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Meet the Politician Trying to Shove Europe Into the Digital Future

"It’s not fair to say there is protectionism in Europe."


Andrus Ansip has a problem with Tim Cook.

At his Brussels office, Ansip opens his iPhone 6 to the step-counting health tracker. “It’s putting you under pressure,” he told me. “How many steps did I make today? Aah!” After falling behind in a competition with his staff in Davos, he suspects the Apple chief of stealing his steps.

It’s sarcasm, and fairly obvious. Yet Ansip felt the need to qualify it. “They provide an excellent service,” he said.

Ansip’s opinion on tech matters. As vice president for the European Commission, the chief EU governing body, he leads the Digital Single Market, a landmark attempt to unify regulation of Internet companies and transactions across the 28 member countries of the EU. It touches nearly everything — from e-commerce and digital music to cyber security and privacy.

With U.S. tech companies grappling on each of these fronts in Europe, in addition to facing increased scrutiny on taxes and data collection, Ansip may be their best friend. Or he might not be.

Several people in European tech describe him as a determined diplomat, fighting an uphill slog against European industries and politicians reluctant to accept digital deregulation, or the accompanying benefits to Silicon Valley firms. And many expect the Digital Single Market to ease burdensome red tape, like that around e-commerce transactions and streaming. But it also has elements that may displease the Valley, like tighter regulation of over-the-top services and platforms.

Ansip himself equated his task with the Digital Single Market with the formation of the continent’s political unification.

“In the European Union, we were able to create this single market in physical form. We were able to tear down all those barriers dividing our member states. But a digital single market doesn’t exist,” he told Re/code in an interview last month. “Instead of having single rules, we have 28 different rules dealing with online sales of perishable goods, for example. And potentially we have 28 different rules dealing with online sales of digital content. Fifty-six different rules.”

It’s not just e-commerce. Many European countries are considering drafting their own laws regulating sharing economy startups like Airbnb and Uber, a balkanization that Ansip’s initiative is trying to hedge against.

But the little guys — small digital businesses and (non-unicorn) startups — are the ones that get screwed the most, Ansip continued. Large companies can afford the lawyers to navigate the rules.

Ansip paused, then added with a chuckle: “I don’t think for big players this fragmentation is a unique selling point for Europe.”

On Encryption, Security and Streaming

Ansip, a former prime minister of Estonia, is long-limbed and congenial. He speaks excitedly, with rhetorical flourish. He also talks like a seasoned politician — broad declarations, followed quickly by a “but.”

He gives good quote.

On political attention to cyber security: “In your country, maybe because of ‘Die Hard 4’ and Bruce Willis, you pay attention on cyber security issues.” (He traces Europe’s awakening to the cyber attacks in Estonia in 2007.)

On the blame laid on tech for recent terrorist attacks: “Some people would like to say the Internet is guilty. Those are people killing other people. We have to keep our Internet open. As it is right now, I’m against fragmentation of the Internet.”

On the regulation of digital platforms, which the Digital Single Market may do (treating some over-the-top services, like WhatsApp, similarly to telecoms): “Right now, it’s too early to say what we will do with platforms. But I would like to say very clearly: This commission does not have any plans to kill innovations or overregulate platforms. To provide more clarity? Yes. But to kill innovation, overregulating platforms? No way.”

Unlike some U.S. politicians, Ansip is opposed to forcing tech companies to open “back doors,” giving governments access to encrypted services. “If we have those back doors, then sooner or later somebody will misuse those back doors anyway,” he said. “I’ve stated it many, many times: Trust is a must. If our people cannot trust those Internet based e-services, they will not start to use them.”

A particular fixation of Ansip’s is “geo-blocking,” the practice, common in Europe, of blocking services based on location. Online shoppers in France and Belgium may see different prices for the same thing. A German on Netflix may not get the same shows when she lands in Poland. Ansip hates that. And he likes to point out that the restrictions affect many companies, large and small, American and European.

“It’s not so much about Netflix,” he said. Beat. “But anyway, it’s also about Netflix! If I pay to have access in my own country, then why do I have to pay once again in another country?”

Protectionist? Au Contraire.

Where Ansip disagrees with Valley tech companies is on Europe’s stance toward tech firms across the Atlantic. I asked him about the claims made by several in the U.S., including President Obama, that Europe’s position toward U.S. tech companies reflected protectionism.

“No, no, no. That’s not true,” Ansip replied.

Then he leaped across the office to grab a sheet of paper — bullet points from a speech he recently gave in Washington, D.C. He ticked them off: Between 2010 and 2014, the EU brought antitrust cases against 81 companies; only 21 were U.S. companies. It charged 231 in cartel cases; just 17 were U.S. companies. “It’s not fair to say there is protectionism in Europe,” he said.

Instead, the EU’s byzantine digital rules hold back companies from both sides of the Atlantic, Ansip argued. Hence the importance of his Digital Single Market push. It received a boost last month when Europe’s Parliament passed a resolution encouraging the adoption of the initiative.

To point out its importance, Ansip mentioned Spotify, a tech company born in Europe that had to shift to the U.S. to grow.

“Why do startups move out to scale up?” he asked. “It’s mainly because of fragmentation. It’s so difficult to cross those digital borders.”

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