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EU’s new digital chief grilled by MEPs, but avoids controversial questions

New commissioner designate for the digital economy and society will be responsible for EU policy across a wide range of technology and telecoms areas

Europe’s proposed new digital czar has sailed through a European Parliament hearing to judge her fitness for the role by diplomatically sidestepping the difficult questions.

Mariya Gabriel, a Bulgarian MEP, is the new commissioner designate for the digital economy and society, after the controversial Gunther Oettinger was moved to another role halfway through his term.

The digital position wields a huge amount of power over Europe’s tech market, but Gabriel was evasive on tough questions about encryption backdoors and content filtering, preferring to highlight her experience as a compromise builder and emphasising the need for “dialogue”.

Despite her as-yet unconfirmed position, Gabriel stuck rigidly to the European Commission line on all subjects. “I will react based on my mandate, and I will react based on the competencies of the Commission,” she said, frustrating European Parliament members who were keen to hear her own thoughts and opinions.

On many big business issues, Gabriel was notably on the same page as European Commission vice-president Andrus Ansip, who will be her boss in the new role. When it comes to regulating internet platforms or intermediaries, Gabriel, like Ansip, seems to favour a hands-off approach.

“Within our dialogue with platforms, there is more space for voluntary measures,” she said, adding that as with competition questions, a case-by-case approach was better than heavy-handed regulation.

“I will not control, but better understand how algorithms [such as Google] work,” said the commissioner designate, before again referring to the need for compromise and “further discussions”.

Referring to blockchain, Conservative MEP Ashley Fox also encouraged her to “adopt a wait-and-see approach so that we politicians don’t ruin new technologies”. Gabriel’s response was unenlightening. “I don’t see new technologies as a threat, but we have principles and values at EU level,” she said.

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Big data, supercomputers and artificial intelligence (AI) were all mentioned as being “very important”, without any real indication of what Gabriel thinks should be done at a legislative level. However, she did say clearly that she would continue the work of Oettinger and Ansip on proposals such as Wifi4eu, and that there would be new targeted initiatives on cyber security, including proposals for certification standards and labelling.

She said that although she supported Ansip’s position on ending geoblocking, there were currently no plans to get rid of the territoriality principle in audiovisual licensing.

The two areas where Gabriel was repeatedly quizzed by MEPs were encryption and copyright reform – both major sources of controversy within the European Parliament.

Liberal Estonian MEP Kaja Kallas said the potential of the digital age would be lost if users could not trust encryption, and asked the commissioner designate what measures she would take to safeguard it.

Once again, Gabriel said that encryption without any backdoors was “very important”. Kallas pushed harder, asking whether Gabriel would commit to making backdoors illegal. She replied that legal access should take place only within very limited conditions of national security and should be “consistent with other pieces of legislation”.

No to backdoors

German Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda was frustrated by the seemingly contradictory nature of this statement. “You say no to backdoors, but that legal access should be allowed,” she said. Reda also took issue with Gabriel’s evasiveness.

On the topic of copyright, German MEP Sabine Verheyen wanted to know whether the new commissioner would “take more measures to eradicate piracy”. Gabriel replied that she was “very attached to cultural diversity”, that “culture in Europe needs to be preserved” and that “artists should be remunerated for their work”.

Reda thought this was another “non-answer”. “Of course we all agree artists should be fairly compensated,” she said, before asking where Gabriel stood on content filters and whether they constituted general monitoring and so were against EU law. 

“I am aware that there are points where our positions will not translate into a top-down approach,” said Gabriel. “I have formed an opinion, but we need dialogue and compromise.”

Gabriel’s diplomatic position may have frustrated many outspoken MEPs, but others will welcome her non-controversial approach. MEPs will have to approve her appointment, but given that the largest groups in the European Parliament have already thrown their weight behind her, the hearing is little more than a rubber-stamping exercise.

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