Select Committee on European Union Written Evidence

eEurope Section 7—eParticipation for the disabled

  39.  OFTEL warmly welcomes the recognition that digital technologies offer the opportunity to help overcome the social exclusion experienced by some disabled people but, equally, that the problems that some disabled users experience in accessing and using these technologies need to be addressed.

  40.  Given the overlap between disabled and elderly users and the ageing of the European population OFTEL believes that there is a potentially huge market for products aimed at people with disabilities and that, as a general rule, the quality design of a "Design-for-All" product enhances its appeal to the general population, ie there is no trade-off but a win-win.

  41.  OFTEL welcomes the Commission's commitment to ensuring disabled-friendly standards. However the traditionally consensual approach to telecoms standardisation may not be appropriate given the radically different market driven de facto standardisation procedures of the IT world. Market players therefore need to recognise the special needs of disabled people and ensure that these are factored into product development and standard-setting.


The European Commission and Member States should review the relevant legislation and standards programmes dealing with the Information Society, with a view to ensuring their conformity with accessibility principles and accelerating standardisation processes.

  42.  OFTEL looks forward to participating in this exercise. However it is worth noting that standards programmes no longer tend to be national.

The European Commission will propose a Recommendation to Member States to take account of the requirements of people with disabilities in the procurement of information and communications products and services.

  43.  OFTEL awaits the proposed Recommendation with interest.


The European Commission and Member States should commit themselves to making the design and content of all public websites accessible to people with disabilities.

  44.  OFTEL welcomes the principle, and indeed one of the objectives of work currently underway on OFTEL's own website is to improve accessibility for the partially-sighted. There is already a large amount of information available in the UK on good website design, from the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) and the Employers' Disability Forum.


The European Commission will support the creation of a Network of Centres of Excellence, at least one in each Member State, that will develop a European curriculum module in Design-for-All to train designers and engineers.

  45.  OFTEL supports the promotion of the Design-for-All approach and welcomes this target.

Question 3: Will codes of conduct and co-regulation provide sufficient protection? Is there a case for intervention by national governments and the EU?

  46.  Regulation should be as light touch as possible—alternatives to formal regulation such as co-regulation or self-regulation should be considered wherever possible, although there may be cases where some formal or informal regulatory action is needed to protect consumers' interests. Nevertheless there will be issues to address. As the e-commerce report makes clear, there is a broader policy of building trust. Regulation can help, but should not stifle innovation.

  47.  OFTEL already works closely with the industry, through regular meeting with key industry bodies. There are some examples of industry bodies working together on Internet issues [descriptions edited from information on their websites]:

    ——Nominet UK is the national registry for all Internet Domain Names ending in .uk. Each country needs a central registry to store the unique names used on the Internet and their associated numeric addresses. Nominet UK is a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee. Thus it has no shareholders, pays no dividends and its charges only cover its running costs. Anyone or any organisation with an interest in the Internet may become a member. The several hundred members are mainly, but not exclusively, drawn from the Internet industry.

    ——The London Internet Exchange is a neutral peering point, which facilitates the interconnection between Internet backbone providers. It therefore promotes competition by lowering barriers (infrastructure costs) for new entrants. LINX also performs some regulatory and public policy activities on behalf of its members.

    ——The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) was launched in 1996 by PIPEX to address the problem of illegal material on the Internet, with particular reference to child pornography. It is an independent organisation to implement the proposals jointly agreed by the Government, the police, the two major UK service provider trade associations, ISPA and LINX. Whilst content is not within OFTEL's remit, the IWF is an example of co-regulation.

    ——ISPA was established in 1995 to represent Internet Services Providers in the UK. It aims to promote the interests of Internet Services Providers and campaign for safe use of the Internet in a competitive market. Over 90 companies involved in the provision of Internet services in the UK are members of ISPA UK. ISPA represents around 90 per cent of the UK dial-up market at present.

    ——The OFTEL Internet forum was established to improve information flow between OFTEL, the industry and consumers. It meets regularly to discuss various issues, and has in the past addressed such topics as unsolicited e-mail, Local Loop Unbundling, barriers to e-commerce and the cost of Internet access. It is an open consultation forum that provides for open policy debate.

  48.  OFTEL's interest in the Internet is primarily in relation to access by other providers and consumers to the Internet over telecoms networks. This focus on access issues stems from OFTEL's role, in effect, of managing the change from monopoly to effective competition in the fixed link telecoms market segment given BT's powerful position.

  49.  OFTEL's approach to new market segments is to start without any assumption that sector-specific regulation is necessary. Only where there appears to be the potential for a player with market power, in an existing regulated telecoms market segment, leveraging that power into a new market segment, would OFTEL consider the need for formal regulation in the new area.

  50.  In such circumstances, there would be a choice of the most appropriate form of regulation ie:

    —  formal regulation; or

    —  co-regulation; or

    —  self-regulation; or

    —  effective competition.

  51.  Effective competition is the best regulator in most circumstances. Where it is not present or, in some exceptional cases even if it is present but does not address specific consumer needs, then scope for self or co-regulation needs to be considered before there is a recourse to formal regulation.

  52.  Self-regulation is initiated by stakeholders other than the regulator, involves both users and suppliers, needs to focus on outcomes of benefit to consumers and should be able to respond more rapidly to changing circumstances than formal regulation. Given the fast-moving nature of the Internet and Internet access, the potential scope for self-regulation is significant. The role for OFTEL in these circumstances is to monitor the effectiveness of self-regulation primarily in terms of the impact on consumers.

  53.  Co-regulation, in contrast, involves the sectoral regulator in an active role initiating or facilitating action with other stakeholders. The option of imposing more formal regulation is clearly present in co-regulation with this route being seen as the "fallback" position if the voluntary, co-regulatory route does not succeed.

  54.  OFTEL is seeking to maximise the opportunities to encourage self and co-regulation to meet consumer needs in a fast-moving market.

Question 4: Do the institutions of national governments, on the one hand, and the European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, on the other, function with sufficient flexibility and coherence to promote the EU's objectives in the field of e-commerce?

  55.  As already stated, OFTEL's role relates more to telecoms infrastructure than to many of the services, including e-commerce, that are available over it. The following comments should therefore be taken in that context.

  56.  The existing institutional framework and legislative provisions for telecoms stem largely from the so-called "1998 package" of liberalisation Directives. In seeking to end the mainly monopoly provision of telecoms services in EU Member States, this package understandably focused primarily on opening markets to competition. Nonetheless, new institutional structures were put in place, namely the Licensing Committee, the ONP Committee and the High-Level Committee of National Administrations and Regulatory Authorities. All three committees, which each meet every three to six months, are chaired by the Commission and act as fora in which regulatory developments can be discussed; the Licensing and ONP Committees also have limited comitology roles.

  57.  Some divergences of national approach have emerged since 1998, within the scope for manoeuvre permitted by the 1998 package. The different licensing regimes applicable in Member States is one such example. Partly in response to this, the National Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) for telecoms of the 15 EU Member States—along with their counterparts in Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, which are also following the EU liberalisation model—have formed an informal body known as the Independent Regulators' Group to strengthen co-operation and the exchange of best practice in regulatory issues.

  58.  The issue of the appropriate institutional structure has been identified by the Commission in its 1999 Communications Review. This is addressed in response to the next question.

    Institutions of national governments—UK market:

  59.  In the centralised co-ordination of policy in that area, OFTEL has been taking an active role in discussions on e-commerce with other Government Departments, and will continue to contribute, through DTI, the Cabinet Office Performance and Innovation Units and other groups, to the development of policies to promote e-commerce.

  60.  OFTEL has been working with DTI on the Electronic Commerce Bill in its process through Parliament, and on the implementation of the Electronic Signatures Directive.

  61.  OFTEL is currently working with OFT to fulfil the Performance and Innovation Unit's remit to report on possible competition barriers to e-commerce. OFTEL also co-ordinates its strategy on e-commerce with the E-Envoy's Office within the Cabinet Office and with other economic Departments within Government.

Question 5: Should existing EU institutional structures be changed, or new ones created, to improve policy development and co-ordination?

  62.  As already noted, the Commission is addressing EU institutional arrangements for telecoms in its 1999 Communications Review. In its November 1999 Communication entitled Towards a new framework for electronic communications infrastructure and associated services: the 1999 Communications Review (COM (1999) 539)", it specifically proposes to replace the existing committees with a new Communications Committee (comprising the Commission and the Member States) and High-Level Communications Group (comprising the Commission and all NRAs with communications responsibilities).

  63.  OFTEL welcomes the Commission's proposals for a new Communications Committee and endorses the advisory role proposed for it in relation to nonbinding measures proposed by the Commission services. It notes the consultative role envisaged for the High-Level Communications Group in relation to European-level industry and consumer organisations and relevant advisory groups within the EU institutions. It also notes that the Group could be required to report publicly to the Council and the European Parliament on its activities every year. It welcomes these measures to enhance the transparency of the Group and would welcome their extension to include the Committee and enhancement wherever possible.

  64.  OFTEL believes that the Commission's ideas in relation to the mechanisms for developing non-binding measures need further development. Drafts of such measures need to be developed in close co-operation between the Commission and small, focused groups of experts. The High-Level Communications Group, with its much broader range of interests, is likely to be too large to play a useful part in this process; its remit should be confined to more strategic matters. The constitution of the group of experts will depend on the issue at hand, but the Independent Regulators Group would be a suitable group to invite to nominate experts in a large number of cases.

  65.  For similar reasons, the High-Level Communications Group is not a suitable vehicle for resolving cross-border disputes or considering differences of interpretation between NRAs. OFTEL believes that the Commission should discuss with the Independent Regulators Group and other pan-European regulatory bodies appropriate mechanisms for dealing with such issues.

Question 6: How can structural change be brought about fast enough to accommodate the growth of e-commerce?

  66.  The institutional reforms described above focus on the regulation of telecoms infrastructure and associated services in general rather than the promotion of e-commerce specifically. OFTEL believes that the Department of Trade and Industry is better placed to respond on this issue.

13 April 2000

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