Building the Networked World

Amsterdam canal, BBC
Image caption The idea of the Digital Agenda was fleshed out in Amsterdam

The life of the technology critic is a hard one, I reflected last week as I glided along the canals of Amsterdam on a journey between the Amsterdam RAI conference centre and the restored gasworks that were to host the opening night celebration of the 2010 World Congress on Information Technology.

I was in the company of assorted dignitaries, speakers and hacks, including Dutch minister of Economic Affairs Maria van der Hoeven and WCIT boss Ralph van Hessen, all enjoying the sunshine which had broken through at the end of the day.

On our arrival we were met by Loewijk Asscher, the acting mayor of Amsterdam, and other assorted dignitaries, and ushered into the gasworks, decked out for the evening with enough cool technology to satisfy even the most hardened geek.

It was a good end to a day that had begun in the massive RAI auditorium as we all gathered to hear the opening speeches, including a barnstorming performance from the newly appointed European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes.

Dr Kroes was until recently Competition Commissioner, and Google, Apple. Microsoft and Intel have all felt her hot breath on the back of their respective corporate necks.

She has driven home the point that EU approval matters just as much as US approval and that practices acceptable "back home" may not be agreeable in a European context, no matter how big the company.

She seemed to revel in the fact that she could speak about her new initiative, after six years in which she was forced to be very careful about what she said in public for fear of saying something that revealed a bias or hinted at a decision that had not been formally announced, and her enthusiasm was palpable.

It also became clear that she does not believe that she has all the answers or that she can find them within the EU bureaucracy that serves her as commissioner.

She is looking for help and advice, and turning especially to younger people who have grown up with digital technologies around them and can grasp their transformative - and disruptive - potential.

The agenda is one of those sensible proposals that many people like to dismiss as utopian dreaming, as it calls for open and interoperable products and services, more investment in ICT-focused R&D, concerted action to reduce the digital divide and effort to focus on how the network can be used to benefit society.

There's a renewed commitment to getting 30Mbps access for everyone by 2020, with over half of having 100Mpbs, which should be usable even in 10 years time. There is a call for a single digital market in Europe, which might even mean that iTunes downloads and iPlayer streams are consistently available.

And it seems that it will move ahead quite quickly - on an EU scale, anyway - as it now has support from the Council of Ministers, made up of relevant ministers from the EU states.

I have always been in favour of the European project, and consider myself as least as much a European citizen as a British one. I even have the domain and keep euros in my wallet most of the time.

Image caption The Digital Agenda is aiming for high-speed broadband across Europe

When asked if I've travelled much lately I tend to forget trips to Paris and Venice as they don't feel any different from going to York, and no more "foreign" than going to Scotland.

So I am enthusiastic about the Digital Agenda and pleased that it is being led by someone who has learned a lot about how the IT industry works in her previous role and seems to have used the time to think deeply about the wider impact of these technologies on Europe and the rest of the world.

The effective use of information and communications technologies is going to be vital if we are to come out of the current economic crisis, and it also offers the best hope for creating a sustainable world economy rather than one predicated on continuing growth.

But the agenda also offers those of us who are concerned about the shape of the network world a chance to consider a wider perspective, and to ensure that we appreciate where choices have to be made and compromises struck in order to ensure that a networked Europe is effective.

Also that Europe offers a model to rest of the world over issues such as copyright, the balance between freedom and accountability online and the need for the network to be treated as a public good that is not simply left to the open market.

This is the start of a long process, and anyone who has been deeply engaged in policy-making at the European level will know that it is unlikely to go quickly or smoothly.

But at least it's a start.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet. He is currently working with the BBC on its archive project.

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