The EU exists to break down barriers, and the digital frontier may be the next one to go. Today, MEPs voted on a report setting out the European Parliament's vision of a Digital Single Market.
The premise is simple: we live within a single market, but not digitally. Trade of physical objects is easy and bound by overarching legislation, but no similar EU-wide legislation exists for digital goods. This may sound like it would not have much effect on people's lives, but think again. There are rules which govern buying a DVD within the single market, but accessing online media is currently restricted. A single digital market would be a great equaliser, and would ensure fairness across our borders.
The potential for economic growth is difficult to argue with. A single digital market would save us €100 billion a year and generate €340 billion in additional growth. It would also potentially positively affect hundreds of millions of people weekly, as according to the EU's own figures 315 million EU citizens go online per day and 360 million each week. Essentially, the digital market as it exists is not fit for purpose, but it could be. Existing patchwork legislation could be simplified and streamlined into a system which would be better for everybody.
MEPs want Europe to seize the opportunities opened up by new technologies, such as Big Data, cloud computing, the Internet of Things or 3D-printing, and to have an innovation-friendly policy towards online platforms. We in the North East stand to gain from such a move as we lead the UK's digital revolution. Notably in Sunderland, EU-funded Software City has been named one of the UK's three Digital Catapult Centres. More than 1300 software and digital companies are now active across the region, from financial management systems giant Sage - the only software company listed in the FTSE 100 - to a large and growing number of innovative start-ups making a name for themselves around the World. All of this means jobs: over 30,000 people are employed in the local commercial creative sector - including nearly 10,000 employed in software, games and new media.
But what would this fairer digital market look like for the general public? It would end, for example, unjustified geo-blocking within the EU, which is the practice of restricting access to internet content according to the user's geographic location. All countries within the EU can now access Netflix but the actual content available to watch is not the same in all EU countries, potentially even meaning that content made in France may be available in Britain, but not in France. Here we need to strike a balance between access to digital services and the rights of authors and creators to their intellectual property - otherwise an economic boost for consumers may strip our creative industries of vital income and investment. Selling the rights to successful programmes to other national broadcasters is a vital source of revenue for our film and TV industries. As a consumer, I pay for a UK TV license and can access play-back services freely in the UK. However, when I am on holiday or working elsewhere in the EU I am unable to access those services. Today MEPs have called for measures to ensure nationally-bound online content services are available to consumers when they are abroad as a first tentative step.
Looking at the situation holistically it is also likely to produce better protection for online shoppers, as currently the EU does not have a common set of consumer rights which apply to online shopping. MEPs have also called for equivalent and future-proof consumer protection, regardless of whether digital content is purchased online or offline - extending EU consumer protection to meet the challenges of a digital world. One example would be to halt the use of price-discrimination in online shops, which forces the consumer to buy goods from another country where the product is more expensive, and efforts to ensure this should also prevent extra charges being levied because the shop itself is another state and the credit card being used to pay for the goods is in another. We need a system under which citizens know their rights and are able to apply them.
Ultimately, the future is already here. It no longer makes sense for us to treat digital and physical boundaries separately, as the world in which we live no longer makes that distinction. We must seize our moment to make people's lives fairer, easier, and more connected.