EU sets out agenda for e-commerce, technical standards

The Digital Agenda, published on Wednesday, calls for the harmonisation across Europe of e-commerce, technical standards, e-health and copyright

The European Commission has laid out plans to create a single digital economy across the region, in a bid to make it easier for consumers and businesses to operate over European borders.

The plans form the bulk of the European Commission's Digital Agenda, published on Wednesday. According to the agenda, more harmonised rules must be created in sectors such as e-commerce, e-health, copyright and technical standards.

The lack of a single digital market in Europe is hampering the Europe's competitiveness with rivals such as the US, Digital Agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes said at the document's launch.

"I can't explain to a citizen in Europe that it's easier to go online for products and services in the US than ordering a product or service next door, in a member state of the EU," Kroes said.

According to the commission, the creation of a single digital market requires the elimination of regulatory barriers and the harmonisation of such factors as electronic payment systems and invoicing, e-authentication and consumer rights.

Ninety-two percent of Europeans buying goods or services over the internet do so from sellers in their own country, the agenda stated. Sixty percent of attempted cross-border e-commerce transactions fail due to legal or technical reasons, such as refusal of non-domestic credit cards.

The agenda laid out plans to force through the completion of the Single Euro Payments Area (Sepa), of which 32 member states are participants, and create an interoperable European e-invoicing framework by the end of 2010. Secure e-authentication systems must have a legal framework for cross-border recognition and interoperability by the end of 2011.

The disparities in copyright law across Europe form another target for the Digital Agenda — the commission wants to propose a framework directive for pan-European online rights licensing by the end of the year. As Kroes has repeatedly stated, the only current European single market for digital music and film is based on unlawful file-sharing.

Kroes's spokesman, Jonathan Todd, pointed out on Wednesday that Apple's iTunes store does not exist in 12 new member states, and the contents of the iTunes store differ between the European countries where it does exist.

"You can only buy from the iTunes store where your credit card is based," Todd said. "Anomalies are arising because of the rights management system."

In the Digital Agenda, the commission said it will "report by 2012 on the need for additional measures to reinforce the protection against persistent violations of intellectual property rights in the online environment, consistent with the guarantees provided in the Telecoms Framework and fundamental rights on data protection and privacy".

Todd did not go into further detail on the commission's plans for tackling copyright infringement, but reiterated Kroes's repeatedly-stated point that "one of the best ways to tackle piracy is to give people a legal alternative".

The digital rights group La Quadrature du Net said in a statement on Wednesday that the agenda "might pave the way to a reasonable and balanced evolution of copyright in the EU if it leads to a truly open debate on the question and creates the conditions for a possible policy shift".

However, La Quadrature du Net was less enthusiastic about what it said was a failure on the part of the commission to clearly refer to open standards in the agenda. The final version of the agenda says that "public authorities should make best use of the full range of relevant standards when procuring hardware, software and IT services, for example by selecting standards which can be implemented by all interested suppliers, allowing for more competition and reduced risk of lock-in".

The document also notes that "weaknesses in standard-setting, public procurement and coordination between public authorities prevent digital services and devices used by Europeans from working together as well as they should [and] the Digital Agenda can only take off if its different parts and applications are interoperable and based on standards and open platforms".

According to La Quadrature du Net, earlier leaked drafts of the agenda demonstrated that references to 'open standards' had been removed from the text.

"The deletion in the Digital Agenda of references to open standards is a clear defeat for innovation and competition on the internet," the group stated. "It seems to be a clear indication of the dangerous influence of the lobbies of proprietary software manufacturers on the commission."

"The language in the document makes clear our intentions," Todd told ZDNet UK. "People shouldn't get too hung up about terminology. What counts will be the follow-up actions."

On the subject of e-health, the agenda laid out plans to give all Europeans secure online access to their medical health data by 2015 and to achieve widespread deployment of telemedicine services by 2020.

The agenda calls for a minimum common set of patient data for interoperability of patient records that can be to be accessed or exchanged electronically across all member states by 2012.

"The idea is that, when you travel around Europe, if you get ill in another country, you should be able to access your own health records so as to help the doctors treating you, wherever you may be," Todd said.

Todd declined, however, to comment on the issue of whether patients' data should be available to third parties such as Microsoft or Google, both of which are keenly developing e-health systems.

"Whatever we develop, there will clearly have to be strict standards and safeguards so as to ensure the complete security and protection of people's medical data," Todd said. "The individual should have control over the access to their own data. We're not getting into whether systems should be run by public or private sector."

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