Malta is a “strong player in the ICT field” which can provide a “strong lead across Europe” in the coming years, according to Robert Madelin, director general for communications networks, content and technology in the European Commission.

Mr Madelin was in Malta this month and in a joint interview with i-Tech and the University of Malta radio station Campus FM gave an update on the EU’s ambitious Digital Agenda and Malta’s progress in the ICT sector.

His visit came a few months after the general election in Malta and a change in Administration.

“One of the focal points of my visit on this occasion was to meet the new actors and hear their views on where they want to go in the next few years. The numbers put Malta in a reasonably good position. I don’t detect, sitting in Brussels, any immediate change of course, but if you look beyond next year when we change the European Commission and the European Parliament, you see also the Maltese presidency of the European Council on horizon. These are all opportunities, given that Malta is quite a strong player in the ICT field for the government of the day to give a strong lead across Europe.”

In 2010, the European Commission launched the so-called Digital Agenda with ambitious goals in the field of ICT that have to be reached by the year 2020. He explained in which areas the targets are being met and where more effort is needed at both the European level and in Malta, where according to Mr Madelin, our country stands in the middle of the path.

“We are on track in the targets that we needed to achieve quickly like getting 95 per cent coverage of basic broadband speeds in Europe but we now need to go for the missing five per cent, which does not include places like Malta, but the sparse or mountainous regions where the needs are for different communication solutions like satellite, outnet radio etc. Underneath that we have some 2020 goals to get really high-speed broadband. There it’s moving slower but Malta is in a way lucky with its cable and telcos in place, so your coverage is better than average. We are on track in getting the basic infrastructure in place but the biggest problems are ahead.

“The second challenge which is central to the 2020 agenda is getting everybody online. There again, Malta is in the middle of the path. The big challenge is not so much the corporate use of internet but getting people online for e-commerce and e-government. For e-government we’re launching, under the new budget next year, the Connecting Europe facility to accelerate the installation across Europe of what we call ‘digital service infrastructures’ to made sure you’ve got an e-ID and you can do e-procurement everywhere so that even from a more peripheral member state you can bid for contracts across the EU.”

To make sure the goals are reached the European Commission is continuously embarking on initiatives that promote ICT as a crucial factor in economic growth and providing better standard of living for European citizens. Mr Madelin explained how: “The most important thing we are doing this autumn is preparing to spend over €1 billion a year going up from where we are in terms of research and innovation today to be at the cutting edge in different aspects of ICT, from designing the next microchips to quantum cryptography, the next generation of computers, driverless cars, electric cars, the whole work.

“The second thing, which the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes has launched, is a Startup Europe manifesto, and it’s really exciting. The message is to try to get more entrepreneurs to start, scale-up or stay in Europe. The agenda is very broad but the focus is the start-up entrepreneurship. As we come out of recession let’s use the ICT sector, innovate, grow and create some new jobs.”

One of the hottest topics that obviously came up during the interview was the issue of data privacy and security in the wake of the revelations by Edward Snowden on the American data snooping programme.

“The idea of legal interception has existed since we invented the telephone. What’s the issue here is not so much whether interception happens but whether there is democratic oversight and whether the authorised interception is in keeping with the agreed rules. Europe didn’t start being assertive when Snowden started going to the media. We had already negotiated with our US counterparts the Safe Harbour agreement, which is a safe harbour for our data, and if that agreement has been breached, we would need to re-enforce the harbour, and that is what Viviane Reading (European Commissioner vice-president responsible for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship) is doing.” The concept being defended by the EU is one of respect for the EU’s jurisdiction in data and the EU is discussing these issues with the US.

“I am pretty confident we’ll make progress though there will be tough negotiations but it’s in the interest of both sides of the Atlantic to keep the global internet economy open for business, and that’s the crucial goal,” warns Mr Madelin.

While reasserting the EU’s stance that defends the integrity of European data, he also launched a call to individual users and businesses to do their share to make internet more secure.

“I think the internet is sometimes used by individuals and companies like a car with no brakes. We have not worked out how to stop it, like for example I give a PC to my son or daughter, they install it in the bedroom, but there is no anti-virus filter or I haven’t updated it for three years. I’m an SME, I don’t have a business continuity plan if everything crashes whether it’s for a thunderstorm or cuts to a cable while digging up the street. Basic resilience is crucial if we don’t want the internet-enabled world to crash.”

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