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#NetNeutrality: EU rules out blocking online content, application and services

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A multimedia internet server computer doing multimedia processing sharing and calculating actvity

A multimedia internet server computer doing multimedia processing, sharing and calculating activity

The Devil is in the details they say, and this was part of the reaction the Commission received when Digital Economy and Society Commissioner Gunter Oettinger proposed the Telecom Single Market Regulation back in 2013. For the very first time, the principle of net neutrality as enshrined in EU law sets out the detail on ruling out blocking or throttling or discrimination of online content, applications and services. 

In a blog, Oettinger reassures us that those who advocated for more detail will receive it. BEREC (the European Regulators for Electronic Communications), the EU body regrouping all 28 national telecom regulators, has issued its guidelines. These guidelines will serve as a reference for every national regulator having to decide whether a company or a public service provider violates the net neutrality rules and whether to start proceedings against them.

In doing so, the guidelines will ensure a consistent application of the open internet rules across the EU.  Because we want a single rule book for a single digital market. The guidelines send a strong signal to the market about BEREC's capacity to support and contribute to a consistent implementation of the Telecom Single Market Regulation which will also provide greater legal certainty.  They also send a clear signal to citizens that they will continue to benefit from an open Internet. And that the Internet will remain a digital engine of innovation.

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Oettinger is happy to see that the BEREC guidelines meet their objective and congratulates BEREC for the great job they have done. Oettinger said: "The guidelines operationalise Telecom Single Market Regulation. No more - but also no less than that. Along with the Telecom Single Market Regulation, the guidelines set the right framework under which any market operator can provide high-quality, competitive and innovative content and services. These include some future advanced applications e.g. connected cars, 5G applications, or the Internet of Things services, some of which can be provided via an internet access service, or as specialised services in order to ensure a specific level of quality. This enables innovation, either over the open Internet or in the form of specialized services.

"I am aware that it has not been easy to agree on everything, and all parties involved have had to make some compromises. Bearing in mind the sometimes passionate debate on net neutrality, I welcome the explanatory document that BEREC has provided along with the Guidelines and thank BEREC for all the work done in such a short timeframe.

"Let us be clear: ensuring an open Internet is a fundamental principle to promote and protect the Internet that we want. It is a means to achieve the right environment for the digital society and economy to flourish and to foster freedom of expression. Today, we made a further step in the right direction.This creates transparency on the related discussion and the different points of view."

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BEREC Guidelines

Consumer protection

Consumer protection: Commission launches public consultation concerning the distance marketing of consumer financial services

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The European Commission has launched a public consultation on the distance marketing of financial services offered to consumers. The EU has rules in place to protect consumers when they sign a contract with a retail financial services provider at a distance, for example on the phone or online. Any service of a banking, credit, mortgage, insurance, personal pension, investment or payment nature falls under the scope of the Directive on distance marketing of consumer financial services whenever the financial service is purchased at a distance.

Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said: “It is time to adapt our EU rules to current times. Consumers purchase financial services online more and more. This public consultation will help us identify citizens and companies' needs so we can make the directive future-proof.”

 The results of the public consultation will feed into the Commission's considerations for a possible revision of the directive, expected in 2022. The public consultation will gather experiences and opinions from consumers, retail financial services professionals, national authorities and any other interested stakeholders on the directive. The public consultation is available here and will be open until 28 September 2021.

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Consumer protection

How the EU aims to boost consumer protection

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Find out how the EU aims to boost consumer protection and adapt it to new challenges such as the green transition and the digital transformation. Society 

As the economy becomes more global and digital, the EU is looking at new ways to protect consumers. During the May plenary, MEPs will debate the digital future of Europe. The report focuses on removing barriers to the functioning of the digital single market and improving the use of articial intelligence for consumers.

Infographic illustration on consumer protection in the European Union
Reinforcing consumer protection  

New consumer agenda

Parliament is also working on the new consumer agenda strategy for 2020-2025, focusing on five areas: green transition, digital transformation, effective enforcement of consumer rights, specific needs of certain consumer groups and international cooperation.

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Making it easier to consume sustainably

The 2050 climate neutrality goal is a priority for the EU and consumer issues have a role to play - through sustainable consumption and the circular economy.

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Sustainable consumption  

In November 2020, MEPs adopted a report on a sustainable single market calling on the European Commission to establish a so-called right to repair to make repairs systematic, cost efficient and attractive. Members also called for labelling the lifespan of products as well as measures to promote a culture of reuse, including guarantees on pre-owned goods.

They also want measures against purposefully designing products in a way that makes them obsolete after a certain time and reiterated demands for a common charger.

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The Commission is working on right to repair rules for electronics and legislation on the environmental footprint of products to enable consumers to compare.

The review of the Sale of Goods Directive, planned for 2022, will look into whether the current two-year legal guarantee could be extended for new and pre-owned goods.

In September 2020, the Commission launched the sustainable products initiative, under the new Circular Economy Action Plan. It aims to make products fit for a climate-neutral, resource-efficient and circular economy while reducing waste. It will also address the presence of harmful chemicals in products such as electronics and ICT equipment, textiles and furniture.

Making the digital transformation safe for consumers

The digital transformation is dramatically changing our lives, including how we shop. To help EU consumer rules catch up, in December 2020 the Commission proposed a new Digital Services Act, a set of rules to improve consumer safety across online platforms in the EU, including online marketplaces.

MEPs want consumers to be equally safe when shopping online or offline and want platforms such as eBay and Amazon to step up efforts to tackle traders selling fake or unsafe products and to stop fraudulent companies using their services.

MEPs also proposed rules to protect users from harmful and illegal content online while safeguarding freedom of speech and called for new rules on online advertising giving users more control.

Given the impact of artificial Intelligence, the EU is preparing rules to manage its opportunities and threats. Parliament has set up a special committee and emphasises the need for human centric legislation. The Parliament has proposed a civil liability regime for artificial intelligence that establishes who is responsible when AI systems cause harm or damage.

Strengthening the enforcement of consumer rights

EU countries are responsible for enforcing consumer rights, but the EU has a coordinating and supporting role. Among the rules it has put in place are the directive on a better enforcement and modernisation of consumer law and rules on collective redress.

Addressing specific consumer needs

Vulnerable consumers such as children, elderly people or people living with disabilities, as well as people in financial difficulties or consumers with limited access to the internet need specific safeguards. In the new consumer agenda, the Commission plans to focus on problems with internet accessibility, financially vulnerable consumers and products for children.

The Commission’s plans include more offline advice for consumers with no internet access as well as funding to improve the availability and quality of debt advice services for people in financial difficulties.

Because children are particularly vulnerable to harmful advertising, Parliament has approved stricter rules for audiovisual media services for audiovisual media services.

Guaranteeing the safety of products sold in the EU

Consumers often purchase goods manufactured outside the EU. According to the Commission, purchases from sellers outside the EU increased from 17% in 2014 to 27% in 2019 and the new consumer agenda highlights the need for international cooperation to ensure consumer protection. China was the largest supplier of goods to the EU in 2020, so the Commission will work on an action plan with them in 2021 to increase the safety of products sold online.

In November 2020, Parliament passed a resolution calling for greater efforts to ensure that all products sold in the EU are safe, whether manufactured within or outside the EU or are sold online or offline.

Next steps

Parliament’s internal market and consumer protection committee is working on the Commission proposal for the new consumer agenda. MEPs are expected to vote on it in September.

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Broadband

Time for the #EuropeanUnion to close longstanding #digital gaps

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The European Union recently unveiled its European Skills Agenda, an ambitious scheme to both upskill and reskill the bloc’s workforce. The right to lifelong learning, enshrined in the European Pillar of Social Rights, has taken on new importance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As Nicolas Schmit, the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, explained: “The skilling of our workforces is one of our central responses to the recovery, and providing people the chance to build the skillsets they need is key to preparing for the green and digital transitions”.

Indeed, while the European bloc has frequently made headlines for its environmental initiatives—particularly the centrepiece of the Von der Leyen Commission, the European Green Deal—it’s allowed digitalisation to fall somewhat by the wayside. One estimate suggested that Europe utilizes only 12% of its digital potential. To tap into this neglected area, the EU must first address the digital inequalities in the bloc’s 27 member states are addressed.

The 2020 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), an annual composite assessment summarizing Europe’s digital performance and competitiveness, corroborates this claim. The latest DESI report, released in June, illustrates the imbalances which have left the EU facing a patchwork digital future. The stark divisions revealed by DESI’s data—splits between one member state and the next, between rural and urban areas, between small and large firms or between men and women—make it abundantly clear that while some parts of the EU are prepared for the next generation of technology, others are lagging significantly behind.

A yawning digital divide?

DESI evaluates five principal components of digitalization—connectivity, human capital, the uptake of Internet services, firms’ integration of digital technology, and the availability of digital public services. Across these five categories, a clear rift opens up between the highest-performing countries and those languishing at the bottom of the pack. Finland, Malta, Ireland and the Netherlands stand out as star performers with extremely advanced digital economies, while Italy, Romania, Greece and Bulgaria have a lot of ground to make up.

This overall picture of a widening gap in terms of digitalization is borne out by the report’s detailed sections on each of these five categories. Aspects such as broadband coverage, internet speeds, and next-generation access capability, for example, are all critical for personal and professional digital use—yet parts of Europe are falling short in all of these areas.

Wildly divergent access to broadband

Broadband coverage in rural areas remains a particular challenge—10% of households in Europe’s rural zones are still not covered by any fixed network, while 41% of rural homes are not covered by next generation-access technology. It’s not surprising, therefore, that significantly fewer Europeans living in rural areas have the basic digital skills they need, compared to their compatriots in larger cities and towns.

While these connectivity gaps in rural areas are troubling, particularly given how important digital solutions like precision farming will be for making the European agricultural sector more sustainable, the problems aren’t limited to rural zones. The EU had set a goal for at least 50% of households to have ultrafast broadband (100 Mbps or faster) subscriptions by the end of 2020.  According to the 2020 DESI Index, however, the EU is well short of the mark: only 26% of European households have subscribed to such fast broadband services. This is a problem with take-up, rather than infrastructure—66.5% of European households are covered by a network able to provide at least 100 Mbps broadband.

Yet again, there’s a radical divergence between the frontrunners and the laggards in the continent’s digital race. In Sweden, more than 60% of households have subscribed to ultrafast broadband—while in Greece, Cyprus and Croatia less than 10% of households have such rapid service.

SMEs falling behind

A similar story plagues Europe’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which represent 99% of all businesses in the EU. A mere 17% of these firms use cloud services and only 12% use big data analytics. With such a low rate of adoption for these important digital tools, European SMEs risk falling behind not only companies in other countries—74% of SMEs in Singapore, for example, have identified cloud computing as one of the investments with the most measurable impact on their business—but losing ground against larger EU firms.

Larger enterprises overwhelmingly eclipse SMEs on their integration of digital technology—some 38.5% of large firms are already reaping the benefits of advanced cloud services, while 32.7% are relying on big data analytics. Since SMEs are considered the backbone of the European economy, it’s impossible to imagine a successful digital transition in Europe without smaller firms picking up the pace.

Digital divide between citizens

Even if Europe manages to close these gaps in digital infrastructure, though, it means little
without the human capital to back it up. Some 61% of Europeans have at least basic digital skills, though this figure falls alarmingly low in some member states—in Bulgaria, for example, a mere 31% of citizens have even the most basic software skills.

The EU has still further trouble equipping its citizens with the above-basic skills which are increasingly becoming a prerequisite for a wide range of job roles. Currently, only 33% of Europeans possess more advanced digital skills. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) specialists, meanwhile, make up a meager 3.4% of the EU’s total workforce—and only 1 out of 6 are women. Unsurprisingly, this has created difficulties for SMEs struggling to recruit these highly-in-demand specialists. Some 80% of companies in Romania and Czechia reported problems trying to fill positions for ICT specialists, a snag which will undoubtedly slow down these countries’ digital transformations.

The latest DESI report lays out in stark relief the extreme disparities which will continue to thwart Europe’s digital future until they are addressed. The European Skills Agenda and other programs intended to prepare the EU for its digital development are welcome steps in the right direction, but European policymakers should lay out a comprehensive scheme to bring the entire bloc up to speed. They have the perfect opportunity to do so, too—the €750 billion recovery fund proposed to help the European bloc get back on its feet after the coronavirus pandemic. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has already stressed that this unprecedent investment must include provisions for Europe’s digitalization: the DESI report has made it clear which digital gaps must be addressed first.

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