Devouring the Digital Single Market

This is the preface to Netopia’s upcoming report European Digital Consumers – Do We Have Rights in the Age of Free?. More details and launch event here.

Devouring the Digital Single Market

Consume – from Latin consūmere: to devour

Netopia has covered the policy-making around the digital single market vision since it was first articulated by the Juncker Commission in 2014. This has made for many intriguing questions, debates and angles. Besides the drama around fake news, dominant platforms and cyber-crime, this writer has been fascinated by the emphasis on digital consumers. Not citizens (or “netizens” as they were called in the early days of the internet) with rights and obligations, actors in their own right. But consumers, whose right is to be satisfied and whose return is money (or in many cases personal data). These consumers were expected to demand services offered in other member states, kept from them by rigid business models or whatever reason.

To consume is to devour. Once something has been devoured, it is gone, exhausted. Consummated. (Perhaps some bones remain.) Do we devour digital services? Or is consume too narrow a perspective? Considering that another current policy concerns the protection of personal data, the traditional perspective on the consumer as one paying in return for a good or service does not give the complete view. Also, as users of online services, we may have obligations that go beyond the traditional consumer. A lot of what we do online is connected to speech, information, action – words that don’t really fit the consumer mold. And the platforms that provide so many of the digital services, do they really treat us as consumers? Or more like a raw material for data? A consumer is also a client. And the client is always right, as you know. But that is rarely the case with the take-it-or-leave-it terms and conditions for digital services. If we’re lucky to find customer support, it is rare to be treated like a client, and in most cases we are referred to online forms and FAQs rather than personal service.

Thoughts such as these inspired Netopia to ask Peter Warren and Future Intelligence to take a closer look at the concept of the digital consumer. This report is the result. I hope you will enjoy reading it. Perhaps you will even devour it.