#DigitalSingleMarket: does online business get your vote?

Late last year, I gave my predictions for 2015 to SCL - The IT Law Community:

Futurology rewards the brave. Therefore, I predict with some confidence that by 21 October 2015 automatic dog-walkers, bar code licence plates, food hydrators—oh!—and hoverboards will become a reality.

Perhaps I was confusing reality with Back to the Future II?

An easy mistake to make.

However, time continues to move on relentlessly; technology seems to move on even quicker.

The law, as always, struggles to keep up.

Yesterday, the relatively new European Commission tried to get a grip on the challenges of the digital revolution by adopting its Digital Single Market for Europe strategy. It includes a set of 16 targeted actions to be delivered by the end of 2016.

Here are the highlights for online businesses:

https://twitter.com/EU_Commission/status/595894329287319552

  • rules to make cross-border e-commerce easier: the Commission states that this will include ‘harmonised EU rules on contracts and consumer protection’. Will we therefore see the rebirth of the Common European Sales Law in the months to come (see our post: Common European Sales Law: does it have any future)? That said, even if the CESL is introduced, it is likely to be optional. I can’t help thinking that it’ll be the proverbial pétard mouillé, as they might say in Brussels (‘damp squib’, since you ask)
  • ending unjustified geo-blocking: this is where online sellers either deny consumers access to a website based on their location or re-route them to a local store with different prices. The Commission reiterates that, ‘by limiting consumer choice, geo-blocking is a significant cause of frustration and of fragmentation of the Internal Market’. Permitted geo-blocking in the future is likely to be limited under these proposals. On a more prosaic level, it might also mean that you can watch EastEnders in Eastern Europe or Jeremy Kyle in Kiel (on second thoughts, perhaps geo-blocking does have its advantages after all?)
  • identifying potential competition concerns in e-commerce markets: the European Commission launched yesterday an antitrust competition inquiry into the e-commerce sector in the European Union. Margrethe Vestager, Commissioner in charge of competition policy, warned that if the Commission finds anti-competitive barriers it, ‘will not hesitate to take enforcement action under EU antitrust rules.’ A warning shot across the bow has been fired!
  • rapid and consistent enforcement of consumer rules: a review of the Regulation on Consumer Protection Cooperation is going to take place. The CPC brings together the public authorities in EU Member States (and other EEA countries) who are responsible for the enforcement of the EU’s consumer protection laws.
  • more efficient and affordable parcel delivery: the Commission notes that, ‘currently 62% of companies trying to sell online say that too-high parcel delivery costs are a barrier’. According to the Commission issues in this sector include: unclear information; excessive costs for low volume shipping; lack of convenient services for the final consumer; and lack of interoperability between the different operators typically involved in cross-border delivery. The Commission launched a consultation on this yesterday and welcomes views from individuals and organisations
  • a modern, ‘more European’ copyright law: legislative proposals are due to follow before the end of 2015 to, ‘reduce the differences between national copyright regimes and allow for wider online access to works across the EU, including through further harmonisation measures’. The aim of the Commission is to, ‘improve people's access to cultural content online – thereby nurturing cultural diversity – while opening new opportunities for creators and the content industry’. As with geo-blocking above, the Commission wants to make sure that users who buy films, music or articles at home can also enjoy them while travelling across the continent. The Commission is also looking to step up enforcement against commercial-scale infringements of intellectual property rights
  • a reduction in the administrative burden businesses face from different VAT regimes: ‘so that sellers of physical goods to other countries also benefit from single electronic registration and payment; and with a common VAT threshold to help smaller start-ups selling online’ (see our post: VAT MOSS or VAT MESS?). The latter may be a lifeline for (angry) micro-businesses and SMEs who have been struggling to comply with the new rules
  • analysing the role of online platforms (search engines, social media, app stores, etc.) in the market: this is likely to cover issues such as the non-transparency of search results and of pricing policies; how they use the information they acquire; and relationships between platforms and suppliers and the promotion of their own services to the disadvantage of competitors, and
  • a reinforcement of trust and security in digital services, notably concerning the handling of personal data: ‘building on the new EU data protection rules, due to be adopted by the end of 2015, the Commission will review the e-Privacy Directive’. The date ‘by the end of 2015’ is probably wishful thinking but otherwise this seems like a sensible move.

The Digital Single Market and this strategy will be on the agenda of the European Council meeting on 25-26 June, so watch this space.

What’s abundantly clear, is that it is an ambitious timetable and, if the Data Protection regulation is anything to go by, the deadline of the end of 2016 might not be particularly realistic.

So, do you think the Commission’s proposals for a European digital single market are on the right track? Vote here:

[socialpoll id="2270291"]

https://twitter.com/JunckerEU/status/595890842755330049

https://twitter.com/Europarl_EN/status/595943105800568833

 

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