16.12.2014   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 451/145


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: Internet policy and governance — Europe’s role in shaping the future of internet governance’

COM(2014) 72 final

(2014/C 451/24)

Rapporteur:

Antonio Longo

On 7 March 2014, the European Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 304 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, on the:

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: Internet policy and governance — Europe's role in shaping the future of internet governance.

COM(2014) 72 final.

The Section for Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 18 June 2014.

At its 500th plenary session, held on 9 and 10 July 2014 (meeting of 10 July), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 180 votes to 8 with 13 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1

The EESC would firstly reiterate the views it has expressed in several opinions over recent years on the importance of the internet as an essential prerequisite for economic growth and jobs, technological innovation and social inclusion.

1.2

The Committee fully shares the Commission's desire to strongly reaffirm the defence and promotion of fundamental rights and democratic values, as well as the legal concept of a single network, subject to uniform Community rules as in other sectors and not fragmented by different and potentially conflicting rules.

1.3

It is important to place the internet's core values at the heart of its future governance, namely its open, distributed nature, its neutrality and universal accessibility and its low barriers of entry. The Committee notes, however, that the communication does not sufficiently elaborate on either the concept of cooperative governance to which the EU should contribute, or the tools and procedures that are intended to secure multi-stakeholder decision-making processes regarding the internet. In particular, more clarification is needed as regards who is to be responsible for oversight of internet governance.

1.4

As regards ICANN's current role coming to an end and the IANA's functions, the Committee feels that the Commission should be resolute in raising the question of the role that the EU should play in the future transnational body.

1.5

The European Parliament's digital habeas corpus and the implementation of the telecommunications package for the European single market in telecommunications will undoubtedly boost confidence in the internet.

1.6

Decisions on technical standards can have a significant impact on citizens' rights — including the right to freedom of expression, protection of personal data and user security — as well as on access to content. Since its inception, the design of the Internet has fully supported citizens' right. Threats to rights have come from government action and from operators of web sites, the control of which is independent of the network. Even so, it would still be advisable to issue recommendations that ensure that those technical choices are compatible with human rights.

1.7

With regard to the legal aspects of the internet, the Committee endorses the Commission's intention to launch a review of the risks, at international level, of conflicts of laws and jurisdictions, which are often aggravated by the rules laid down by individual independent regulatory authorities.

1.8

The Committee notes that the Communication makes no reference to a number of technical and operational issues that are of concern to the Committee. The main issues are:

future internet capacity, given the exponential growth of traffic and the lack of organised capacity planning;

net neutrality, which is recognised as being fundamental to the Digital Agenda;

search-engine methodology and results presentations, which is a matter of great concern.

1.9

The Committee stresses the importance of inclusion. The EU's contribution to global internet governance must include the promotion of ICT inclusion policies, in order to pave the way for a truly inclusive society (see the Riga Declaration (2006) issued on the fringes of the ministerial conference on ‘ICT for an inclusive society’, which includes a series of commitments to develop ICT solutions for older people and in the area of eAccessibility in the EU). The Internet is inclusive by design and this is enshrined in ICANN's charter. Access is actually controlled by Communications Service Providers (CSPs) and Internet Service Providers (ISPs), which are regulated by national administrations. The responsibility for inclusiveness rests with these regulators and, in the EU, with the EU Commission.

1.10

Finally, the Committee calls for the IGF to continue strengthening its position as a discussion forum for all internet stakeholders. The EU needs to play a leading role in the next IGF in Istanbul, with joint action by the Commission, the Member States and civil society.

2.   Introduction

2.1

The Internet is a multi-faceted phenomenon with no overall control. The following are the most important elements:

a)

The Internet is by definition a network of networks. Each network is autonomous and many are public companies. With no overall plan to accommodate the exponential growth of Internet traffic, the physical networks probably represent the Internet's greatest vulnerability, with profound implications for the development of the global society.

b)

The administration and registration of domain names (.com) and IP addresses managed on a devolved basis by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) based in California. Participation in ICANN management is the central element of the Commission’s Communication.

c)

The World Wide Web standards and protocols are developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) while the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) does the same thing for the Internet.

d)

Internet Service Providers register users and give them access to the Internet.

e)

Browsers such as (Internet Explorer) and Search engines such as Google enable the use of the Web. Some of these services have proved to be highly contentious.

f)

Social networking services such as Facebook, and Twitter have played a conspicuous role in civil disturbance and the struggle for civil liberties in many countries.

g)

Cloud Computing Services and media streaming are driving the growth of Internet traffic. Netflix (Video on demand), which needs high download speeds, has provoked the net neutrality debate in the USA.

h)

The actions required to optimize the benefits and mitigate the dis-benefits from the Internet provide the basis for the EU’s Digital Agenda. In addition to driving forward the European Internet economy, it also addresses cyber security, cyber crime, data protection, the digital divide, support for the disabled and the disadvantaged, etc. In many ways, the EU Digital Agenda is more an exercise in EU Governance rather than Internet Governance even though it embodies the most important actions needed for Europe to get the best out of the Internet.

3.   Content of the communication

3.1

The European Commission has drawn up a series of guidelines to form the basis for a common European vision for internet governance that will strengthen the EU's role in the development of the internet, as a fundamental pillar of the digital single market and a driver of innovation and economic growth, as well as of democracy and human rights. The Commission wishes to reaffirm the guidelines set out in its previous communication in 2009 (1) and strengthen the multi-stakeholder model.

3.2

To compensate for the fact of no overall control, an Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has been set up under the auspices of the United Nations. The evolution of this Forum is the second theme of the Commission's Communication. Given its IGF concerns and its ambition to be involved in the control of ICANN, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this Communication is about political control of the Internet. The EESC is of the opinion that resolution of technical and operational governance issues, such as those highlighted in (a), (e) and (g) above, also needs focus and action.

3.3

This European vision is based on a set of common EU principles such as the defence of fundamental rights and democratic values (as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights), and the promotion of a single, unfragmented network, in which decisions are taken on the basis of principles such as transparency, accountability, and the inclusion of all relevant stakeholders. Among the players specifically mentioned in the communication with whom there should be a high level of cooperation are the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) (a body that emerged from the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS), which was promoted by the UN in Resolution 56/183 (21 December 2001)), the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).

3.4

The Commission's approach to internet governance is summarised by the COMPACT acronym: the internet as a space of Civic responsibilities, One unfragmented resource governed via a Multi-stakeholder approach to Promote democracy and human rights, based on a sound technological Architecture that engenders Confidence and facilitates a Transparent governance both of the underlying internet infrastructure and of the services which run on top of it. This approach builds on the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society (18 November 2005); unfortunately, however, the principles that emerged from that agenda seem not to have been embraced globally, but rather supported by individual countries and only in limited geographical areas (for example, OECD Council Recommendation on principles for internet policy making (2011) and the Deauville G8 Declaration (2011)).

3.5

The Commission proposes in particular:

working with all stakeholders to identify a coherent set of internet governance principles;

supporting the IGF and clearly defining the role of public authorities;

establishing a clear timeline for the globalisation of ICANN and the IANA functions, guaranteeing the stability and security of the domain-name system;

launching the Global Internet Policy Observatory (GIPO) in 2014 as a resource for the global community;

launching a broad public consultation on the participation of all stakeholders in the shaping of the future European policy on internet governance;

designing structured instruments which will provide for participation in technical decisions, with a view to ensuring that they are compatible with human rights;

boosting confidence in online activities, with particular reference to data protection and network and information security;

reviewing the risks, at international level, of conflicts of laws and jurisdictions arising from the internet.

4.   Assessment and comments

4.1

The Commission is proposing the establishment of a common European vision for internet governance that will enable the EU to play a major role in an area of crucial importance for the future, not only economically, but also politically and socially. This is a decision of major importance in terms of securing a strong impetus to Member States' economic development, and consolidating the principles of democracy and human rights.

4.2

Sustainable governance must be based on a multi-stakeholder system, as set out in the Tunis Agenda, involving governments, the private sector, civil society, intergovernmental and international organisations and the academic and technical communities.

4.3   A principles-based approach

4.3.1

The EESC would firstly reiterate the views it has expressed in several opinions over recent years on the importance of the internet as an essential prerequisite for economic growth and jobs, technological innovation and social inclusion. The Committee has always fully and wholeheartedly supported the information society, the Europe 2020 strategy and the digital agenda. It has put forward many proposals and at times expressed critical views.

4.3.2

The objective must be to ensure that the EU is a leading player in the development of digital infrastructure, and primarily high-speed broadband accessible to all; in the creation of a single digital market with a wealth of European content and as an instrument of inclusion; in the bridging of the digital divide through enhanced digital literacy; in the design of European cloud computing (2); and in the framing of appropriate legislation to protect against cybercrime, the invasion of privacy, identity theft and dangers to children, and on the right to be forgotten.

4.3.3

The Committee fully shares the Commission's desire to strongly reaffirm the defence and promotion of fundamental rights and democratic values, as well as the legal concept of a single network, subject to uniform Community rules as in other sectors and not fragmented by different and potentially conflicting national rules. This choice is considered necessary for the creation of an accessible, fast and sustainable single European area for local governments, citizens, companies and the non-profit-making sector (3).

4.3.4

In this regard, the Committee shares the Commission's concerns regarding the infringement of freedom of expression that has occurred in Turkey with the blocking of social networks by its agency for information, technology and communication, as well as regarding the measures concerning freedom of expression contained in the package of anti-terrorism legislation recently adopted by the Russian Parliament.

4.4   A cooperative governance framework

4.4.1

The Committee notes that the communication does not sufficiently elaborate on either the concept of governance to which the EU should contribute, or the tools that are intended to secure multi-stakeholder decision-making processes regarding the internet, as was the case in relation to the proposals for action contained in the communication on A digital agenda for Europe  (4). Levels and procedures can be defined in greater detail in the context of shared overall governance.

4.4.2

Alongside pointing to the positive experiences of individual EU and non-EU countries, the Commission puts forward only one initiative: development of the GIPO platform (a positive and important initiative), with the intention of proposing additional practical proposals following the outcome of an upcoming public consultation. However, specifically in view of this communication a broad consultation has already been carried out; this has not added greater substance to the proposals in the communication and above all reveals that the various bodies and stakeholders have given this inadequate attention.

4.4.2.1

The Commission needs to clarify the specific role and added value of the EU itself and what is being asked of the individual States, not least in light of the objectives of the digital agenda for Europe. It also needs to define exclusive and shared competences here, not least to prevent overlaps and possible conflicts.

4.4.3

The Committee is concerned that the Member States and all of the various stakeholders are seriously underestimating and failing to give sufficient attention to this issue of fundamental importance to the economic and social future of the EU. The Committee asks the Commission to introduce direct incentive measures for governments, the business world and NGOs working to uphold the rights of citizens, and in particular consumer associations, which are not mentioned in the communication.

4.4.4

In recent years, the Committee has issued a number of opinions on the internet and on the digital agenda in particular, and should be involved in such measures.

4.5   Globalisation of core internet Decisions

4.5.1

Another important aspect concerns measures at international level that the EU as a whole should put in place, as regards the governance of all electronic communications and citizens' rights. The communication does not specifically address how to disseminate these initiatives at international level.

4.5.2

This is particularly important given that the Datagate scandal revealed the weakness of the EU, which failed at the Brussels summit in October 2013 to provide a strong collective response, appearing at odds on the international stage.

4.6   Multi-stakeholder process: globalisation of ICANN

4.6.1

The Committee notes that a strategic framework is needed. While governance of the internet cannot remain in the hands of the US Government, the new multi-stakeholder regime needs to be defined precisely, and must be genuinely representative. A fair balance needs to be struck between government institutions, the big companies acting in shareholders' interests, and NGOs directly representing the public.

4.6.1.1

The Committee endorses the creation of innovative IT tools such as GIPO as a major resource available to the global community to monitor policies regulating the internet and new technologies, promoting exchanges between forums. This is particularly beneficial for civil society groups with limited means.

4.6.2

As regards ICANN and IANA, this technical body has finally announced the launch of a process of global, multi-stakeholder management of the technical functions assigned to it from September 2015, the date of expiry of its contract with the US Government for the management of country-code top-level domains. The Committee calls on the Commission to pinpoint exactly what role the EU should play in this future transnational body and to request a technical and a political representative on the board of the new ICANN.

4.6.3

The Commission's support for a stronger IGF which will serve as a discussion forum for all stakeholders is also important. The Committee calls for the EU to take a leading role in the next IGF, to be held in September in Istanbul, with joint and firm action by the Commission, the Member States and civil society, reiterating the content of the communication.

4.7   Building confidence

4.7.1

At intra-Community level, it is important that the Commission underlines correctly in the communication the need to engender confidence in the internet through legislation designed to boost its security, stability and reliability such as the reform of the data protection framework and the directive on network and information security.

4.7.2

Following the report by the Committee for Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs in the wake of Datagate, the European Parliament rightly approved the establishment of ‘a European digital habeas corpus — protecting fundamental rights in a digital age’, through a number of specific measures, as a priority plan for the next legislature.

4.7.3

The Committee will carefully monitor the progress of these measures and the implementation of the telecommunications package on the introduction of the European single market in telecommunications (5).

4.8   Technical Norms shaping the internet

4.8.1

One fundamental aspect concerns technical standards. The open and transnational nature of the internet requires that the definition of technical standards take place without regard to public policy concerns established at the level of individual States or regional intergovernmental structures, but rather through a kind of self-regulation by the technical community, only occasionally coordinated with the institutions. The impact that such choices can have on citizens' rights — including the right to freedom of expression, protection of personal data (including the right to be forgotten) and user security — as well as on access to content makes it essential to make clear choices and issue recommendations that ensure that those technical choices are compatible with human rights.

4.8.2

The Committee supports the Commission's proposal to convene workshops with international experts from legal, social, economic and technical disciplines to ensure coherence between existing normative frameworks and new forms of internet-enabled norm-setting.

4.8.3

With regard to competition and the free market, one issue that also needs to be addressed is the situation whereby a few proprietary algorithms exercise sole control over personal data, metadata, and revenue from advertising and copyright (6).

4.9   Conflicts of jurisdictions and laws

4.9.1

With regard to the legal aspects of the internet, the need to create a digital single market by 2015 has been strongly restated by the Commission and of course cannot happen without the harmonisation of national and international legislation applicable to online transactions. The Committee endorses the Commission's intention to launch a review of the risks, at international level, of conflicts of laws and jurisdictions, which are often aggravated by the rules laid down by individual independent regulatory authorities.

4.9.2

The Committee notes that the communication makes no reference whatsoever to net neutrality, despite it having been recognised as fundamental to the digital agenda. The Committee would reiterate the views it has expressed in various previous opinions; it expresses its concern regarding the regulatory initiatives being discussed in the USA and ‘strongly recommends that the principles of an open internet and net neutrality should be formally enshrined in EU law as soon as possible, always bearing in mind the evolution of technologies (“state of the art”) in this field’ (7).

4.10   An inclusive internet

4.10.1

Lastly, the Committee would highlight the importance of a fundamental aspect: inclusiveness. The EU's contribution to global internet governance must include the promotion of ICT inclusion policies, in order to pave the way for a truly inclusive society (in 2006, ministers responsible for eInclusion policy from EU Member States, accession and candidate countries, EFTA (European Free Trade Area) countries and other countries signed up to the ‘Riga Declaration’ on the fringes of the ministerial conference on ‘ICT for an inclusive society’; this includes a series of commitments to develop ICT solutions for older people and in the area of eAccessibility in the EU). The Committee considers that a principle should be included in the communication to the effect that accessible and easy-to-use ICTs are recognised as essential tools enabling people with disabilities to grasp full and effective opportunities on an equal basis.

Brussels, 10 July 2014.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Henri MALOSSE


(1)  COM(2009) 277 final.

(2)  OJ C 107, 6.4.2011, p. 53-57; OJ C 318, 29.10.2011, p. 9; OJ C 229, 31.7.2012, p. 1; OJ C 161, 6.6.2013, p. 8; OJ C 76, 14.3.2013, p. 59-65.

(3)  OJ C 67, 6.3.2014, p. 137.

(4)  OJ C 54, 19.2.2011, p. 58.

(5)  OJ C 177, 11.6.2014, p. 64.

(6)  COM(2012) 573.

(7)  OJ C 24, 28.1.2012, p. 139-145.