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Give change a chance!

The European Commission and the Internet

After a long period of considerable passive resistance to the Internet, it is striking to see how the European Commission has quickly come to understand some of the essential issues involved. At least, that is the impression given by a number of their recent official publications which, for the most part, have been very good. Take the communication entitled Illegal and harmful content on the Internet - COM(96) 487 - which was written in reply to a request on the part of the EU Telecommunications Council for information about specific problems of illegal and harmful content on the Internet and short term propositions to solve them. The Communication adopts a critical, well-balanced approach to the question, weighing up the need to combat illegal and harmful material against the need to defend freedom of speech and above all the free circulation of goods and services within the Union.

Open for consultation

A second document, the European Commission's Green Paper on The Protection of Minors and Human Dignity in Audio-visual and Information Services, is open for consultation and should lead to the formulation of possible medium and long term measures. The document is available on the Internet, but, even for those who know their way around Commission Web sites, it can hardly be called accessible! Despite efforts of organisations like ISPO, I'M Europe and CORDIS, information about the European Commission and the Information Society is still very hard to find, often too late or simply unobtainable on Official EU Web Sites.

Those long-armed men and women haunting the Commission

This situation may partly be explained by the fact that the European Commission still thinks very much in terms of traditional consultation methods using high-level expert bodies, pan-European associations and established interest groups. The familiar faces of those long-armed men and women with their over-sized briefcases roaming from one Commission building to another must have a reassuring effect on Commission officials. Reassuring and predictable, if not controllable. At the same time, some officials willingly confide that they yearn for new faces and new ideas although they hasten to add that the possibility of changing things is very limited. A considerable paradigm shift is required if the Commission is to make the most of the more direct forms of democracy offered by the Internet. Understandably, the vision of the potential loss of influence on the part of those organisations currently camping around the Commission in Brussels adds to the resistance to change.

Promotional smog

As far as the Commission's information about its own activities and the Information Society is concerned, the documents are often couched in a promotional language that, rather than making what is written more appetising, makes everything frankly indigestible. Promotion is often mistakenly substituted for significant content. Do we as readers really need to be convinced that all that Commission does is marvellous and faultless? That is not what we what to know. Wouldn't it be refreshing if the Commission adopted the same well-balanced, critical attitude to its own activities that it has been using recently in its communications and green papers about external issues?

Informational yo-yo

The day-to-day use of the Internet within the Commission is still far from setting an example of what the Commission likes to call "best practices". Despite top-level public commitment to a generalised move to the Information Society, the Commission in its own activities seems extremely hesitant to take a resolute step in the right direction. Beyond the basic question of the insufficiency of the infrastructure and the pitiful equipment of many Commission employees, the major problem lies with corporate culture, rigid hierarchy and chronic compartmentalisation. Information within the Commission, for example, undergoes an incessant yo-yo movement between top officials and those who carry out the work before it is made public. No room is left for approximation. No room for error. None for doubt. Each statement is seen as final and binding. In such circumstance, it is understandable that it is not an easy task to create a comprehensive Web site that reflects on-going Commission activities in the field of the Information Society in a timely, lively, informative and critical way. It is not easy either to set up an intranet between Commission staff even though increased horizontal communication would do away with much wastefulness. As for sounding outsiders' opinions about future Commission projects, consultation is severely hampered by the need to finalise projects before making them public.

Taking the initiative for change

There are indications that the advent of the Information Society itself is forcing the Commission to modify its corporate culture as, for example, increasing transdisciplinary activities require closer collaboration between Directorate Generals that hitherto officially had nothing more than strictly formal contacts with each other. Unfortunately, in being subjected to change rather than taking the initiative, the Commission runs the risk of loosing the added advantages that go to the enterprising and the innovators. It is a shame. With the quality of the people working for it and the money invested in it the Commission could do much better.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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Created: November 13th, 1996 - Last up-dated: November 13th, 1996