While policy makers and government show big interest and claim noble intentions – there is still a big gap between ambition and reality.
Many alarm bells are ringing across Europe for tech startups. From Berlin to Paris, and from Warsaw to Milan, thousands of innovative and ambitious startups are hustling every day. But are regulatory risks and threats overtaking their strength to grow? While policy makers and government show big interest and claim noble intentions – there is still a big gap between ambition and reality.
While our founders should be nurtured as the winning ingredient of Europe’s economy – startups create jobs three times faster than the rest of the economy – the reality of day to day life is that Europe’s innovators risk regulatory overkill. There is an unfortunate pattern in which the voice of Europe’s startup community is taken on board for more soft PR and window-dressing than allowed to the policy table at full extend. By nature, governments have a hard time understanding and catering for, companies of tomorrow.
Unfortunately too often, the Commission and Parliament are taking a destructive interest in tech rather than promoting the kind of companies they’d like to see. May this be privacy, data or competition related cases – the European Union policy makers should hold themselves to the same standards of positive and constructive rule making rather than playing the heavy handed enforcer. This is not a one off.
Aspects of the General Data Protection Regulation were the latest example of regulation which was conceived and designed with a prohibitive degree of complexity as well as a fair share of ignorance for technology. Examples like these with the hungry cry for more European unicorns don’t go well together. Digital Copyright is another chapter, where startups are caught up in the schizophrenia of policy makers. Sometimes they’re all about ‘stealing content and have to pay’ or they are ‘not concerned at all’. Across the board they are hoped to develop the artificial intelligence and machine learning Europe needs to compete with the US and China. Whether they can raise the funds or access the data they need is less of the EU’s concern.
The positive contribution of Europe’s tech startups needs to be far better understood and their perspective and insights listened to in a meaningful way by policy makers in Europe.
Europe’s mobile economy has been thriving and with it, Europe’s startup community. For instance, there has been a rapid growth of apps over the last decade, from less than 5,000 to over 2 million today. Compared to the US, Europe actually hosts more app developers. How does that sound?
Thousands of startups and businesses across Europe nurture their geniosity with the open source and architecture of the digital applications. Innovation is not limited to the software applications, new hardware manufacturers in Europe, like BQ, which has over 1000 employees near Madrid, or Fairphone, building a fully sustainable smartphone in the Netherlands, both using Android’s open source operating system. Open platforms, like Android but also Tizen, LineageOS or PostmarketOS enable new jobs and opportunities for developers in Europe too — in fact, there are estimates of roughly 2 million jobs created in Europe, with another 2 million-and-some closely associated to mobile development.
The mobile economy has not only fostered innovation, it has ensured strong competition amongst apps and app-stores. This isn’t just something that benefits companies and businesses. It ultimately enables consumers choose between a myriad of freely available solutions. Judging, reviewing and endorsing the best has given the consumer more power and voice than ever before.
Preserving an open mobile ecosystem to the benefit of consumers
After GDPR and copyright, this topic concerns the European Commission’s decision on the Android operating system which will, in one way or the other, impact the ability of startups and developers to thrive. Unfortunately so far, any government intervention has brought more complexity, legal or administrational effort, and ultimately trouble for tech communities. This makes it hard to see good things in the Commission’s actions.
Taking often far-reaching decisions about where such ecosystems for startups and developers are bound to go, policy makers need to be sure to have the full picture. Are actions about to be taken having a net positive or a net negative effect on the ability of our entrepreneurs to succeed? What are the right instruments to tackle occurring issues? Europe’s app economy has generated 2.05 million jobs, as of April 2018, at an annual growth rate of approximately 6.6% (link). We shouldn’t such developments for granted and should focus on strengthening those who build our future.
It’s hard to underestimate the ability of European entrepreneurs to innovate and to disrupt for a better future. But at the same time we cannot blame them for taking the best way towards success. Their role is to innovate while the role of public policy is to provide the best conditions to do so. Ultimately, if not founders themselves, its investors who will apply a strict due diligence.
Despite the arguments put forward by European policy-makers, short-sighted regulatory interventions interfering in the digital economy risk unbalancing ecosystems which depends upon an open and flexible approach to ensure continued innovation. The oxygen needed for startups has and always will be open access, allowing them to be part of a global community able to compete and build our future.
In the same way that users enjoy the benefits of innovation, regulatory constraints will also have a knock on effect on consumers. Take the European Commission’s proposal on the platform to business relationships or any of their competition work. Often decisions are motivated from a particular set of interest or constituency, and is not always fully weighted against all interest and benefits such as for consumers.
Take Be My Eyes, an app developed in Denmark that connects blind people with volunteer helpers from around the world via live video chat with 100,000+ downloads on smartphones. In the field of fitness and wellness, from sleep pattern optimization in Sweden to healthy home cooking in Germany, European apps improve the way people around the world approach their well being. Such stories are nearly endless and show a 21st century face of our diversity. These apps could emerge thanks to platforms like Google Play and Apple’s app store, which allow startups to scale quickly and reach billions of users over night.
Startups in Europe have to run the extra mile
We fear that regulatory interventions which fail to take full account of startup communities could lead to increased product prices, less choice and entry barriers for startups. Just think of the apps we use to help us improve our travel experiences. Most of Europeans download more than two new apps a month and spend hours playing games, shopping or doing our finances.
Startups are at the heart of innovation in our economy. Most new applications see the light of day in startups and startups aren’t shy challenging the status quo. We have to learn to get comfortable with disruptive innovation as long as the product benefit aims at the user. We need policy makers to understand how the startups of today will be shaping the economy of tomorrow. To capture incredible success stories like those of our mobile economy and other verticals like deep tech and manufacturing. Doubling down on regulation and enforcement will cause the contrary of the success stories we want to see so many more of.
Picture credits: Steve Halama
How a law to reign in large platforms will end up costing large platforms least of all.
Policy making is, by nature, one step behind technology because it tends to focus on (and is lobbied by) today’s companies. When lawmakers, however, by virtue of universally applicable and EU-wide laws, try to come after a hand full of big players, society and smaller startups suffer. With the Copyright Directive, the EU risks shooting itself in the foot. Worse even, it is launching a torpedo at its own vision of becoming a startup continent. Here is the gist of it:
The proposal to filter online content fundamentally misses its aim. By targeting a few big video platforms, it will ultimately uplift and fence their market share. The scope of the proposal is flawed. While intending to govern only licensed content, it targets all types of content and all platforms regardless of licenses or copyright.
Filtering itself is technically ineffective and will cause more damage than good on the internet. Seemingly easy on text through hashing but disproportionately expensive for anything more complex or even impossible. The suggested filtering technology will raise the cost of launching a startup in Europe and drive talent away.
First-buried-then-leaked evidence suggest it will not solve the problem anyway. For all of us it will result in lower quality, less variety and content online, as the law favours those who delete content.
Let’s take this in turns. To start, the proposal aims to address a grievance by rightsholders, namely the fact that certain large platforms don’t pay as much as the content industry is wishing for. While it’s one thing whether we want laws in favour of individual industries, this proposal will actually not do anything to abate this discord.
Ironically, this proposal makes it even more likely that small platforms and innovative startups pick up the tab, as they don’t have the market power and legal teams to go through thousands of licensing agreements. To be clear: Startup founders fully respect creation and its remuneration. But this law is drafted in entire disregard of Europe’s startups and its citizens’ fundamental rights.
Besides fundamentally missing the target, the proposal is carpet bombing the entire digital world. Regardless of whether one uses licensed content or not, everyone will now have to enact a costly regulatory prescription. Content can range from images over text, audio visual content, objects to code.
While policy makers probably would have liked the idea of squeezing one online video platform into the business model of another, their proposal made startup founders across Europe worry about their future. Github, for example, is an open source code-sharing platform that helps developers to stay on top of trends.
It too, would be within the scope of this law. Another example are crowdfunding platforms that, by design, host content uploaded by users. Is this where copyright infringement happens? Again, the scope of this law overreaches its aim and creates more problem than solutions.
Content industries may be yelling about a problem but it is lawmakers’ duty to find a proportionate solution for everyone in our society. In this case, technology can’t offer what politics wants. Several examples underline this: Shapeways, a 3D printing marketplace, hosts more than 300,000 pieces of copyrightable content per month but processed fewer than 1,000 copyright notices in 2016. Which were based on the description, not products themselves and in most cases unsubstantiated.
Earlier examples of crowdfunding platforms, code-sharing platforms or e-commerce are no different. Because content recognition does not yet exist in an affordable and efficient way these startups can either break the law or break ties with Europe and move where common sense governs. Anyways, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
With audio files, a comparatively easily recognisable content, state of the art fingerprinting techniques resulted in error rates of 1-2%. Sounds acceptable? In comparison, spam filters for emails get dismissed as unsuitable with error rates of 0.1%. These cases illustrate: Filtering is ineffective with some types of content, and non-existent for others.
Even if filtering were to work properly across all formats, it would price many innovative ideas out of the European market. Studies have underlined this. Unlike an assessment by the European Commission suggested, filtering does not cost 900 Euro per month, but easily between 10.000 and 50.000. If the average initial funding of a startup was 150k, you can ask yourself whether you want to launch that company or just run your idea through a bad filter for three month.
Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform, hosted 366.622 projects since its inception. In 2015 it received copyright infringement notices targeting a mere 215 projects, only one third of which were valid complaints.
If article 13 of the proposed copyright directive became reality, the removal of 100 out of over 366.622 projects would easily cost 500.000€ annually. Why? Because some policy makers think a straightforward notice-and-takedown procedure is not enough. What was it again about proportionality in law?
When filtering is prescribed with complex and expensive rules, companies will be inclined to remove content rather than run the risk of getting sued. And who are platforms do decide if that video or drawing is a copyright infringement or parody, or maybe an entirely new work?
While so far a well founded notice triggers removal, in future the benefit of the doubt will be with an armada of copyright trolls chasing anyone hosting content. The result will be less variety and content available online. This ranges from creative content of any kind to critical thought Here is a proposal that will lead to less investment, less startups and less free speech. Right before half of the world’s population will be able to benefit from a free internet, the most developed continent will go partly dark.
There are a myriad of startups like Kickstarter and Shapeways or Github. And even more young and talented Europeans are planning the next generation of content platforms today.
The collateral damage of such out-of-touch legislation is not only a shot in the foot of Europe’s ambition to become a startup continent, but also a contribution to a generation of entrepreneurs seeking success elsewhere. Europe will be stuck with companies that are already big enough to comply or those who never want to be that big.
Startups are not one single industry but innovate across all sectors. They are the most mobile companies we’ve ever seen and are successful because they approach problems differently. Regulators are still catching up to this reality.
While there is no simple answer to copyright, building walls will have unintended effects while missing the actual aim. Exempting startups, as suggested before will not crack the nut because startups aren’t SMEs. What then?
Picture Credits: Frankieleon
Filippos Zakopoulos the Executive Director of the Found.ation, discusses the evolution of the start-ups ecosystem in Greece and the Balkan region and how the European Union is supporting and enabling further growth.
The Digital Post: How the Found.ation operates to help tech startups build?
Filippos Zakopoulos: Found.ation has been a key player in the startup scene since 2011. Starting as a co-working space and then acting as an incubator, it has provided a great number of startups with valuable advice and access to a big network of key players of the startup ecosystem, such as mentors and investors. Also, having some of Greece’s largest companies as its clients, Found.ation has contributed in organizing acceleration programs, innovation competitions and hackathons, thus contributing in creating more opportunities for Greek startups, as well as startups from the greater Balkan region.
Looking more specifically into the acceleration and incubation pillar, a number of the companies that have taken part in Found.ation’s programs have raised 6M Euro in funding from local and international VCs. This corresponds to 15% of all VC-backed technology companies in Greece during 2013-2016.
Moreover, Found.ation acts as the local touchpoint for many international institutional investors, VCs and accelerators. Found.ation events have hosted so far Seedcamp, TheFamily, T-Ventures, Hub:raum, Axel Springer Plug&Play, Eleven, Launchub, Kompass Digital, Mojo Capital, 212 Ventures and the European Investment Fund, among others. Since 2015, Found.ation signed an exclusive agreement with the European open innovation organization EIT Digital, under the Arise Europe Program, with the objective of strengthening the Greek startup ecosystem, through the implementation of common, well-structured initiatives. The aim of the collaboration is to foster the ecosystem, support startups, give them faster access to the wider European market and hook them up with potential investors.
TDP: What are the plans for the forthcoming future?
FZ: Found.ation originally established in 2011 as one of the first co-working spaces in SE Europe, but has evolved also as a digital transformation consultant for corporations and a tech education hub. Our team strongly believes in the interaction between established corporations and startups. One of the key roles of Found.ation is to highlight these opportunities for cooperation between these two polar opposites and we already work with companies and organizations such as COSMOTE (Greece’s top telecommunication provider), Eurobank (one of the country’s largest banks) and the Municipality of Athens to make this happen. But startups are not the only ones to benefit from this kind of cooperation. Incumbents need to transform in order to stay agile and competitive and Found.ation helps them design innovative digital strategies, by teaching them how to adopt a more entrepreneurial mindset.
TDP: How do you see the European startups ecosystem evolving?
ZP: Europe is still far from becoming a new Silicon Valley, but on a more local level there are a lot of cities emerging as mature hubs, providing fertile soil for entrepreneurial bloom, like Amsterdam, Paris and Stockholm, among established spots like Berlin and London. The rest of the European countries are following their lead –Hungary and Estonia are emerging nods–, although they have yet a lot of distance to cover. Even in Southern and Eastern Europe, where the financial situation poses a significant barrier for prosperity, one can see optimistic signs of progress.
TDP: Is the European Union doing enough? What further actions should be taken in your view?
ZP: The first step towards solving a problem is identifying it. Europe has understood that it needs to take action and help local startup ecosystems in order for them to help boost their countries’ economies. A good example in this direction is the launch of EquiFund in Greece, part of the Commission’s Investment Plan for Europe. The new €260m Fund-of-Funds program, managed by the European Investment Fund, aims to boost entrepreneurship, by attracting private funding to all investment stages of the local equity market. But unlocking the equity potential in the market is only one part of the equation. The next step is to create policies that will enhance survivability and strengthen the ecosystem, such as tax and regulatory incentives. These measures need to be applied in local as well as pan-European level.