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Robert Madelin European Commission
Digital Agenda

What's on the EU's digital agenda? Free roaming, 4G and a better Internet for kids sits down with the head of the EU’s Digital Agenda Robert Madelin for a Q&A.

AS THE DIGITAL Agenda Assembly was in full swing at Dublin Castle this week, sat down with Director General of the European Commission’s DG Connect.

Second only to Commissioner Neelie Kroes in the EU’s Digital Agenda, Robert Madelin said he believes people’s motivations to become more digital are more important than the perceived ‘big issues’ of privacy, connectivity and the cloud.

“They will all come when everybody wants to do it. If people get to say, why not me? I can be digital, I can do more coding, I can put my SME online…then the business model for more investment follows,” he explained.

“The difficulty, then, if you’re at European-level is, if it’s all about people and grassroots, how do you take what works in different pockets in Europe and enable the rest of Europe to do it so you get to scale?” had seven questions to see what’s going on in Europe’s digital arena and where Ireland stands?

1. Your boss is adamant that roaming charges will be abolished some time in 2014. What should customers expect in the coming months?

“At the moment, we are in a period of continued implementation and reflection. The next decline in the ceiling that companies have to respect comes in July. That package covers data, SMS and voice. By July, we’ll have cut 75 per cent of what people were paying. The questions now are: Can you say we are going to go to zero? Can you set a date?

“Zero? We can probably say yes. Date – probably after 4 September we can say when. Will it happen tomorrow? Probably not.

“We can’t snap our fingers and get rid of it. If we did that, there would be a race to the bottom. It would pay for everyone to have a subscription in rural Romania because it costs less to roam everywhere from there. Then that company would go out of business. Or then the user could go to another company and it would be a real race to the bottom. We need to find something more sustainable.”

2. Should we expect 4G technology to hit everywhere soon?

“It is being rolled out but not everywhere yet. Those doing the best are the richer nations – Germany and Sweden, for example. But even in Sweden, it is more in urban areas than rural areas.

“The main cause of delay is the delay in the spectrum. There has been a lot of slippage in the agreed timetables for auctioning and assigning the licenses. I’m hopeful that this is just a lag and not something we are going to fail to do. We will get to it.”

3. Is Ireland doing OK on broadband access and speed?

“Overall, Ireland has pockets of problems but also pockets of success. Ireland is in the middle in terms of Europe’s scoreboard – a bit behind the richest and fastest but ahead of some others.

“And [connectivity] it is a problem in some areas, some of the time. So, you can’t do everything you want to do online across the whole of Ireland. But if everyone wants to do [be digital], it is amazing what you can do.

“I was in the Highlands and islands off Scotland last week and they have set up community-based connectivity across some of the islands at a very low cost but with a very high take-up.

“These sorts of community-based happenings depend on somebody having a need. The incumbents need to be pushed or they will do the stuff that is good business for them.”

[ Can Ireland do this as people struggle with resources?]

“The communities in the western isles of Scotland are not very rich. People were saying that they could save themselves trips and money in the medium term – it is that sort of logic.

“Another teacher told me of a scheme she runs that for €5 a week, every kid gets a tablet or laptop with free courseware. They can manage the payment plan and they are paying less for textbooks. There are different models that can work but you have to be sensitive to people’s price points.”

4. The Internet is obviously part of daily life for even the youngest of children. How can we ensure their safety online?

“The fact that children are important is a no-brainer and the Internet does not change that. My boss is absolutely committed and has worked with top companies to set up a BIK code (Better Internet for Kids) around the issues of a safer Internet, and also teaching and empowering.

“What are the issues for children? Making them critical and aware is one. About things such ass advertising or that not everything is true. Do they understand context, credibility, authority, how to check facts? Thirdly, can bad things happen? And, yes, yes, they can.

All the bad things that can happen in the real world can happen in the Internet. The threat universe is the same and you’ve to get kids ready for that.

“In the specific areas of cyber-bullying, cyber-crimes, porn and sexting, we support safer Internet services at national level so local authorities and non-government organisations can work to help children, young people and parents.

“We have found when we network data from organisations and surveys with kids, some say they are addicted to being online. That they lose time with their families because of it. But that is always true about all sorts – kids are obsessive, always learning and intelligence. It is another instance of a problem that happens in real-life that also have to tackle on the Internet.

Cyber-bullying is actually a little less common than bullying in the playground is. That isn’t to say it isn’t less traumatic. I actually think myself, it can be more traumatic as it happens in my bedroom, or my living room.

[ What can you do about it?]

“It is harder. It is the same as real-world bullying. You have to create an environment where kids speak up. Where they know it is not them that is stupid and say to someone they have a problem.

[ Have service providers improved at responding to issues?]

“My perception is yes. There has been improvement in getting companies to acknowledge this matters a lot. If you look at specific sites for kids, such as Club Penguin, a Californian-based, carefully moderated site. Kids have penguin avatars but there are rules around anonymity and language.

“Machine-based moderation is not expensive but it is hard to do. Club Penguin can be taken as a gold standard. We can’t legislate for that but we can nudge everyone in that direction.

“Data Protection controllers in Ireland did a great job with Facebook. That was an interesting case. Data Protection authorities are national but they work together. In this particular case, the Irish regulator went first but it was on behalf of the EU. Privacy settings have since become more visible. Although some people think they reset themselves sometimes, we can think of that like the oil running out of a car and the user having to check on it and refill it.”

5. On the issue of security more generally, the issue has been a hot topic in recent weeks. Do you agree that we have to sacrifice some online privacy for national security?

“I’ll talk about this as a citizen, not a European civil servant. But my personal take on this: Firstly, even before the Internet we knew there were intelligence services and they listen to us. We’ve all seen the films. We tend to forget that in countries which are free. You look across the whole of Europe, there are people – even in my teams – who have been spied on by the security services of their countries in a hostile and threatening manner.

“I’m a Brit. Do British agencies spy on everyone? I assume so.

“I think this surveillance thing is going to happen. In data protection laws, there are security exceptions. The key issue is the quality of accountability of security services to established institutions.

“It is very much a national issue. Overriding that, we have a global issue as security services cooperate. I think there is an issue there about collective governance because the internet makes things join up easier than they used to. The short answer, it is about governance.

Frankly, because Europe and US and China and Russia cannot come to an agreement, we haven’t got that collective governance. With PRISM and the Verizon case, what shows up is that we need it more quickly than we thought.”

6. The way people consume television and news has changed with the development of fast and superfast broadband. The idea of a broadcasting charge as a tax has been mooted here. Is it a good idea?

“It is not unprecedented. As I understand, the logic in the national debate is that it would be an easier way to get everyone to comply. So there is less regulatory costs and less leakage.

I don’t think that is stupid. And I guess there will be people who say they live without any of this stuff and then it’s a choice for the State – yes, everyone has to pay; or no, if you can show this we won’t come after you.

“It’s manageable though. It’s a very basic tax collection problem rather than anything else.”

7. Many of the companies embroiled in recent tax controversies are global tech companies working in an online space. Are differing corporation rates across Europe posing a problem?

“If the G8 talks about something, it is because it is more important than it was in previous years. But you can separate tax evasion and differences in corporation tax.

“Before we thought about it this much, people were saying we weren’t taking in enough corporation tax because of the differences in corporation tax regimes across Europe. What we have now acknowledged, is that if companies are not paying their tax anywhere at all, that is even worse. I would say that it is a maturing debate that has put the corporation tax issue in a broader context. It is the truth that the context is broader. Does that help Ireland and Luxembourg? It is up to individual countries to judge.

“And it is not just American firms. We see a lot about Vodafone in the UK papers. It is not just about corporation tax either. There is a German debate about the levy on video on demand sales which was implemented to support cultural creativity.

“Now, a very high percentage of purchases of VOD are for videos streamed out of Luxembourg and Austria. Some 30 per cent are not being subject to levy. It is more like a VAT issue and they are asking themselves if they can impose the levy on purchased for consumption in Germany rather than those sold in Germany. So, I see all sorts of tax issues coming up as we become more digital.

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