Posted on 05/Dec/2017
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On November 27th, at the Egmont Palace, a rather extravagant but always elegant venue in the heart of Brussels, the Think Digital Summit took place. The Digital Post could not have missed the opportunity of attending

It is the second year the Think Digital Summit runs by the initiative of the European Business Summit. This year’s Summit touched upon issues such as data protection and privacy of consumers and citizens, growth of SME’s and Start Ups within the Digital Single Market, and last on critical digital infrastructure for developing a 5G network across Europe. The speakers were MEP’s, EU officials, policy makers, and representatives from the business sector. The Summit was smartly structured into three thematic panels in form of debates mainly polarizing between speakers from public institutions defending EU policies and corporate representatives advocating on business interests. The debate formation was not only vibrant managing to keep the participants interest alive for more than 6 hours but also gave us the opportunity to witness diverse interests and objectives collide or concede depending on the speakers’ background and the topic discussed.

In his opening keynote speech Giovanni Buttarelli, the European Data Protection Supervisor acknowledged the increasing demand for transparency and the need for all individual voices to be heard and transposed. Building on his statement, he pointed out an ‘‘unfair balance’’ between corporations handling a big amount of data, and on the other hand citizens merely giving away valuable personal data, oblivious of this transaction. Having framed this imbalance he labelled opacity as the biggest threat set to individuals and suggested this threat should be tackled by regulation.

Data Protection and Privacy of the European Digital Future

The topic which ignited a rather polemic but nevertheless constructive debate was the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or officially Regulation 2016/679 (Click here) and which monopolized the discussion of the first panel. According to EU officials the GDPR objective is to achieve an equilibrium between the full respect of fundamental human rights and business development, being at the same time an innovation friendly regulation. GDPR comes into force at the end of May 2018, so we will have to wait and see whether it will reach its full potential and purpose. Furthermore, this regulation comes to repeal an older E-Privacy Directive (Directive 95/46/EC), with the intention to achieve full integration and harmonization of implementation across the E.U. Highlighting the value of the innovation friendly design for the business sector, Despina Spanou, Director of DG CNECT, also strongly advocated for the need to empower consumers to have full control of their communication and to be asked to consent or not to sharing their data. ‘‘Consent has to be affirmative, not implicit’’, she asserted.

Responding to Mrs. Spanou,  Mr. Louette, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Orange, joked ‘‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’’ which although was a great ice breaker, it also made a clear-cut statement regarding his position towards the GDPR . He expressed his fears on restrictions on data use in businesses, stressing the need to balance regulation so that it does not hinder business activity. The issue of labelling almost everything as ‘‘personal data’’ was also brought up, pointing out the need to define the term more effectively. Furthermore, Mr. Louette argued that using personal data, such as people’s locations, can enable companies analyse the data and produce smarted public services where needed.  Last, he revealed that Orange wants to create a data dashboard for its customers from where they could monitor the cyberspaces they had left traces of their personal data.

Boosting Growth for SME’s and Start-Ups in the Digital Single Market

Digital is not a new industry, it is the way all SME’s and Start-ups should operate, says Katarzyna Jakimowicz, Associate Director of the Lisbon Council. The biggest issues SME’s have to tackle are to sell their products internationally, and to expand their limited knowledge of digital advertising tools. In some countries like Bulgaria, online purchases account for below 30 per cent of overall purchases, which discourages companies in these countries to advertise online at all. The major issues raised in this panel were once again regulation harmonization, this time on e-commerce and work mobility, and the business responsibility to create windows of opportunity for smaller businesses to grow. Nevertheless, the most interesting points were raised by Mrs. Jakimowicz on the existing, as she calls it, ‘‘talent and soft skills gap’’ referring to SME’s difficulty to access talent and digital skills domestically making the need for EU regulation on remote work more relevant and urgent than ever. The lack of communication between SME’s and institutions when it comes to funding and support mechanisms was discussed, bringing up that the European Innovation Council (Click here) will give €2,7 billion on SME’s, and in terms of promoting and supporting growth, the EU has initiatives such as The Startup Europe Project (Click here) helping SME’s develop.

Digital Infrastructure towards Maximum Connectivity

‘‘Bad connection is like no connection at all, thus we should aim towards high speed maximum connectivity’’ says Miapetra Kumpula-Natri, MEP for S&D.

The third and last panel focused on the advent of 5G network and the issues that need to be dealt with along the way. Issues that will arise on setting up a 5G network are building the necessary infrastructure to support the regular function of the network and the urgent need to regulate in order to create a safe environment for investors and in order to protect competition and innovation. Furthermore, it was repeatedly argued that this transition will not just be a transition from 4G, as it happened from 3G to 4G, it is a new technology that would change our lives and apply in a diversity of human activities such as transport and health industries, but unfortunately further elaboration and more tangible examples as to in what ways this network would revolutionize our everyday lives were not given.

Take Away Messages

An equilibrium between citizen’s protection and business development and innovation needs to be set, and the DGPR aspires to do so.

More initiatives need to be launched at EU level in order to boost and support SME’s access to soft digital skills and funding mechanisms.

Regulation on harmonization of rules on e-commerce and remote working are urgent.

In achieving a 5G network there are still a lot of issues to be tackled, such as critical infrastructure and regulation on safety to attract investors.

Overall I found the Summit very interesting and relevant. The structure of the sessions was constructive in terms of content and interaction between the speakers. The topics discussed were all relevant to current digital affairs and analysed sufficiently; I am afraid though with the exception of the 5G topic where more tangible arguments could have been delivered by the speakers. Questions by the participants were welcomed and answered with directness and in a meticulous fashion. Furthermore, the venue was grandiose, some might argue over the top, but still interesting to see, and last the services provided, such as food and drinks were satisfactory, although perhaps wider variety of food would have left participants with  impressions. For now we can only wait for the next Think Digital Summit in December next year and wonder what novelties we are to anticipate on.

Photo credit: pixabay.com

 

 

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