What does the new EU Parliament mean for tech?

Pirates out, digital rights to the fore

As the tally for the European Parliament election draws to a close, dozens of candidates pledging to support data privacy and net neutrality initiatives appear to have been elected.

Voting for representatives to the 766-member European Parliament took place from Thursday to Sunday, in conjunction with local and national elections across the 28-nation European Union. For the first time, digital issues were at the forefront of candidates' election campaigns.

More than 400 candidates to the Parliament pledged to defend net neutrality and data privacy, signing a 10-point digital rights charter called WePromiseEU. Votes were still being counted Monday, but by late afternoon, 55 candidates for Pariament who had signed WePromiseEU were confirmed as elected.

"It's great to see that so many candidates and citizens consider their digital civil rights worth defending, and were ready to commit to the principles of the charter," said Joe McNamee, director of digital rights group EDRi. "It is now up to us all to make sure that the elected members of European Parliament (MEPs) stand behind their promise and spread these values among their colleagues," he continued.

The WePromiseEU pledge includes a commitment to fight against the idea of service providers being held accountable for monitoring illegal downloads, and against blanket, unchecked surveillance measures. It also includes a pledge to try to ensure that European surveillance technology is not sold to despotic regimes.

"I think more of the newly elected members will be switched on technology issues and I am happy that there are efforts being made to curb the export of surveillance tech so I will continue with that," said Maritje Schaake, re-elected MEP for The Netherlands associated with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE).

Schaake is calling for a new digital committee to be set up in the European Parliament. The system of drawing up EU legislation requires that different committees in the Parliament scrutinize proposed laws. Currently although there are committees on trade, justice and home affairs, there is none devoted entirely to technology.

"I basically think that the technology topics are too scattered across the Parliament committees. The feedback I have received, is that we really need to have a specialized committee, so I will continue to work on that," explained Schaake. "Change never comes easy. But I also know that if you don't try you'll never succeed."

She added that she hoped net neutrality rules agreed on by the Parliament in March will not be unravelled even though two Swedish Pirate Party representatives failed in their re-election bid. However, the Pirates have one member of the new Parliament, as new German candidate Julia Reda won a seat.

"Copyright is only high on Pirates' agenda, and they've gone down to one seat, so will have little impact," said copyright blogger Glynn Moody on Twitter. "I think we will see a slow rise in interest in this area, as evidenced by WePromiseEU, but only slowly."

The European Commission, the EU's executive branch, is currently analyzing thousands of comments to its consultation for new copyright legislation, which will be proposed to the new Parliament for debate.

"The debate in this Parliament will be dominated by largely new voices, on both sides: neither pro-copyright MEPs such as Marielle Gallo and Arlene McCarthy nor antis such as Pirate representatives Christian Engström and Amelia Andersdotter were re-elected," said Ross Biggan, director of the Association of Commercial Television in Europe.

As vote counting comes to an end, it appears that the European People's Party (EPP) is still the largest political group in the Parliament, while the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) held on to their number two spot -- though both parties ended up losing seats. Meanwhile Anti-EU groups, which support a rolling back of the authority of pan-European institutions, gained seats.

"In general it may be harder for the Commission to pitch ambitious harmonization projects to a Parliament which is feeling anti-EU, but if something can be coherently articulated across so many different flavors of Euro-hostility, it could become a credible political voice," Biggan said.

For the first time the European Parliament parties are putting forward candidates for the presidency of the European Commission -- a role that will become vacant in October. Up to now the heads of state of the EU countries named the Commission president, and the Parliament essentially approved without debate whoever was named.

Now however, Parliamentary groups are naming their own candidates, and demanding that the heads of state choose an EU Commission president from among these candidates. Parliamentarians insist they will vote to approve only a candidate who has been suggested by one of the Parliamentary groups.

There is no guarantee that the heads of state will nominate a candidate from the leading Parliamentary groups. Nonetheless both the EPP's candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the S&D's candidate, Martin Schulz, expressed strong support for European data privacy principles. Both also talked tough on reaching data-sharing agreements with the U.S.

"I would inherently demand from the U.S. that they accept our privacy standards," Schulz said.

Juncker said that he wouldn't negotiate on data privacy. "If a company has its headquarters in Silicon Valley and does business in Europe, then European rules must apply," he said.

However, neither Juncker nor Schulz signed the WePromiseEU initiative. Whoever does get the top job will have a huge influence over the laws of the EU in the coming years.

Meanwhile questions are being asked about which MEPs will sit on which Parliamentary committees and how that will affect tech policy. Along with copyright reform, the new Parliament will also have to negotiate a new data protection regulation and a new telecom package, which comprises rules on roaming charges. This could prove a challenge for privacy advocates and those who support measures to ensure low roaming charges, as many member states, in particular the U.K., want to water down current rules.

But industry insiders say it is too early to predict what will happen. "It is very hard to tell at this stage. I hope the new Parliament will continue to focus on data protection and the telecoms package," said Afke Schaart, director of EU Institutional relations at Microsoft, on Monday.

Vendor lobby groups Software Alliance and BSA welcomed the incoming MEPs and highlighted the issues the new Parliamentarians will have to tackle.

"Decisions taken by the new Parliament on key dossiers in the coming term, such as Europe's data protection rules and trade secrets, will determine whether data-enabled technologies are able to deliver a much-needed boost to jobs and economic growth across every European member state," said BSA President Victoria Espinel.

Negotiations on committee positions are likely to start next week, but member state support for a new Commission president will certainly take more time.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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