Is Europe fit for the digital age whilst the internet remains inaccessible for millions of Europeans?

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

The future is digital. The now is digital – an internet of things awaits us all, but, when cost and network coverage still remain key challenges for many across the European Union, we have to ask if Europe is genuinely fit for the digital age?

The Commission’s response is to create a regulatory framework for data governance, access and re-use; support the development of technological systems and cutting-edge infrastructure; improve competences in society and business; and build European data spaces in at least nine sectors (industry, Green Deal, mobility, health, finance, energy, agriculture, public administration and skills). These ambitious gaols are part of the European Union’s second priority a ‘Europe fit for a digital age’.

In February 2020, the European Commission outlined its overarching approach towards shaping Europe’s digital future with three key objectives: technology that works for people; a fair and competitive economy; and an open, democratic and sustainable society. The Commission also introduced a European vision for the data economy as part of its data strategy in which there will be a single market for data. Data will flow between countries and sectors with clear rules for data access and use, whilst being in full respect of European values and legislation. 

The European data, introduced in November 2020, has the aim of improving voluntary data sharing within and across common European data spaces. The Commission believes that by enhancing trust in ‘data intermediaries’, those who could organise data spaces as trusted third parties, and by supporting the development of standards relating to the means of the data exchange, voluntary data sharing would be better facilitated. A rights on data has yet to be discussed and is on the agenda for late 2021. 

The Commission has also adopted two proposals as part of the digital services act package. The ‘digital services act’ (DSA) addresses the societal risks of digital markets, and more specifically of very large platforms, and the need for more accountability for the content those providers make available on their platforms. The ‘digital markets act’ (DMA) addresses risks to competition, conduct and fairness in digital markets. It includes new ex-ante rules for gatekeepers and a new supervisory framework at EU level. 

A legislative proposal for a ‘Digital Compass’, a governance framework including a set of digital targets for 2030, grouped in four ‘cardinal points’ ; skills, digital infrastructure, digital transformation of businesses, and digitalisation of public services; and a monitoring system measuring the EU’s progress was also announced in March this year.

Still a major confusion, with further transparency desperately needed for European civil society and citizens, artificial intelligence (AI) will have a framework for development created based on excellence and trust. The legislative proposal aims at safeguarding fundamental EU values and rights and user safety, by compelling high-risk AI systems to meet requirements related to their trustworthiness.

As an umbrella over all things digital, the cybersecurity strategy for the digital decade will focus on resilience, technological sovereignty and leadership, operational capacity to prevent, deter and respond, and a global and open cyberspace. The Commission has also presented a proposal for a directive on measures for a high common level of cybersecurity across the Union.

From a civil society perspective, there are nuggets of treasure which the Commission plans to unveil as part of its digital agenda. A new industrial strategy for Europe, already launched in March 2020, supports industrial transformation through making the single market ‘deeper and more digital’, upholding a global level playing field, supporting industry move forward towards climate neutrality and a more circular economy, promoting industrial innovation, improving skills, and facilitating financing. A strategy for small and medium-sized enterprises, which focuses on capacity-building and support for the transition to sustainability and digitalisation, cutting red tape, and improving market access and access to finance. An update of the industrial strategy has been announced to take into account the impacts of the pandemic crisis, the changing global competitive context, and the acceleration of the green and digital transitions. 

At the same time, the Commission also adopted a report on barriers to the single market and a single market enforcement action plan, followed by a white paper on levelling the playing field as regards foreign subsidies. In September 2020, a digital finance package was adopted which included a digital finance strategy and a and a retail payments strategy for the EU. A unified EU approach on crypto-assets and digital ledger technology (DLT), as well as regulation on markets in crypto-assets (MiCA), have also been put forward. Proposals to prevent and mitigate cyber-threats: a proposal for a regulation on digital operational resilience for the financial sector and a proposal for a directive to clarify or amend certain related EU financial services rules have also been introduced.

In September 2020 the digital education action plan 2021-2027 and a communication on a new European research area for research and innovation (ERA) were announced. The new ERA will prioritise investment towards the green and digital transition and the recovery, strengthen the mobility of researchers, knowledge and technology, boost market uptake of research and innovation results, and improve access to excellence for researchers across the EU.

From the citizens perspective, whilst the people benefit from all of the above, the visible direct benefit is less obvious. Accessibility and cost, whether stationary or roaming, remain key obstacles for many, something the pandemic exposed when it it came to the education of young people or keeping connected with the elderly. Under the recovery plan for Europe, Member States have committed to dedicate at least 20 % of recovery and resilience plan funding to the digital transformation, however, such fundamental barriers as cost and accessibility for all should not still be an issue for a modern developed continent in the current digital age. 

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