Earlier this month, the Commission presented a document explaining their objectives for Europe’s digital transformation, based on four “cardinal points”: Skills, Government, Infrastructures and Business. How does this document fit in with the various measures that the European Union is launching to regulate companies and citizens’ rights and obligations in the digital environment? What are the main challenges to governance and freedom in the digital realm?
The disruptive potential of digital technologies has already been demonstrated in many fields. Whether the goal is to improve public health, fight terrorism, or implement mass surveillance, the digital transformation has undoubtedly changed the world’s economic and social dynamics. As was the case for printing or nuclear technologies before it, the use to which digital technologies are put depends not only upon the artificer but also the user; they have the potential both to enable social progress and fuel injustice and discrimination.
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), issued in 2016, and the more recent Open Data Directive and Digital Services Act (DSA) reflect EU commitments to ensure that technology empowers citizens and businesses to build a more inclusive and prosperous society. While these measures have and continue to affect the European digital ecosystem and beyond, much remains to be done to safeguard EU citizens as the world becomes increasingly digitised. In the highly globalised and interconnected 21st century, a comprehensive digitalisation strategy is vital to building economic and societal resilience and exercising social influence.
At the same time, digital technologies have become critical tools to authoritarian regimes in hardening control at home and undermining democracy abroad. The model of surveillance and repression that is currently pursued by many authoritarian regimes is very effective, and the recent promulgation of the “Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code” by the democratic government of India on February 25th, 2021, demonstrates that changes brought by digitalisation make it easier to set out on this path. As the latest publications on democracy indexes show, many countries are likely to follow.
Therefore, the EU must deliver a strong vision on alternative models, shaping the world’s digital transformation for the better and promoting the EU’s founding values of democracy, human dignity, freedom, and the rule of law. A high degree of internal cohesion and strong alliances with like-minded countries will be required to achieve the ambitious objective of building a global coalition around the shared vision of human-centric digitalisation.
The model for a “European Digital Decade” that commissioners Margarethe Verstager and Joseph Borell jointly presented on March 18th indicates that the European Commission is fully aware of this challenge and aims to address it through a precise strategy based on three core principles. A level playing field in digital markets is imperative to allow everyone to benefit from the new economic model. Two other “pillars” of security in cyberspace and protection of individual freedoms complete the necessary set of principles to achieve a sustainable and fair digital transformation that keeps the human factor at its centre.
The European Commission has already started its effort to provide financial resources and technical assistance to all partners willing to develop their own digital governance framework based on the same vision. The road promises to be long and fraught with hazards, considering that most data produced in the EU is stored and processed outside of the Union, implying considerable risks in terms of cybersecurity and vulnerability of supply chains. Research has shown that US companies manage roughly 90% of this data.
The other side of the coin is the struggle to ensure that an ageing population of the Union is digitally competent. The ambitious target set by the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan is to provide (at least) basic digital skills to 80% of the Union’s adult population by 2030. The digital transformation’s inclusiveness and fairness will largely depend on the EU’s effectiveness in pursuing this goal of “digital literacy”.
The next step in the European Union’s march towards a comprehensive digital strategy will be the release of Artificial Intelligence rules later this spring. The algorithms that govern their operation are based on the data sets used to build them, which suffer from the same bias and prejudices that afflict the people involved in collecting them. The topic is undoubtedly complex and is closely linked to the issue of ownership and usability of data. Legal certainty in this increasingly important area will also help make investments safer and direct research towards algorithm applications that balance the public interest with companies and investors’ profit.