Posted on 11/Dec/2015
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Hanover’s recent TechFast roundtable on the role of online platforms brought together stakeholders and key policy makers to exchange views on this topic. Here are the highlights.

The overarching theme of the EU’s Digital Single Market initiative is how to make Europe more digitally innovative and competitive globally.

It is one of the favourite topics of discussion in Brussels, and since the launch of a consultation in September, the conversation about “online platforms” has taken centre stage.

Hanover’s recent TechFast debate on the role of online platforms brought together stakeholders and key policy makers to exchange views on this topic.

The discussion kicked-off with the question of how to define an online platform. The definition of platform in the consultation is very broad. It’s a catch-all one, potentially including everything from search engines such as Google, eCommerce marketplaces like Amazon, social networks à la Facebook and collaborative sharing economies, with Uber a recent hot topic.

It emerged that the European Commission and Parliament are themselves trying to get a grasp on these many types of platforms, with the goal of finding the appropriate definition.

The intentions and political driving forces are equally numerous: more transparency for consumers, preventing anti-competitive market dominance, stimulating growth and jobs, and preserving innovation.

It emerged from the discussion that the role of platforms as a market for data is a key focus point, as it raises questions on what information is gathered, how it is used, and if it can be transferred when switching platforms.

Concerns, such as trust and security also ring loudly in light of recent terrorist attacks and cybercrime case

Another underlying whisper, if not outright public statement, is the fear that Europe is lagging behind the USA and, soon, China. Participants agreed that the EU has many success stories in the eCommerce and video game sectors with the potential to compete globally.

Creating the right conditions for these unicorns to rise and for start-ups to scale up should be one of the ultimate outcomes of any policy intervention. Europe cannot lose this momentum and policy makers should duly take it into consideration when thinking of the right approach to platforms.

On top of all of this, the tech sector innovates fast and can be difficult to predict. Years of drafting and implementing regulation or legislative rules risk stifling this growth and innovation and compliance costs would hit newcomers and start-ups the hardest.

Meanwhile, ex-post enforcement, such as an antitrust investigation, can be more targeted, acting only when problems arise, but such cases have proven to be notoriously complex and sluggish to resolve.

With regulatory solutions likely to take quite some time, firms, young and old, will continue to innovate and develop ways to bring content to the market.

Consumers often make happy use of the convenience of platforms and they have proven to be a boon for many businesses, start-ups and citizens, enabling a rapid growth of online trading, sharing and interaction across borders.

The challenge ahead for policy makers therefore is to strike the right balance of all interests at stake. Neither a fragmented nor an over-regulated EU market will benefit anyone, as MEP Dita Charanzova made clear in the interview given to The Digital Post at the TechFast session.

A word of advice, follow the motto of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker: “No time for business as usual”.

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photo credit: erik forsberg
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