide communication services.
Not just a matter of ‘business’
Although the title of the Strategy seems to limit its scope to the technical and somewhat clinical matter of the (digital) ‘single market’, it is evident that the impact of the relevant proposals and initiatives will be much broader, touching upon aspects related to values that are close to the heart of EU citizens. Media pluralism and freedom, a safe online environment for minors, not to speak of the preservation of cultural diversity, are all topics that require an approach and sensibility that goes way beyond a strictly market-oriented one. In this context, it should be borne in mind that the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU binds the EU to respecting cultural, religious and linguistic diversity. Time is also ripe for the EU to once again step in, at a legislative level, with regard to ‘digital contents’ and the multifarious instruments, rights and obligations associated with them.
In the elaboration of the ‘digital single market as well, the EU is called upon to be bold in bringing Member States closer together and pushing up the bar with regard to a number of standards. It should do so by overcoming that excessive legislative fragmentation which ultimately also hinders European creativity and innovation; and by means of formulations that are adaptable and capable of standing the test of time and technological development.