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EU Unveils Plans for Digital Single Market

05/06/2015 | 06:56am US/Eastern

BRUSSELS--The European Union unveiled a signature plan to unite the region's fragmented online markets and crack down on possible abuses by U.S. Internet firms, a move policy makers hope will boost the economy and help spawn Internet giants to rival Google Inc. and Facebook Inc.

The plans, six months in the making, are a cornerstone of efforts by the EU's recently appointed executive arm to jump-start growth. They contain 16 initiatives ranging from an overhaul of the region's telecommunications rules to harmonized copyright and tax regimes to cybersecurity and even better parcel delivery.

Crucially, the plans call for several major inquiries into possible abuses by U.S.-based Web companies. These include a "comprehensive analysis" into the role of online platforms such as search engines and price-comparison websites amid concerns around their market power and a previously signaled probe by antitrust regulators into whether Internet commerce firms such as Amazon.com Inc. are restricting cross-border trade.

Technology firms cautioned against heavy-handed new rules that could constrain Europe's ability to attract technology companies and to develop its own.

"Brussels appears poised to put government officials in charge of how hugely popular online services are designed and implemented" without any evidence they are harming consumers, said Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, a lobby group.

At the heart of the project is a determination to fight back against the dominance of the Web by U.S.-based companies. Top EU officials have warned that European firms are lagging behind in a critical sector that is squeezing traditional industries one after the other.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, said Wednesday that the plans would "lay the groundwork for Europe's digital future."

"I want to see pan-continental telecoms networks, digital services that cross borders and a wave of innovative European startups," Mr. Juncker said.

The bloc also will look into the threat posed to European telecom operators by so-called over-the-top players such as Skype and WhatsApp, which the operators have accused of competing unfairly.

"The regulations would also sour the US-EU relationship at exactly the wrong time," Mr. Garfield said. EU officials estimate the plans could add EUR415 billion ($465.28 billion) to Europe's economy and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, urgently needed in a region where unemployment exceeds 11%.

The plans are some way from becoming reality. The European Commission, the bloc's Brussels-based executive arm, must turn them into concrete legislative proposals that will be debated and modified by national governments and the European Parliament before being voted into law.

The digital single market "is a big deal" that "will add tremendously to [Europe's] competitiveness in the long term," General Electric Co. Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt said in a speech Tuesday in Brussels.

"No serious investor believes Europe really cares about jobs if the rules are inconsistent," Mr. Immelt said.

Write to Tom Fairless at tom.fairless@wsj.com

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