Roberto Viola | Director General of DG CONNECT (Directorate General of Communication, Networks, Content and Technology) at the European Commission

Connecting Europe

Thank you very much for inviting me, it’s a real pleasure to be here to share what Europe is doing internally and externally. Last week was an important week in terms of discussing among the leaders what Europe should do in digital: the heads of state and government met in Tallinn and discussed for a day digital policy and what Europe should do for its future. At the beginning of the week we also had the G7 in Turin, where we did discuss in G7 the digital future, in particular connectivity, cyber security, artificial intelligence, so this has been quite a week in terms of thinking about our common future, because of course digital transformation is about the future of our society and our economy. 

In my ten minutes’ intervention I will first of all try to convince you that Europe is doing well, it’s own work, and then try to share with you what we are trying to do in terms of Europe being, of course part, of a world development effort. Now in terms of the internal side, one of the flagship initiatives for the Juncker commission is realising in Europe a digital single market, as we were successful some twenty years ago in realising an internal market for goods and services. The digital single market of Europe is the largest of the world in terms of GDP, it connects 500 million citizens. Now connectivity is already a right for European citizens, it is in the EU law and every citizen has the right to be connected. We think this is not enough, that is why in the reform of the rules about connectivity that we have just presented, what we call the European Communication Code, we have introduced a new provision saying not only you have the right to connectivity, but this is connectivity to the internet, at an affordable price and with the right quality, so to say.

Now, the right to connectivity to be such has to be effective, otherwise it’s simply a declaration of intentions which does not really help, and that’s where in the last few years really the European effort has been concentrated, in making this right to be effective. So the first way of guaranteeing the right to be effective, of course this right has to be law, and as it is, we can tick this box. Then the other point is to provide the funding where there is a market failure, because normally the issue comes when there is a market failure. When the market functions there is, of course, a queue to provide connectivity to the citizens, so when there is a market failure in Europe we have the so-called Universal Service Fund that can be fed by market participants or by the member states, and it is well in place in all member states. We have basically reached the goal of basic connectivity for all Europeans, but now we want to go to the next goal, which is high-speed connectivity for all Europeans.

Beyond the minimum connectivity, of course, and beyond the legal obligation there are many, many ways of helping more broadband to go to the areas where the market doesn’t function that well. In particular in Europe there are so called Structural Funds which help the less developed regions to catch up, and in the last programming period, some €15 billion went into the development of a broadband network and normally the European funds complement the national and regional funds, which are also feeding the development of broadband networks.

The other element of being effective in terms of the right of connectivity is that the regulatory conditions have to be the right ones. First of all, it’s important that there is an oversight by independent regulators, so regulators which are not connected with the political will of a government A or B but they basically safeguard the basic rules, which should be the same rules for everyone.

There should be, for citizens, the right of appeal in case connectivity is cut. This is another important element. Of course you have somehow to compensate the connectivity service but, of course, you have the right to be able to appeal and connectivity should be suspended only when this is the remedy of last resort, and there should be an independent judicial review of this. There should be user rights for what concerns, for instance, transparency of billing, quality and the rest. This is part of, let’s say, the tools that are available in the EU law.

The other point that I mentioned in the beginning is the affordability of price. So, this is part of the EU law, for certain categories, poor people and disabled people, there is the possibility for regulators to actually regulate the price of access, so the condition of access. This is an exception to the rule, because the normal rule in the EU is that the market makes the price but for poor, disabled or special categories the regulator can make the price.

Another important element of connectivity, of course, is to be free on what you do when using connectivity, so two years ago the European Parliament and Council passed the regulation which is now law in all the EU, the so-called Telecom Single Market Regulation, which is about the neutrality of the network. So Europe is the only large area that has a law, a primary law, that regulates neutrality of the network and basically forbids all forms of blocking, slowing down of applications, and discrimination of applications. This is, of course, a very important element of having connectivity because connectivity, when applications are banned or blocked or there is censorship, is not connectivity at all.

The other important element is the right to privacy, that’s another important element. If the communication channel, the connection you make, can be spied, your personal data can be taken without your consent, this is not really connectivity. That’s why, after a long and difficult legislative path, we will have the same privacy rules for all of Europe starting next year with the so-called Generalised Data Protection Regulation and its complement concerning connectivity, which are the so-called E-privacy rules which state that the communication channel must be protected and the communication the individuals make, or the connections they make, must be kept confidential, and we stand in favour of encryption. Encryption is one of the most important elements to guarantee that actually a transaction can take place safely in the network and that’s why end-to-end encryption is necessary. Of course, there must be exceptions to the rules, but these exceptions must remain exceptions.

The other element is to guarantee security on the net. There should be public responsibility in guaranteeing cyber-security and that’s why we have presented, a few weeks ago, what we call the European Cyber Security Act, which reinforces the role of the European Cyber Security Agency and introduces certification processes and goals.

Another point, which is very important, is the right of minorities to be on the net, so the rights of whatever minorities have to be equally represented. In particular, and these are not minorities, but a very important element is the right of children to have a better internet, and to be respected and protected. Last week, here in the Vatican, His Holiness Pope Francis presented the Rome Declaration on the rights and child dignity in the digital world. We have supported this Declaration, we have participated, and we very much support, with our “better internet for kids” all the efforts in this direction.

Let me finish my talk with two elements. One is the EU as a global actor. As you know, the European Union is the largest aid donor of the world, and I think probably it is fair to say we have not done much, so far, to help in the area of connectivity. The EU has concentrated on basically safeguarding basic development of developing countries, but maybe we should have done more in the area of ICT and digital. That’s why we have launched now what we call the Digital for Development program, which we will discuss with the African leaders at the Africa Summit which is coming next month in Abidjan, because we see, especially looking at Africa, that there is increasing interest from the African states in guaranteeing the right of connectivity, in having the rule of law applied and of course we will provide all of the necessary regulatory support, regulatory co-operation for this to happen and, at the same time, we are ready to support with funds. In particular, we have created a trust fund for development, and this fund will be directed to support a number of broadband projects in Africa and in other parts of the world.

Let me very, very quickly touch on many of the emerging challenges which many of you have touched to give what is the European perspective. First of all, the fairness of the world digital economy; of course, Europe stands firm on the fact that everyone has to contribute according to his income to the state taxation, and this rule cannot have exceptions, so we have done two things. First of all, we have told the member states which were, in our eyes, favouring particular companies “You cannot do this, this is state aid”, and last week we decided to bring to the European Court of Justice the state of Ireland, because, according to our decision, the state of Ireland should recoup €13 billion in taxes, which according to our evidence they are not doing, so we decided to bring them to court. Also in Tallinn, the leaders discussed about taxation and we also issued a political communication last week saying, basically, we still would like to have an agreement at the international level in the OECD. In the OECD tax reform mechanism we would like to see more fairness, but if this will not happen, then Europe next year will decide on its own, because we cannot actually wait any longer, that is a process that never ends. But of course this is an option of last resort, we still hope that in the OECD there will be cooperation from everyone to arrive at a shared reform.

For what concerns artificial intelligence and robotics, we still believe this is a good story for everyone. This means that there will be more safe jobs, less dangerous jobs for people because the more dangerous things will be done by robots, and artificial intelligence opens many possibilities, including curing people better, for instance, but of course this has to be always with the human being at the centre, that is why our initiative for the future of the internet is called the Internet of the Humans, because we want to make sure that in all of those developments, human remains at the centre. Thank you very much.