What Does Covid-19 Mean for EU Tech Policy?

Posted on 14th May 2020

On 13 May, Access Partnership held an online discussion with Werner Stengg, Cabinet Expert for Digital Policy to European Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager on the EU’s response to Covid-19 and its implications for the Commission’s tech policy plans in areas like AI, Data and Digital Services. Here are our top five takeaways from the discussion:

  1. During the Covid-19 crisis, digital solutions are what worked

As Europe’s economies and societies entered lockdown conditions in February and March, the importance of digital solutions to support economic activity and the provision of public services, including healthcare, was clear for all to see. Mr. Stengg discussed the generally strong resilience of telecoms networks and services, as well as the efforts of companies across the tech sector to play their part in the Covid-19 response. However, he also noted that the crisis has glaringly exposed the digital divide, with people who have good connectivity and access to computers, laptops or tablets enjoying a more seamless transition to home-working or home-schooling than those who lack baseline IT skills or access to these devices.

  1. The Commission’s digital strategy is more relevant than ever

At the outset, Mr. Stengg outlined the three core themes of the Commission’s digital strategies presented in February this year, namely:

In light of the current pandemic, the Commission’s Digital Strategy is proving more relevant than ever. As the importance of technology grows in response to Covid-19, it becomes ever more important that fundamental rights, fair competition and democracy are respected. For example, every company moving to sell its goods or services online must be able to compete on a free and fair marketplace and have an equal opportunity to grow in Europe’s Digital Single Market. The pandemic has therefore served as a strong reminder of the need for the Commission to act to further develop Europe’s digital economy and society. This means that the Commission’s plans for AI regulation, common data spaces and measures to encourage safe, purposeful and sustainable technology will continue to gather speed. 

  1. Companies need to help the Commission get its analysis right for upcoming regulation

Discussion then turned to the details of the Commission’s upcoming policy developments, including the Digital Services Act (DSA), with many attendees asking about the Commission’s plans for ex-ante regulation of “digital gatekeepers” or systemic platforms and the distinctions between different types of illegal or harmful content online.  Mr. Stengg highlighted some areas the Commission is particularly interested in looking into, such as marketplace self-preferencing. He noted that the DSA would have a strong primary focus on illegal content, although there will likely be other steps on disinformation or harmful content, with companies expected to be more transparent about their moderation policies.

His clear message to attendees was that the Commission needs input from companies so that it gets its analysis right. With the consultation on the DSA expected about two weeks from now and to run for three months, companies will need to be prepared.

  1. In a few months’ time, we won’t be discussing contact tracing apps

While discussion rages across Europe on the merits and ideal structure and functioning of contact-tracing apps, we should expect this debate to burn itself out as the Covid-19 pandemic passes. The main lesson to take here is that the GDPR and its structures have functioned as expected. The legislation has prevented the development of apps which invade user privacy or collect more data than they need, while the Commission and data protection authorities have worked to clarify the conditions under which contact-tracing apps can be used in compliance with the law. 

  1. There is more to come on disinformation

In recent years the Commission has been working hard to combat disinformation and misinformation online, including developing a Code of Practice with social media companies. However, the wave of fake news and conspiracy theories accompany the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the scale of the problem facing policymakers and regulators. In acknowledging the need to differentiate between illegal and harmful content, Mr. Stengg highlighted that we can expect measures on disinformation in the DSA beyond the review of the e-Commerce Directive.

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