My Pedantic Position on EU Online Rights

January 16, 2013

I know that David Cameron is busy contemplating what to say about the UK and the EU and the complexities of their relationship. I am fed up with those calls from Downing St seeking guidance and want to help him out with an illustrative tale.

Just before Christmas, the EU Commission fulfilled one of its Digital Agenda pledges and published the rather grandly titled {Code of EU Online Rights:}. The Code ‘compiles the basic set of rights and principles enshrined in EU law that protect citizens when acceding and using online networks and services’.

Such was the welter of publicity surrounding the launch of this document on 17 December that even I, supposedly closely involved in this area, found out about it only in January, via a reference in a tweet. Now that might say more about my inefficiency than anything else but it might just possibly say something about the decision to launch any document on 17 December when all the world is wondering which perfume to buy, based on which TV advert is the least repellent. A Google search reveals lots of eu-europa references, a few techy publications that mention it, a ref from Practical Law (published on 27 December though, so even they nodded, or were busy counting their money) and the only law firm coming up in a reference is Worcestershire-based Thursfields (two points to them for their {blog mention:}). I see no Daily Mail entries, no video coverage on This Morning and no gurning analysis from Dominic Littlewood on Cowboy Watchdogmoneywise, or whatever.

I suspect that somebody at the Commission thought that meeting the target of publishing this in 2012 was more important than actually getting publicity. In short, here was a good idea that wasn’t executed in the right way. Moreover, pedant that I am, I got stuck on line 2 of the Code ‘acceding … online networks and services’. Did they really mean ‘acceding’ (ie, presumably, joining up) or did they mean ‘accessing? It’s not exactly wrong to use ‘acceding’ but, bearing in mind that only about 5% of the UK population will know what the word means in that context, it seems such a strange word to use. Yet again, right idea, wrong execution.

I ploughed on, skipping over the irony of an introduction to the Code that told me that its raison d’être(!) was making citizens aware of their rights and stripping away complexity. Section 1, Chapter 1, para 1 says ‘Everyone in the EU must have the possibility to access a minimum set of electronic communications services of good quality at an affordable price’. Now any sensible person, especially one living in rural Wiltshire, would focus on the fact that this statement is based on hope not reality and then maybe question what ‘good quality’ and ‘affordable price’ mean. But I am afraid that I focused on ‘possibility’. It is the wrong word, again (although it is an EU favourite in CJEU judgments and the like too) – I think they mean ‘opportunity’. The document is littered with such infelicities.

But here is the tricky bit. The EU Commission statement is a {i}really useful document{/i}; I recommend it. It is an excellent compilation of rights and most of it is understandable. It just needed a little tailoring. And if the English version is clumsy, I can only guess that the Lithuanian and Slovak versions are not too hot either. So what stopped them from getting the OFT to suggest some rewording? Come to that, Neelie Kroes could have e-mailed a draft to me and I would have improved it for a fee – and suggested a better launch timing.

The problem is that the EU Commission thinks it knows best too often and doesn’t take sufficient account of national nuances. I don’t think that statement will get Nigel Farage asking me to stand for UKIP. For me, when overlooking institutional corruption and jobsworth pettiness (not easy, but by no means their sole preserve), the EU Commission gets the big things right – and its ability to bring the computer and Internet giants to heel exemplify this – and it seems to have a greater regard for consumer rights than our own government. But it is constantly let down by the execution, the language barrier and its presentation. Perhaps it seeks co-operation from UK experts in these areas and gets rebuffed but I think it more likely that it just assumes that ‘possibility’ and ‘accede’ are OK and that its online rights Code is more important than Christmas. If so, it needs to think again.