EU publishes 'Digital Agenda' five-year plan for IT

The plan focuses on seven areas, including creating a digital single market, interoperability and faster broadband

On Wednesday, the European Commission announced its Digital Agenda, a five-year plan that will set the pace for telecommunications in Europe. The plan includes measures to boost legal music downloads, speed up broadband adoption and set up a rapid response system for cyber-attacks, the Commission said.

The agenda focuses on seven areas: creating a digital single market, interoperability, Internet trust and security, broadband, investment in research and development, enhancing digital literacy skills and inclusion, and using ICT to combat problems such as climate change.

Creating a single market for digital products and services such as online entertainment seems close to digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes' heart. It is unacceptable that there are four times more legal music downloads in the U.S. than in Europe, she said during a news conference to present the plan. The reason for the disparity, she said, is a lack of legal offers and a fragmented market. The Commission intends to change that by simplifying copyright clearance and cross-border licensing by the end of 2010, according to Kroes.

Providing broadband access to more people is also something the Digital Agenda sets out to d. By 2013, the plan aims for all Europeans should have access to broadband and by 2020 at least 50 percent of European households should subscribe to Internet access above 100 Mbps. However, the Agenda includes few details of how that will be achieved. Later this year, the Commission will present a common framework for how it expects the goal to be realized, including how to attract investment capital with backing from the European Investment Bank.

Digital technologies have the potential to improve people's daily lives, but for that to happen people have to feel safe online, the Commission said. To ensure that, the Agenda includes plans for a better-coordinated European response to cyber attacks, identity theft and spam, and reinforced rules on personal data protection, which will be proposed later this year.

The agenda also calls for an increased use of standards and interoperability in government procurement of IT, including proposing legal measures to reform the rules on the implementation of standards. The Commission also plans to address situations in which standards do not help because significant market players do not support them.

The plan to give standards a greater role is welcomed by the European chapter of the Free Software Foundation, but the organization said the Commission isn't doing nearly enough.

The Digital Agenda itself avoids any reference to open standards, according to the Free Software Foundation Europe. Instead, the Commission points to the European Interoperability Framework, which is being systematically hollowed out, it said.

The Commission also urges EU Member States to double annual public spending on R&D to €11 billion ($15.75 billion) by 2020, backed by European programs.

"[It is] a good announcement, but the devil is in the details and we will have to see how it is concretely implemented," said Frédéric Donck, director of the European Bureau of the Internet Society (ISOC), who wants to give the Commission the benefit of the doubt, for the moment.

The ISOC is encouraged by the Commission's recognition of the need to strengthen security and the level of trust users have for the Internet. It is a key issue for the Internet, and a big challenge, according to Donck.

When addressing these issues, the Commission and member states should concentrate on enforcing laws that already exist and not create new ones that address criminal behavior only in cyberspace, according to the ISOC.

Just like the Free Software Foundation, Donck underlines the need for open standards and interoperability. Letting companies implement proprietary standards on the Internet would be a disaster, he said.

Network neutrality is a hot topic that the Agenda document doesn't mention directly. But the Commission will launch a public consultation on the issue in June, which is a good sign, according to Donck. Kroes' background as the competition commissioner will work to her advantage when tackling this issue, he said.

"The good news is that [Kroes] is perfectly aware of how competition works, and I believe she is still extremely strict on competition rules," said Donck.

Kroes' wait-and-see approach on network neutrality is also commended by Open Forum, an organization that campaigns for the use of open source software. However, she will have to keep a close eye on new business models that use traffic management, it said in a statement.

Lowering roaming costs in Europe was an area that Kroes' predecessor Viviane Reding spent a lot of effort on. The cost of data roaming for users is still unregulated. When asked about that during a press conference, Kroes said she is keeping a close eye on how that market is evolving and that mobile operators should be aware that the cost of data roaming is still a major concern. The Commission will be back soon with more on this subject, according to Kroes.

Achieving all the goals that are set out in the Agenda will be a tough challenge, but is not unrealistic, Kroes said.

When moving forward with the Agenda, the Commission should really make sure that the processes are open and transparent, according to Donck.

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