Europe’s Digital Agenda Assembly: A conference fit for a continent’s future?

TNW EUROPE
Sunday June 19, 2011

“Europe gets geeks” seemed to be the core message at the heart of the European Commission’s first ever Digital Agenda Assembly this week. This wide-ranging event was designed to help thrash out information and communication technologies’ role in Europe’s future.

Taking place in the unusual location of a vintage vehicle museum in the centre of Brussels, the two-day event comprised speeches, panel debates and a number of workshop events where attendees had a chance to actively help shape the Europe’s digital policies.

It was a fascinating look at how the people at the heart of European political power see the Internet – but even with 1300 people in attendance, it’s not clear if everyone who should have been there truly had a voice. In particular, the Internet startup entrepreneurs we cover every day right here on The Next Web seemed thin on the ground.

A Digital State of the (European) Union

In what she referred to as a ‘Digital State of the Union’ speech, Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, laid out some of the key challenges ahead for the continent. High speed broadband is “the bridge to Europe’s future,” she said. She also noted that the Internet’s potential could only be reached if it is trusted. She called for a “Sensible approach to cyber-security,” noting that the European Union is working on contingency plans to deal with online attacks on the continent’s infrastructure, and will be carrying out a joint security exercise with the US later this year, to test governments’ readiness to deal with such threats. Given recent suspected state-sponsored hacks such as the IMF breach, this is a particularly pressing issue to address.

On a more individual level, Kroes spoke of the need to empower children, parents and teachers with the ability easily report ‘cyber-bullying’ and online ‘grooming’ of youngsters. She called for a one-click reporting tool and education from a young age on privacy settings. Noting that many children are signing up to Facebook when younger than the official limit of age 13 (75% of children in the Netherlands do this, she claimed), Kroes called for children to be allowed access to social networks but with locked-down privacy settings to keep them safe.

Addressing the talk about increased Internet regulation at the recent EG8 summit, Kroes appeared to support a light-touch approach to any increases in regulation; “Keyhole surgery, not amputation” as she put it. “The Internet should be about freedom.”

An inspiring speech, it ticked many of the right boxes to appeal to net-savvy people hoping that the European Union will play its cards right to make the most of the digital revolution and not get left behind by the US or emerging competition from the likes of India and China. “I get you,” Kroes said. “This revolution is the opportunity of our time… Let’s be inspired to think outside the box. I need you and hopefully you are willing to join us.”

Steady and slow loses the race

Can Europe get its act together though? While Neelie Kroes clearly understands the way the Internet works, the European Union is well-known for its slow-moving bureaucratic approach, something completely at odds with the fast-paced progress of digital technology. A panel debate about how to stimulate Europe’s social networking industry somehow backed itself into a corner of discussing the need for increased regulation, rather than what practical steps can be taken to help social networks in Europe become more competitive on the global stage.

Zaryn Dentzel, the American founder and CEO of Spain’s largest invite-only social network, Tuenti, said that while his company has a good relationship with the police and will take down any material that it is asked to, regulation of social media is most effectively carried out by communities themselves, rather than by legislation.

Brainstorming the future

The Digital Agenda Assembly felt most useful when groups of attendees were allowed to break out into small brainstorming sessions in order to come up with solid, practical ideas to push for a stronger digital future.

In the social networking session, the group I moderated devised a plan to encourage more businesses across all industries to use social media to improve their efficiency and profitability. Businesses who successfully and effectively implemented social media tools into their work would be offered easily accessible financial incentives, while a central resource offering advice on social media usage would be combined with a directory offering examples of companies who were doing this particularly well.

In the session on entrepreneurs and the digital economy, my group was looking at the ‘Open Internet’. Our ideas included an ‘Internet Bill of Rights’ at EU level which would offer guarantees of Internet access to European citizens along with ensuring that everyone has access to a ‘neutral’ Internet, free of ISP traffic shaping, if they want it. Another called for education about entrepreneurship to be introduced from primary school level onwards, along with a programme similar to ERASMUS (a scheme which helps 200,000 students per year study and work abroad), but designed to help budding entrepreneurs to get the skills they need.

While the ideas, and many more like them from 1,300 attendees, were put together in a tight timeframe, it seems that the European Commission is keen to help drive them forward. For each idea, members of the group which created them were encouraged to take an active role in seeing them through. Personally, I’m happy to help drive any of these ideas forward and assuming something comes of them, I’ll throw them open for discussion here on The Next Web when the time is right.

Was it a conference fit for a continent’s digital future?

The Digital Agenda Assembly was certainly a dry event at times. The plenary sessions, which brought all attendees together, often drifted into unengaging talks from politicians who did little more than skim the surface of issues in a manner that left many people I spoke to – smart people with great interest in Europe’s digital future – falling asleep.

That said, many Commission staff I spoke to were genuinely interested in the issues and appear to want to give as many people as possible a voice in the digital direction Europe takes. A second event is planned for next year, and Commission staff tell me that they’re open to ideas that will improve it. Number one, I’d say, is to make sure more people know about it. I only found out because I was invited – there was little talk of this in the tech press when it was announced.

Although the Commission says that 2500 people applied for the 1300 places, I feel that the attendees included too few entrepreneurs, the people who have the most power to drive Europe’s future digital economy. I mean, I was the only person there in a t-shirt! It was shirts and ties all round elsewhere, which made the whole thing somehow feel a little less ‘digital’, as odd as that may sound.

The fact that the European Commission held this event at all is encouraging, though, and we’ll be watching the European Digital Agenda project with interest as it develops.


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