European officials want to make it easier for companies to offer e-commerce across the continent, and are asking whether some firms are putting barriers in the way of that happening. Among the actions they announced today is an antitrust inquiry to investigate "possible competition concerns" put in place by some Web companies.
Without focusing on any specific companies, the e-commerce sector inquiry will look at any potential barriers that businesses may be erecting to cross-border trade of goods, services and digital content across the 28 European Union (EU) member states. The EU has taken a number of similar actions against several Internet giants over the years, including a case brought against Microsoft in 2007 and an antitrust investigation against Google launched in 2010.
In addition to announcing the antitrust inquiry, EU officials today also rolled out an ambitious, multipronged strategy for a "Digital Single Market" for Europe. The program sets 16 goals to be achieved by the end of 2016 aimed at making e-commerce, data sharing and standards more effective and easier to deliver across all EU borders.
Goal: 'A Wave of European Startups'
The Digital Single Market strategy rests on three main pillars: providing citizens and businesses across Europe with better access to digital goods and services; creating "the right conditions and a level playing field for digital networks and innovative services to flourish"; and helping Europe's digital economy to meet its greatest possible potential for growth.
"I want to see pan-continental telecoms networks, digital services that cross borders and a wave of innovative European startups," said Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (pictured). "I want to see every consumer getting the best deals and every business accessing the widest market -- wherever they are in Europe."
"Our economies and societies are going digital," added Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society Günther H. Oettinger. "Future prosperity will depend largely on how well we master this transition. Europe has strengths to build on, but also homework to do, in particular to make sure its industries adapt, and its citizens make full use of the potential of new digital services and goods."
Among some of the goals the strategy aims to meet are setting rules to make cross-border e-commerce easier; enabling more efficient and affordable package deliveries; creating a more modern European copyright law; and proposing a partnership with industry on cybersecurity. Another objective is to put an end to "unjustified geo-blocking."
Geo-blocking, is "a discriminatory practice used for commercial reasons," according to the EU. It involves e-commerce sites that deny visitors access based on where in the EU they are located, or that reroute users to other stores that might offer higher prices for the same service.
Final Antitrust Report by 2017
In his book, "The Internet is Not the Answer," writer and Silicon Valley veteran Andrew Keen said actions such as the EU's can prevent the rise of a "digital superstate" controlled by a handful of Internet giants.
"Silicon Valley has fetishized the ideals of collaboration and conversation," he said. "But where we need real collaboration is in our conversation about the impact of the Internet on society." While the Internet is generally excellent for consumers . . . it's much more problematic for citizens," he added.
We reached out to Keen who told us that Europe has struggled with an open Internet economy. "It's really important to Europe to have Internet companies. Europe has companies, fashion companies, retail companies . . . Europe needs to be able to compete," he said.
Rather than stifling innovation, regulations and regulatory challenges can promote it, he added, pointing to the wave of Web-related innovations that emerged after the EU's case against Microsoft.
Under the EU's latest plan for an antitrust inquiry, the commissioners will send requests for information to "a range of stakeholders," including manufacturers, wholesalers and e-commerce retailers. It expects to have a preliminary report ready by mid-2016, and a final report completed in the first quarter of 2017.
Image credit: European Commission.