On 6 May 2015, the European Commission announced its proposed series of reforms and investigations aimed at creating a Digital Single Market. The goal is to make it easier for businesses to operate throughout the 28 Member States and to improve customer access to services like streaming, cloud computing and online shopping across the region. The reforms and investigations will have a radical impact on nearly every business, with proposals relating to cross-border trade, geo-blocking, telecoms, data, online platforms, interoperability, tax and e-government. Whether it is feasible to simplify regulatory complexity by the introduction of yet more regulation must surely be open to debate but the ambition is undeniable. By the end of 2015, the Commission will:
- propose harmonised rules on contracts and consumer protection for online purchases;
- review the Regulation on Consumer Protection Cooperation, in order to enforce consumer rules more efficiently;
- propose legislation to reduce the differences between national copyright regimes, allowing for wider online access across the EU including, for example, introducing access to content legally purchased in one Member State while abroad in Europe;
- launch an assessment of the market role of online platforms such as search engines, social media and apps stores, focussing on paid for results, information usage, promotion of own products, and on tackling illegal content.
In early 2016, the Commission plans to:
- propose legislation to end unjustified geo-blocking, which prevents consumers accessing website content based on their location;
- propose changes to the VAT system, including extending electronic registration and payment to cross-border sales of physical goods and introducing a common VAT threshold to help start-ups selling online;
- present a major reform of the telecoms regime, to include a single market standard for spectrum policy and management, incentives for investment in high-speed broadband and consistent application of the rules for all market players; review the ePrivacy Directive (once the new General Data Protection Regulation is agreed);
- establish a public-private partnership model on cybersecurity in the area of technology and solutions for online network security;
- initiate a “European free flow of data” to tackle restrictions on data movement and location within the Union for reasons other than data protection;
- present a new e-government action plan to connect national business registers by 2017, to ensure that people and business never have to communicate the same information to government twice, and to push forward with e-procurement and interoperable e-signatures.
Other proposals include launching a standards and interoperability plan for areas such as e-health, transport planning and energy (in particular smart metering). While the details of these proposals remain to be agreed between the Commission, the European Parliament and national governments, it is clear is that substantial change is inevitable. Industries with cross-border operations in Europe and businesses hoping to start trading across the Union should all take note.