New EU digi-commish struggles with concepts of net neutrality

Oettinger all about the infrastructure – but not big on substance

Comment The incoming EU Commissioner for all things digital, Günther Oettinger, was quizzed by the European Parliament on Monday night. Truthfully, most of the questions lacked teeth.

While the answers to his written questions were bland and lacking in any real content, Oettinger seemed to have decided that saying “infrastructure” over and over again in the oral hearing would make him sound authoritative.

However when, more than two hours into the hearing, he was finally asked a question about network security by UK Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope, Oettinger seemed not to understand the question – and instead started talking about the importance of data protection laws, a completely different subject.

In response to early questions about net neutrality, Oettinger talked about a stage-by-stage solution, but failed to clarify what he meant when asked what exactly he understands by net neutrality. Instead, he offered to explain it at a later date.

Austrian MEP Michel Reimon, who asked the question, was unimpressed, and said: “With net neutrality you have to get it right, right away, you cannot achieve it in pieces.”

There is already a draft law on net neutrality protections on the table, and Oettinger says he has no problems with it, adding, “We have to do everything we can so that no one is disadvantaged when they go on the net” – whatever that means.

Oettinger said the “rules of net neutrality can only be departed from when there is a public interest,” later arguing that “culture is a public interest.” Expect lobby groups to spin what this means in the coming days.

He also swerved multiple questions about surveillance, and he did not answer a query on the use of open-source software. However, he was very keen on copyright reform, as well as his beloved infrastructure, saying many times that the European Commission was working on a proposal, and that he looked forward to bringing that reform to the fore in due course. He would not be drawn on what would be contained within that proposal, but did say: “Culture cannot be measured in purely economic terms.”

Let's use the cloud!

He said there were no plans to make any proposals on big data or cloud computing in the next year, but said he wants the European Commission to use cloud-based services, leading some to worry if he really understands the risks and security issues associated with cloud.

In the most provocative question of the night, fellow German MEP Martin Sonneborn asked Oettinger about the right to be forgotten, and asked if the Commissioner-designate would like some of his own past misdemeanors deleted – such as having his driving licence suspended for drink driving 25 years ago.

Oettinger parried this surprisingly well, saying that although he believes the "right to be forgotten" is basic human right, if something is in the public interest, it shouldn’t be deleted from search results, and politicians like himself will just have to live with that.

Oettinger got irate only once, and it was in response to suggestions from Portuguese MEP Marisa Matias that he favors big business over citizens. However the answer seemed to suggest that the most important thing was, you guessed it, infrastructure.

On privacy controls, he said that “effective data protection is only possible at EU level” and when it comes to handing data over to the US: "Member states have to know where the limits to cooperation are." As expected he also confirmed his commitment to continuing with the Connected Continent legislative package put forward by his predecessor Neelie Kroes.

“I’m here to win you over,” Oettinger told the assembled politicians, and it is likely that he has managed to convince most members of the European Parliament of his suitability for the job. Those outside the chamber remain much more skeptical of his understanding of the key issues. ®

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