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20th Feb 2019

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Data reform more complex than I thought, says EU commissioner

  • A data centre in Lombardy, Italy. The commission wants to establish a 'free flow of data' across the EU (Photo: Leonardo Rizzi)

The EU's ambition to allow data to freely cross borders could be more difficult to realise than it seemed, the EU commissioner for the digital single market has conceded.

“It seems it is more complicated than I thought,” Andrus Ansip told journalists on Friday.

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The commission had said it would come up with an "initiative" to create a free flow of data across the bloc before the end of this year, but Ansip said that would come in 2017.

Last year, the commission published a strategy paper about how to move towards a digital single market in the EU. It said there were too many “unnecessary restrictions regarding the location of data within the EU”.

Currently, there are around 50 different national laws all over the EU with rules about storing data, said Ansip. These often require companies to store data in the country they are doing business.

“In some countries they think that data collected in those countries will be really well protected only when they will be able to keep it inside those beautiful countries,” said Ansip.

As a consequence, it is very difficult for small business to operate all over the EU, Ansip said.

“Big companies, they will be able to create their data centres in all 28 member states,” said the former Estonian prime minister.

For European startups, this is “practically impossible”, he noted.

The message the EU is currently sending to its own companies, Ansip said, is: “Stay at home, or go to the United States.”

If these barriers were removed, and storing data in any EU country allowed, this could reduce costs for storing data by some €7.2 billion in five years, Ansip said.

Free flow

In its 2015 strategy paper, the commission announced it would publish “a European ‘free flow of data’ initiative” in the year 2016.

But Ansip said Friday that this initiative would be pushed back to 2017.

“Most likely we will propose a communication in January and then somewhere in June we will continue with a regulation,” said Ansip, although he immediately added that the months he mentioned were only indicative.

In EU-speak, communications are strategy papers which announce what the commission intends to propose – the 2015 digital single market strategy was itself a communication.

"First communication, then concrete action," said Ansip.

This is an approach the commission has taken several times under the leadership of Jean-Claude Juncker: a non-binding strategy paper first, followed some months later by the actual legislation.

This will allow the commission to test the waters on what it can actually propose that stands a chance of being adopted by the member states and the European Parliament.

“We are able to make the most ambitious proposals in the world, but what's the sense of making the most ambitious proposals if you will not get support from member states or from the European parliament?” said Ansip

Geo-blocking

One of those less ambitious, more realistic proposals moved forward in the legislative procedure on Monday (28 November).

Ministers adopted a common position on a proposal to ban online shops from discriminating against their customers based on their location.

The proposal on so-called geo-blocking only covered part of what drives some online consumers crazy: not being able to buy something from an EU-based website because of your location.

After the European Parliament has adopted its common position, the two institutions will negotiate on a compromise.

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