Running the internet: Less rules, more disruption needed

9 Dec 2016

Roberto Viola is director general of DG Connect at the European Commission. Image: European Commission

One of the EU’s leading figures in communications regulations was in Ireland recently, discussing data sharing, skills and as little interference as possible.

“You have to be a bit schizophrenic. On one side, parsimonious with regulation, and on the other, generous with disruption and invention.”

European Commissioner Roberto Viola is the director general of DG Connect (the EU group focused on communications networks, content and technology), tasked with planning for the internet of today and tomorrow.

He’s surprisingly non-bureaucratic, confident in his organisation’s current approach to internet frameworks, and excited by preparations for future changes.


Nuts and bolts

Dealing with frequencies, and what opportunities terrestrial TV connectivity could have for future high-speed internet, is of particular focus for Viola.

He was formerly chair of the European Radio Spectrum Policy group, a member of the Body of European Telecom Regulators, and even served as head of telecommunication and broadcasting satellite services at the European Space Agency in the past.

However beyond frequencies, there is plenty to discuss. Viola spoke of a new initiative called the ‘internet of humans’, the follow-on to internet of things (IoT).

“Looking at the future of internet,” he said, “we recently launched the internet of humans. While we’re all focused on IoT, we need to prepare.”

How will people in the EU move from IoT to a “human-centric internet”?

An environment

“I am an environment, I can use AR, VR and my own cognitive means to get the best out of technology,” he said.

By this, Viola means data. Today, everything means data. What do privacy settings mean in an immersive environment? What do you want to say? What do you want recorded? And, far more interestingly, are your ‘privacy settings’ application-independent, platform-independent and accepted across all relevant software?

Viola does not want his group to be the ones coming up with ideas for internet infrastructure, he wants industry to take the lead. Collaboration, as ever, is key. “Everyone around Europe, researchers, SMEs; they work with us on this platform, throw in their ideas on how the future of internet will be.

“From there, we can all start collecting the best themes and invest research money into it.”

Data safety however, given what we hear about every day, seems a distant dream.

But, the US

At the moment, the EU is still trying to get a data-sharing agreement over the line with the US. This is the same US that has been proven to flout rules on what’s allowed and what isn’t, and is as far away from EU practices as ever.

Still, Viola said we should be “proud” of what has been achieved in Europe, with the same rules for everyone, the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights a trio of areas he’s happy with.

Viola accepts that, in EU terms, US practices are “beyond the way we do things”, but he argues that taking an aggressive stance helps no one.

“Blocking data flows is not the answer, the answer is asking whoever wants to be in a deal with EU to respect those [three areas].”

And so, the Privacy Shield is where his hopes lay. Just four months old, it’s already under attack. While the internet changes by the day, concerns about its users don’t.

DG Connect

DG Connect is the body with the primary aim to develop a Digital Single Market, “in order to generate smart, sustainable and inclusive growth in Europe”.

Though it’s not as streamlined as you may hope.

Given its wide range of responsibilities (copyright, media law, research, supercomputing etc) the body is quite fractured, something Viola has tried to change recently.

“What I tried to do was give every directorate a mission: looking at now and looking at tomorrow,” he said. So there are now clear projects investigating digital industry (robotics) from a structural, ethical and work stance, for example.


One theme prominent in recent technological developments is that of medtech, developing safe and secure solutions for patients throughout Europe.

Lauding Ireland for its position in this field, Viola thinks the country is “probably one of the best” examples in Europe in how practitioners use medical apps, especially as the EU struggles to come to terms with how these apps should be built.

“We have not arrived at a conclusion,” he said. “We think it’s probably necessary to go one step further, guaranteeing a minimum, uniform layer of safety when it comes to those type of apps.”

Though getting everybody on board remains tough. His next job is getting businesses, academics and policymakers to agree.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic