The Fourth Revolution, Digital Single Market and Year Ahead for IT lawyers

First published by Computers & Law Magazine. January 28, 2016.

The global economy is struggling with an oversupply of certain commodities, a lack of confidence in the Chinese market and a continued sluggishness in the world’s largest trading block, Europe. Closer to home, the potential for a Brexit is heating up with the Governor of the Bank of England claiming an exit would result in a rush of capital out of Britain and former Prime Minister Tony Blair claiming such a move would trigger another attempt at Scottish independence.

In these unstable and dark days, some of us bask in the warmth of the potential of a post-austerity Europe. The fourth industrial revolution — as the good people of Davos trumpeted — a converged, digital age of continuous connectivity, automated daily lives and data driven richness leading towards efficiency and equality (perhaps starting with a smart fridge that can order my shopping via my Home Area Network of connected technologies that connects with my online account with a well-known supermarket using finger-print authorised payment services on a well-known brand of smart phone).

This converged, digital utopia is not just the rhetoric of hope but, you may be unsurprised to hear, a key priority for European Commission strategic plans. And to think that some people suggest that Brussels is all doom, gloom and straight bananas.

The Digital Single Market Strategy for Europe sets an ambitious aim — to combine 28 individual digital markets into one, to add over €400bn to the annual European economy and to generate the thousands of future digital jobs our unborn children can only dream of.

Some readers may think I write with a tone of cynicism but, alas, the Commission has been working at a speed of knots. 2015 saw no less than ten consultations on topics ranging from reform of the regulatory framework for electronic communication networks and services through cross-border parcel deliveries to the rules for online platforms and geo-blocking.

Given the jolly nature of the Commission, the pre-Christmas gift of three pieces of draft legislation no doubt kept many readers entertained over the festive period with proposed reforms for the supply of digital content, the online sale of goods and the cross-border portability of online content services (which follows on nicely from reform of roaming charges). I was no doubt not alone however when my usually pro-European stance waivered, if but for a moment, with the prospect of having to review my work on the very recent implementation of the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

There was also a collective gasp of relief with confirmation that political agreement had finally been reached in the trialogue on the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Network Security and Information Directive (NSID, or the so called “Cyber Security Directive”).

So what’s in store for the year ahead? On the assumption that leaked drafts of the GDPR and NSID haven’t made it to everyone yet, we wait with anticipation for the formal release of the agreed text — with a few final rubber stamps due prior to them becoming law. Increased fines for data breaches and enhanced auditing and reporting obligations on network security will keep many busy, along with trying to understand the potential impact of future reform of consumer law.

Those of us that keep an eye on European legislation will not be surprised by the expected process of negotiation to follow between the European institutions and, notably, national governments (especially on issues of telecom regulation and spectrum management). And all this is happening within the context of ongoing discussions with the USA, post-Safe Harbour (and pre-Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), and the Chinese Government,pre-interoperability and pre-5G roll out.

The geopolitics of the fourth revolution will be important too. With a clear difference of opinion on internet sovereignty and regulation between East and West, the impact on traditional jobs, skills requirements and immigration, the increasing relevance of cyber warfare — now the fifth domain of combat — and the stark need for consumer confidence in converged digital technologies required for our anticipated digital single market to take off.

In future editions of Computers & Law, I’ll be examining some of the implications of draft legislation flowing from the Digital Single Market Strategy for Europe and how such reforms feed back to the grand vision of a successful, booming European economy within a global fourth revolution. Unless, of course, we decide to leave the European Union. In which case, I’ll probably have to change direction.

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