The abolition of roaming charges in 2017 resulted in a surge in mobile phone use abroad and has been hailed as a huge success. Yet this milestone comes after decades of cooperation in digital policy in the EU – and is just the beginning of a new era focused on making the EU fit for the digital future.

The roots of the European digital market

As the use of digital communications grew rapidly in the 1970s, it became clear by the end of the decade that the sector would become foundational for European economic success and have far-reaching effects on society at-large.

In 1984 an EEC action program provided financial support for the expansion of infrastructure as well as the standardisation of ISDN networks and the terminal equipment market. The following years saw additional liberalisation measures that allowed, for example, consumers to buy telephones, faxes and modems from companies other than their service provider – something previously unimaginable.

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl tests a car phone in 1989 © dpa

The 1980s saw significant changes in the global market as governments around the world broke up monopolies and privatised state-owned companies. The first major privatisation in Europe was the sale of British Telecom in 1984. The direction that the market was moving in was clear: the European Economic Community (EEC) saw the need for Europe-wide regulation of market liberalisation and in 1987 published a key policy document that set the stage for the wave of privatisations that followed in the 90s. By 1998, EU competition rules were fully applied to telecommunications companies and almost all European countries had liberalised their markets – just in time for the next revolution in digital communications.

From e-commerce to a comprehensive digital single market

The year 2000 marked the beginning of rapid growth in broadband and mobile phone usage. The European Commission introduced a major legislative package in 2002 that further harmonised many aspects of the European digital market and competition rules and paved the way for significant private financial investment in digital infrastructure.

As more and more people purchase goods and services online, e-commerce regulation is becoming increasingly important. The Internet offers great convenience to consumers, but also brings with it certain risks. The 2000 “e-Commerce directive” of the European Union regulates among other things liability, electronic contracts and the “country of origin” principle, which clarifies which laws apply to the advertising and selling of goods and services in other countries.

EU consumers enjoy more fairness and transparency thanks to a comprehensive strategy for the digital single market © picture alliance

The 2010s saw an increased focus on European digital unity: the “digital single market”. Themes such as net neutrality, the principle that Internet service providers should provide users equal access to all web services and content, came to the fore as part of the European Commission’s “Digital Agenda for Europe” of 2010.

One of the most popular and widely publicised initiatives has been the abolition of roaming charges. Under Germany's Council Presidency in 2007, a first regulation was adopted with a path for EU-wide fixed price caps. Subsequently, consumer prices for calls, SMS and data roaming were gradually lowered even further. In 2016 the European Parliament and the Council voted to abolish all roaming charges and this came into effect in 2017.

In 2015 the European Commission introduced an ambitious comprehensive strategy for the digital single market that brought consumers a wide-range of improvements in their digital lives. With the “geo-blocking regulation”, online traders are no longer allowed to offer different deals to customers in different EU countries. Another new regulation allows EU citizens to use streaming services and online subscriptions in their home country while travelling in another EU country. Consumers enjoy more fairness and transparency when making bookings through online portals such as travel agencies and holiday accommodation sites, and online data protection for consumers has been improved.

The future: Artificial intelligence, the data economy and digital services

As the digital world continues to change at breath-taking speed, it is vital that Europeans continue to work together to shape a digital future that works for them. From big data and artificial intelligence to questions of privacy and digital rights, the challenges are numerous. How can we ensure that Europe remains innovative and competitive and what are the right incentives for a strong European AI ecosystem? Precisely these kinds of questions are currently on the agenda of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU. The aim is to develop a European approach to AI in which innovation and trust in a border-free single market for AI are two sides of the same coin.

Artificial intelligence: Deutsche Bahn's self-driving bus in 2016 © NurPhoto

Germany is advocating a common European approach to harnessing the potential of new digital technologies while mitigating their risks. Chancellor Angela Merkel has stressed the need for Europe to be “digitally sovereign”, i.e. self-reliant when it comes to key digital infrastructure. In collaboration with companies and associations from numerous European countries, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy is already spearheading the development of a sovereign data infrastructure. GAIA-X will be a federated, open data infrastructure that supports innovative cross-sector collaboration, promotes fair and transparent business models as well as the rights of individuals to data privacy. It will open up competition in the market, improve users’ freedom of choice and thereby help to prevent a small number of private firms from monopolising the big data market through lock-in effects.

Trustworthy data clouds that store and process data within Europe will significantly contribute to European data security ©

On 15 October 2020, Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU brought together EU ministers responsible for telecommunications and digital policy to discuss a range of issues regarding digitalisation. On the top of the agenda were the data economy, artificial intelligence and digital services. The discussions on digital services focused on creating a modern European legal framework for digital services. Ministers shared the view that the legal framework should be adapted to the new digital developments and competitive landscape. Large platforms are able to control increasingly important platform ecosystems in the digital economy. Therefore it is important that small and medium-sized providers can compete fairly in the ecosystem of online platforms. Ministers also discussed how interoperability with data standards can be improved, building upon the European Commission’s “European Data Strategy” from February 2020, which proposed a legal framework for the regulation of common European data spaces. This framework will set incentives for trusted data sharing between all actors and improve conditions for the use of data. The framework will be closely linked to the establishment of a European Cloud Federation, on which the Ministers adopted a joint declaration in the course of the meeting. In the declaration, the EU Member States commit to foster European networks and unlock synergies between existing data and cloud initiatives. During its Presidency of the Council of the European Union, Germany will endeavour to ensure that Europe continues on its path to becoming a modern, secure and innovative digital community.