23rd Mar 2018

What digital barriers do Europeans still face?

  • In the 1990s, cyber activists thought that the new digital world would remain borderless (Photo: Steve Johnson)

In the 1990s, Europeans still used a telephone-based modem (which made a distinct sound when 'dialling up') to connect to the World Wide Web, the user-friendly part of the Internet. With seemingly infinite possibilities, some may have felt this new digital world – or ‘Cyberspace’ – would forever mean the end of national borders.

Indeed, on 8 February 1996, an American named John Perry Barlow wrote a A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. He published it online while attending the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

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“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather”, the text said in its preamble.

Later on, the author told the world's governments that “Cyberspace does not lie within your borders”.

Almost 20 years later, we know Barlow was wrong.

Even for internet citizens, or netizens, whose physical bodies live somewhere in the nearly border-free European Union, there are still many barriers in Cyberspace.

The European Commission on Wednesday (6 May) will present a strategy paper that will set out which online limitations the EU wants to lift.

So what online borders do European netizens still face?

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Buy a book, a magazine, a comic book, a record, a CD, a DVD, or any other material carrier of (legal) entertainment or information anywhere in the EU. Except for the physical labour of carrying them, you’ll have no problem taking it to another member state.

But cultural works which are acquired online – often referred to as 'content' – are less easily 'transported' across EU borders than you might expect.

Those EU citizens that have a subscription to a video or music streaming service, often find that they cannot access all or any of the content while visiting another country.

Public broadcasters like the BBC do not allow internet users outside of the UK to watch content on their service iPlayer, citing rights agreements.

According to a draft version of the commission strategy paper, seen by this website, less than 4 percent of all video-on-demand content in the EU is available cross-border.

Some consumers - including some EU bureaucrats working in Brussels, far from home - use circumventing technologies to trick the content provider into thinking their computer is geographically located in their home country, but they probably would feel more confident using a less covert method.

Not selling to foreigners

When connecting to an internet service, a computer or smartphone usually reveals its location. Based on the location, web-shops or content providers from EU countries sometimes refuse to sell, or offer a different price, depending on your location.

The extent of such unjustified geo-blocking is difficult to calculate.

But the draft paper notes that almost three-quarters of complaints about “geographical discrimination faced by consumers relate to online cross-border purchases”.

As the responsible digital commissioner, Andrus Ansip recently said: “I am ready to pay, but they are not accepting my money.”

The issue of geographical discrimination is actually two separate issues: for physical goods and for digital content.

With regards to physical goods, shops often say delivery costs are too high. With digital content, copyright is cited.

’Mom! I did something illegal!’

When one of Caroline De Cock's children used some music as background to a digital creation and uploaded it on a social medium, she received her first copyright infringement notice.

“Mom! I did something illegal!”, De Cock, a Belgian lobbyist, was told by her eight-year old daughter.

She told an audience at an event organised by the European Policy Centre, a think tank in Brussels, that it’s more easy to explain the concept of privacy to her daughter than the current copyright framework.

“One principle is very clear to children: creators should be rewarded. But copyright puzzles children.”

For instance, can you publish altered photos as jokes on social media? Or creating animated video-clips as part of a contribution to internet culture? Can you use online material in class, and distribute it to your students digitally?

Data, in the broadest sense of the word, is used on a daily basis by millions of Europeans. But there is great legal uncertainty as to what is allowed. Rules on when it is okay to use copyright-protected material are not uniformly implemented across the EU.

Remixing content from the internet is a popular pastime among the generation of Europeans born since John Perry Barlow's declaration, but it is unclear when it is legal and when it is not.

US corporations as custodians of European culture?

Imagine this.

A bookseller has a dispute with a book publisher and decides to stop selling two of its titles. Not only that, but the bookseller breaks into the houses of everyone who bought those books, removes them from the respective bookcase or nightstand, and refunds the consumer.

One of the books, ironically, is 1984 by the English writer George Orwell, a dystopian novel about totalitarianism and censorship.

Such an event is difficult to imagine in the physical world, yet this is exactly what happened in 2009, when Amazon removed all digital copies of Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm from e-readers.

While many of today's best-known online firms have romantic stories of origin, which take place in student dorms or garages, the most-used internet services are now in the hand of large corporations which hold considerable clout.

With companies like Google holding market shares of over 90 percent, the relation between customer and company has become asymmetrical.

According to digital activist and author Cory Doctorow, that is because the copyright rules that applied to the physical world, where copying was a physical and laborious act rarely performed by private citizens, were transferred straight to the digital world.

“The entertainment industry insisted, and for some reason politicians went along with it, that the industrial rules governing entertainment will henceforth govern the entire information society”, said Doctorow at a recent event in the European Parliament.

“If you have to read a contract, in order to read a book, something is wrong”, he added.

One in five Europeans can't read this article

Meanwhile, according to the EU commission, 20 percent of EU citizens have never used the internet.

And while the EU average for access to broadband internet with a download speed of 30 megabits per second is 62 percent, that figure is much lower for rural areas. Only 18 percent of rural areas in the EU have 30Mbps broadband.

The commission is expected to announce new measures to close this gap, the so-called digital divide.


EU commissioners at odds over geo-blocking

EU digital commissioner Andrus Ansip and his fellow commissioner Gunther Oettinger are at odds with one another over the need to abolish the practice of restricting online content based on someone's location.

German Pirate MEP kicks off EU copyright debate

The European Parliament is gearing up for what is expected to be a tough fight on reforming the EU's fragmented copyright rules. A German Pirate MEP is leading the way.

EU probes Amazon's e-book contracts

The European Commission is concerned that some clauses in Amazon's contracts with book publishers hinder competition.

EU unveils '€415bn' digital strategy

Its blueprint foresees €415bn/yr in additional growth. But it's not the first time the EU commission has made big promises on the digital market.

Germany casts doubt on Austrian intelligence sharing

An Austrian police unit headed by a far-right town councilor and tasked to tackle street crime was sent to raid the offices and homes of people working for Austria's domestic intelligence agency - prompting German counterparts to review cooperation.

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