E-commerce: the needle in the DSM haystack?

On Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, Catherine Armitage takes a look at e-commerce in the EU and asks, is online shopping the key to the Digital Single Market?

Today is Black Friday – the biggest day in the e-commerce calendar. It started out as an American phenomenon, marking the busiest shopping day of the year (falling on the day after Thanksgiving) and signalling the start of the Christmas shopping period. However, over recent years Black Friday has spread across the Atlantic and retailers across Europe are now embracing Black Friday too. It’s not only Black Friday – there’s also ‘Cyber Monday’ which takes place next Monday.Wikipedia tells us this was actually invented as a ‘marketing term’ to encourage people to shop online. Online shoppers in France are currently seeing advertisements for ‘Cyber Week’ on e-commerce sites, and Amazon in the UK is announcing a full week of ‘Black Friday deals’.

So, on this momentous day (or, rather, week) for the e-commerce world, it seems appropriate to write this blog post about e-commerce in the EU and the Digital Single Market.

The European Commission’s Digital Single Market (DSM) strategy is increasingly looking more and more like it’s all about e-commerce. This is no surprise to many, like me, who have been excitedly following the DSM since the strategy was launched 6 months ago. The strategy document itself has a short ‘e-commerce’ section, which only appears to cover consumer protection. But a careful reading of the full document reveals that e-commerce is at the heart of the Commission’s DSM strategy. Online consumer protection is a start, but there is much more that could have a profound effect on any businesses that buy, sell or trade online.

Geo-blocking, for example, is all about e-commerce – now that it’s not about copyright (see my previous blog post on geo-blocking). Companies that use geo-localisation techniques to offer shoppers relevant information based on their location will need to persuade policymakers at the Commission why this is a positive, useful way of helping consumers navigate e-commerce websites. And they’ll need to show how this compares to the offline world.

The Commission’s ‘comprehensive assessment of the role of platforms’ announced in the DSM strategy will also touch on e-commerce sites, as well as services which enable online payments. In the public consultation on platforms, which was launched in September, the Commission mentions specific online market places (Amazon, eBay, Allegro, Booking.com) and payment systems (PayPal, Apple Pay). There are also measures which impact the whole ecosystem of online shopping, such as parcel delivery and harmonising VAT across the EU. Anyone working in the retail sector today will know just how much these two things can help or hinder selling online across the EU.

Finally, for any e-commerce sites which allow vendors to sell on their platforms, the Commission is looking at changing the rules on ‘mere conduit’, which would mean that in the future e-retailers could be required to actively police third-party listings on their sites and remove any content which breaches copyright rules – both for virtual goods (e.g. films, music) and physical goods (e.g. fake designer handbags).

So, even though only 1 out of the 15 sections of the DSM strategy is labelled ‘e-commerce’, online shopping is the thread that runs through a huge part of the Commission’s ambitions to create a true digital single market. To make it clearer, the team at Fleishman Hillard have developed a useful timeline which brings together all the e-commerce elements from the different bits of the DSM. As you can see, there’s a lot to digest. The DSM has the potential to fundamentally change the e-commerce landscape in the EU over the next five years. So, to all those who say the DSM is complicated, I say not at all – it’s simple. It’s all about shopping.


Catherine Armitage