EU companies await commission's digital plans in first half of 2020

16 January 2020 11:35am

2 January 2020 by Cynthia Kroet

EU telecom operators and tech companies expect the new European Commission, which took office in December, to put forward some of its digital plans in coming weeks, including rules on artificial intelligence.

At the same time, they still await clarity on some of the outstanding files from the previous Juncker commission, which EU institutions and national governments were unable to find agreement on. Left over from the preceding EU executive's mandate, which ended in November 2019, are proposals on terror content, e-evidence, e-privacy and cybersecurity coordination.

It will be up to Croatia — which will chair the meetings of EU governments in the first half of 2020 — to secure an agreement on those dossiers and help clear the backlog of commission proposals waiting for a green light.

Digital industry representatives hope those governments will come to a deal on the terror-content file, which was proposed by the commission in September 2018. The draft regulation, which obliges platforms to remove terror content within one hour, is an attempt to harmonize national governments' efforts.

The file might interact with the upcoming Digital Services Act — an overhaul of e-commerce rules set to regulate the platforms' obligations to remove illegal content — that the new commission led by Ursula von der Leyen is expected to put forward before the end of 2020.

In the past six months, three "trilogues" — meetings of the European Parliament, the European Council and the commission — to discuss illegal terror content took place. Yet national governments and the parliament have so far not reached a deal on whether online platforms should be obliged to install upload filters.

Other hurdles

Another big hurdle is the e-Privacy bill, which covers confidentiality of communications over Internet-based services such as Facebook's WhatsApp and Microsoft's Skype, as well as machine-to-machine communications between Internet-connected devices.

Finland, which preceded Croatia in chairing meetings of EU governments, came close to getting a general approach during its presidency in the second half of 2019. But the member states failed to agree on a proposed compromise early last month.

Croatian ambassador to the EU, Goran Štefanić, hinted at an event* in Brussels last month that not much movement is expected on this in the coming six months, as it is now up to the commission to decide on the file's next steps.

"E-privacy did not move [ahead] as expected. Although Finland has had a constructive approach, there has been no progress. We need to approach it carefully and hear member states and business views. Fresh ideas from the European Commission might follow," Štefanić said.

Another moving target is the e-evidence file, which deals with EU-wide rules on law enforcement agencies' access to data.

Digital industry bodies are not sure whether Croatia will be able to advance the e-evidence proposal much, as the European Parliament is still working on its position following a draft report by the justice committee's rapporteur, Birgit Sippel. That draft report, published in November, amended the commission's original proposal substantially.

In addition, EU institutions are not aligned in their approach to a number of e-evidence issues, including mandatory notifications to judicial authorities and the response time in urgent cases. That makes reaching a compromise within six months difficult.

Artificial intelligence

Croatia has said that during its time chairing government talks it wants to work on a Europe that "develops, connects and protects."

"Connectivity is the most important for the functioning of the single market. To realize the full potential, for instance, we need further improvement of digital connectivity and 5G," Štefanić said.

"There's also a need to mitigate the risks. We will only succeed [in 5G deployment] if there's a coordinated approach," he said, as EU measures on a harmonized cybersecurity approach are expected.

The beginning of this year should see more digital proposals from the commission, including a plan for legislation around AI technology, which is expected in mid-February.

This will pave the way for Germany — which will take over the chairmanship of the EU government meetings for the remainder of the year — to continue the work on AI. And judging by recent proposals, the German preparation and influence has already started.

In a report in November 2019, a German government-backed data-ethics expert group put forward measures for more transparency and better control of algorithmic systems. On top of that, the results from a Franco-German initiative to build a common secure and trustworthy data infrastructure are expected this spring.

* "ECTA Regulatory Conference," Dec. 11, 2019, Brussels.