The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Peter Warren, author and journalist.

The Digital Single Market is one of the central planks of EU policy but according to a recent report it is fatally flawed because the EU is out of step with technology due to its insistence on the concept of a digital consumer.

The EU has to redefine its thinking of the information age if it is to act in the interests of EU citizens, according to the report “Who Is Who – The Complex World of the European Digital Consumer” from the think-tank Future Intelligence.

The report used interviews with experts in the field, leading academics, digital entrepreneurs and researchers as well as legal experts and top media analysts and concluded that while the internet may have disrupted the way we have done things in the last 50 years that our behaviour remains the same; we still want to be as we were – we buy and consume products that mean something to us and the social environment we are in.

Crucially, what the report found was that we are now so fused with our technology that we use it in every decision that we make – if we want to buy things we use technology, but the things we want we buy either locally or in terms of our culture.

The concept of the digital consumer is outdated. All (bar one) of those interviewed for the report stated that there was no such thing as a digital consumer. They said all consumers are now digital, that they switch between ‘the High Street’ and ‘the virtual’ in everything that they do. Consumption is always local. As consumers, we expect offerings tailored to our language, purchasing power, taste and preferences. The same is not true for businesses, with many of those interviewed pointing out that SMEs – particularly in the retail sector – are lagging behind in their use of internet technology.

Massive challenges confront the concept of the development of the digital single market due to the global nature of the internet, simple factors like the packaging and parcelling and sending of goods, or issues of cyber security remain as major hurdles to the capability of small companies to compete as well as well as access to scarce computing skills make life very difficult for businesses.

These two forces, SMEs lagging and the global nature of companies like Amazon and E-Bay, combine to make the bigger firms the winners in the marketplace. Local offerings can be a way for smaller businesses to compete, but mechanisms have to be in place to help them counter the muscle of multi-national giants.

There was much concern about the ability of legislators and lawyers to keep pace with technological change. This point is even admitted by the policy makers themselves, with technologists, those in the film industry and consumer experts all arguing that policy makers must have a deeper understanding of technology if they are to legislate on it in the interests of all citizens. There is an urgent need to raise awareness among consumers about the techniques used by the internet community to acquire consumers’ data and the ways the technology industry uses people’s data. Thought should also be given to the power of the AI technology that can now be deployed by large companies like Google and the ability of consumers to make informed decisions without being influenced by the commercial interests of powerful internet companies and their clients.

Another finding is that although the EU’s aim of developing a Digital Single Market was ambitious, laudable and consistent with the principles that underpin the EU, the fact that it is based upon technology developed outside of the EU does present challenges.

Interestingly, consumers now break into two distinct groups online: those who are prepared to pay, and those who think they use free services but pay with their personal information and by agreeing to view advertising. The idea that there is a need for a different system of laws and penalties to be developed to deal with online activity, or that a different set of norms and behaviour exists online is misleading and should be vigorously challenged.

When making policy for the Digital Single Market, the European decision-makers would be well-advised to keep these findings in sight, perhaps the key finding was that though in the internet age people do not vote with their feet but vote with their fingers and thumbs, but they still want the same experience that they got from walking into the shop of the 20th century – they want the same familiarity, the same instant service and the same anonymity.

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