Interview with Neelie Kroes – “We shouldn’t be as naive in this day and age”

Neelie Kroes is in charge of Europe’s Digital Agenda. The Vice-President of the European Commission explained to me why she wasn’t shocked by the NSA revelations, how Europe can profit from its currency crisis and why we shouldn’t worry too much about Euroskeptics.

Ms. Kroes, due to the crisis, a large divide seems to have opened between Northern and Southern Europe. Can digital technology help us bridge that gap?
The digital technology is the easiest, the safest and, ultimately, the best way to bridge the gap between the poor and the rich, the privileged and the under-privileged – wherever they are in Europe. How else could a small producer, an owner of a small hotel or restaurant, in a remote village in Europe, let people all over the world know that their business is there to offer high quality products or services? Without the Internet, without mobile phones, without digital technologies, these people would be confined to their regional markets; they would be condemned to never exceed the borders set on them by geography and by limited means. Digital technologies break such barriers.

People now can advertise on the Internet, use social media or specialized websites to promote their work. They don’t need intermediaries, they don’t need to travel long distances; they can now differentiate what they sell, they can access clients all over the planet, thus successfully competing with their big rivals more effectively.

A chance for small-business owners who were hit hardest by the crisis.
It is often said that every crisis also bears opportunity. For those businesspeople hit by the crisis in Europe today, opportunity has a name: digital technologies. If they are ready to abandon business as usual and endorse what technology can offer, then they are bound to not only survive these hard times, but also to restore Europe’s leading position on the world markets.

Many Europeans probably know you because of your pushes to cut cell-phone roaming fees. Do you think that the European Union should intervene more often in the free market?
Kroes: What is the state of the EU telecommunication sector today? It is ruled by an oligopoly, which is not desirable. Although we experience a massive growth in demand for telecommunications services (especially for data services), we are also witnessing telecommunication companies’ revenues drop constantly. We are witnessing a very low market capitalization; net investments are practically non-existent, while debt keeps increasing.

What effect will this have on the greater European economy?
Kroes: The whole digital eco-system suffers as a result of this reality: Europe’s equipment manufacturers, Internet entrepreneurs: those very people whom we should assist to help us get out of the crisis. Shouldn’t somebody do something about this? Would it be considered wise for the European Commission to sit back and watch Europe’s economy collapse? Certainly not.

What must be done to turn the ship around?
Kroes: Europe should get in there and try to help the market, the economy and our citizens to cope with this crisis. And of course the starting point of any such effort is dealing with the fragmentation of the European market, which prevents the efficiencies and economies of scale that we so badly need. The disappearance of roaming costs will benefit everyone in Europe. And there’s more to gain, for all of us: doing away with nonsensical costs like this will convince people that real reform is possible.

The European Union has always been driven by the common market. Yet in technological terms, the continent often plays second fiddle to the innovations coming out of the United States…
I think there’s no other solution than sticking together and creating a true digital single market in Europe. The lack of a digital single market is one of the top two difficulties (together with access to capital) mentioned by entrepreneurs all over Europe and a cause why they take their business to the US. Another solution (and something we are trying to do) would be for us to better use public procurement, especially innovative procurement – just like the US government does. Research shows that in comparison to Europe, the US clearly leads in terms of young technological companies.

Euroskeptics like Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders won popular acclaim for blaming the Union for its interventionism.
I think Europeans themselves do answer this question once every quarter, when they respond to the standard Eurobarometer surveys. In the most recent survey of July 2013, Europeans said they tend to trust the European Union more than their national parliaments or governments. Moreover, 84% of Europeans believe that, as a result of this crisis, EU countries will have to work more closely together. For me what Europeans are telling us is simple and clear and it’s the same thing I’ve been telling all the way: We are in this together. Boundaries, fragmentation, “us and them”-kind of arguments don’t serve us any more.

And yet critics complain that the EU is overstepping its mandate…
We, the European Commission, are not overstepping our mandate when we are trying to introduce laws and actions that can help our economies gain competitiveness in world markets and help our societies to deal with the crisis resourcefully. We are simply doing what we should do. We are doing what Europeans want us to do.

Does it concern you that their euroskeptic rhetoric nevertheless earns them votes?
It is disappointing to see how people bend reality to make it fit their own purposes. We know that there will always be people that will misinterpret our intentions and everything we do. But we also know that people can see what’s happening and can judge for themselves.

It has long been argued that the European project suffers from a lack of information and communication between the Union and its citizens. What’s your appraisal of this?
I believe that over the past few years, European institutions have made a lot of progress in that respect. All our decisions are online; we hold several open events and public consultations before we endorse any legislation; we are increasing our presence on the Internet and on the social media channels, where every European (or non-European) can contact us with any question, complain, praise or can make suggestions about our work. Hence, we can establish a direct contact with everyone in Europe and all across the world.

Social Media has fostered a stronger bond between citizens and their representatives.
Kroes: In the recent past, people would only hear from us in the news, in the papers and they would read opinions or articles about us, written from third parties mostly. I feel blessed when I see people I don’t know react to my tweets, congratulate or question what we are doing.

How did you perceive the revelations about intelligence-gathering programs such as PRISM and Tempora?
Kroes: I was frustrated but not completely surprised by the revelations. I think it’s clear that spying happens, but it must not get out of control. And people should take personal precautions with their data anyway – regardless of what the results of political negotiations will be.

Was the public uproar justified in your opinion?
I can see why there was uproar, but I also think no one should be as naïve in this day and age.

Do you see an opportunity in these revelations? Can Europe perhaps differentiate itself by pushing for more privacy?
Something positive should come out of this otherwise frustrating story. The PRISM revelations and other recent surveillance stories make it all the more likely that businesses and consumers invest in security and new privacy enhancing measures. Thanks to the EU’s high standards for security and data protection, this is certainly an opportunity for European businesses.

Meaning that it could open up new market opportunities?
The EU has certainly done a lot in this direction: the European Commission proposals for the data protection directive reform, the directive on Network and Information Security and the European Cloud Computing Strategy are only three recent examples of what we are doing on this issue. This legislation establishes specific rules that apply throughout the EU. Thus EU companies, bound by this legislation, can offer their customers more certainty and information on what regulations they follow and what kind of protection these customers have; this is not necessarily the case in other parts of the world. In fact, we are already witnessing some European Cloud providers market themselves as “European”; they obviously believe this to be an advantage that they believe they can monetize.

And yet there is still a long way to go.
There’s a lot more that can be done, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. For example, based on our Cloud Computing strategy, we are working, together with the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) on putting some order in the standards mayhem now in place Europe-wide. The opportunity in the revelations on PRISM is that it underlines the importance and urgency of these measures.

Should freedom from surveillance become a talking point in the upcoming European elections?
Citizens should decide for themselves what is important with regards to the elections. I want Europe to be the safest corner of the Internet but I think it’s certainly important to be aware of the trade-offs in the digital age. There is a lot to gain from the Internet, but if you are not paying for a product or service with money, then you are probably paying for it with your data. There are no free lunches in this world.

Can you sketch out a brief European roadmap for the years to come?
I want Europe to become a real digital single market. I want telecommunication operators not confined to small national markets, so that they can easily plan and work across multiple countries. I want start-ups, run by enthusiastic and imaginative Europeans, to thrive, both here and on the world market. I want these entrepreneurs to have no fear that network owners will block or throttle their new service, so that they can innovate more, so that they can take advantage of opportunities. I want every European to enjoy fast Internet, wherever they are in Europe. We should have more choice when it comes to phone and internet providers. And I want every European business to be able to use new services, such as cloud computing, videoconferencing, 3D printing, without having to fear the quality of service they will receive. All of the above is necessary for our common dream.

Mensel: What does that dream look like?
Kroes: A recovered European economy, where growth and jobs are thriving.

This interview first appeared in The European on November 13th, 2013.

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