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On an August day in 1914, the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street in Cleveland Ohio saw a new piece of technology installed; one that would change the city forever. And not just the city of Cleveland – it would soon appear in every city in the world. It was the world’s first electric traffic light.
Of course, it was invented as a response to a major technological disruption. The automobile caused a revolution in how public space was used. The traffic light was the centrepiece in a new system of rules and devices which brought order to the chaos. These ‘rules of the road’ remain with us today.
A hundred years later, we are witnessing a new kind of revolution. Like the invention of the car, digital technology expands our horizons and improves our lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how much our lives depend on digital technologies. It has accelerated the digital transition. But we have also seen that as the digital traffic increases, things can become chaotic, just like on busy city streets.
This calls for new digital practices - road markings and traffic lights that make the busy junctions of online public space reliable and safe for all users of the digital road. Now as back then, this is about people; making sure technology improves our quality of life.
The Berlin Declaration is a traffic light for the digital age. It lays out the digital road to enable us to stand for a digital future that is fair and inclusive.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: Technology is there to serve humans, not the other way around. This is especially true when we think about privacy, a fundamental right to be protected both online and offline. Europe is setting the gold standard for rules for personal data protection.
As our lives shift increasingly into digital space, the fundamental rights might take on new forms –like the right to be forgotten for instance.
It’s clear that digital platforms have a lot of responsibility in enforcing these rights. They need to be held fully accountable for how they use personal data. We also need platforms to take their share of responsibility in stamping out illegal content or activities. And we need their commitment in the fight to stop the spread of disinformation, which can damage our democracies. Our job is to provide the necessary framework in which they can act responsibly.
Most important of all, we need to do a better job protecting our children – from online bullying; from inappropriate content, exploitation and cyber-addiction.
It’s sometimes easy to forget when you work at a computer all day, but many Europeans are still quite anxious about accessing digital space. They worry about security and privacy; they also worry about keeping pace with new features and apps. All these things create obstacles to public acceptance, which hinder Europe’s efforts to stay on the digital frontier. We need positive actions to overcome them.
It’s not just a question of managing the digital transition. It’s more fundamental than that. Social justice and inclusion are among the core objectives of the European Union. So as more and more of our activities move to the digital space, digital inclusion and ensuring our European rights and values are respected becomes an increasingly important part of our overall promise to Europe’s people. This is why it is so important that the Berlin Declaration begins with rights and values, and follows immediately with social inclusion.
That also reflects our shared policy approach in this area so far. You see this in the Web Accessibility Directive, which builds on a right-based approach in order to harmonise the Single Market for web accessibility and foster digital inclusion. Evaluating the Directive’s implementation will be an important part of our work on digital accessibility in the coming months and years.
Another part is financial commitment, and that can come in many forms, to help ensure we bridge the digital divide across Europe’s regions.
Whether as road users or as road engineers, building more inclusive public spaces online means equipping Europeans with the right skills. That is why we adopted the Digital Education Action Plan. And this is the reason the Digital Skills and Jobs Platform will bring together the various certifications and national actions in this area - a one-stop-shop for digital skills.
In 2017, the Tallinn Declaration paved the way for high quality digital public services, centred on the user and seamless access across borders. The Berlin Declaration also affirms the need for the public sector to lead by example, and I couldn’t agree more. eGoverment – or mGovernment, if you prefer – has the potential to improve the quality and accessibility of public services. It can also foster public accountability and improve transparency, and these are things we know lead to higher economic growth in the long run.
But for that to work, we need greater public trust. And that, in turn, means ensuring the citizen has control of her own data, both online and offline.
Giving control to the citizen is the starting point for our thinking on the new European e-identity. When I think of what such a system could look like, I imagine a young Danish person, on her way to start an exciting new life in Ireland. Even before she leaves Copenhagen, she has already used her e-ID to sign the lease on her new apartment in Dublin. The same ID works for getting the tax registration she needs to start her new job; and if she wants, it can be used for a car sharing scheme to pick up her new furniture. So the new European e-identity is about having control over one’s data. It is about having a trusted and cyber secure key to unlock access to public or private services, anywhere in Europe.
We have more work to do to make this vision a reality.
The COVID crisis has only increased the need for us to act. I think we are all between COVID fatigue and an anxiety about our health and future. The effects of the crisis will stay with us for a while; some things may even get worse.
The economic forecast is not promising.
The way to react is to embrace positive visions, to show citizens that we can work together on solutions that lift us out of the crisis and make us better off than before.
That is the promise of a new Digital Europe. It’s why at least 20% of the EU’s recovery plan will be dedicated to digital transition. This amounts to more than € 134 billion – a lot of money, but actually it is only a fraction of the overall investment needed. The trick is to leverage this stimulus, by making best use of EU programmes and unlocking private investment.
A key area where the public sector adds value is in modernising public administration and services.
eHealth is a good example of what we can do. Even before COVID, our health systems were under pressure due to population ageing. eHealth can be part of the answer, delivering safer care, closer to the patient’s community, while at the same time increasing sustainability when budgets are tight.
This comes back to trust. Patients have to accept that these systems are safe, and that their vital health data is safe too. This is why the proposal for a Data Governance Act, which we published last month, is so important.
We also need the public sector to set the pace on the roll out of Artificial Intelligence. Governments can lead by example in demonstrating how AI-powered solutions can be employed in a trustworthy, transparent and ethical manner. AI is something that will fundamentally change how public services are delivered across a range of areas. By the way, this includes the traffic light: Smart cities can use AI to programme the signals and optimise the flow of traffic, saving commuters time and drastically cutting carbon emissions.
But Artificial Intelligence raises its own ethical concerns. The last thing we want are algorithms that undermine our European values or reinforce discrimination. What’s important is setting the appropriate regulatory framework – one that protects against abuses and safeguards our values, while still leaving space for innovation.
It would be nice to think that these enormous changes can be managed with a simple, single change in our policies, like switching a traffic light from red to green. Of course, we are dealing with complex systems, so in reality there are no easy answers.
The Berlin Declaration reflects the complexity of the challenge, while at the same time making clear what the end goal is: an inclusive digital society that builds on the rules and practices we have already developed in the non-virtual world.
In this way, we stay anchored in our European values, but we also set new rules for a new kind of public space. Digital traffic lights to stop certain practices and allow others to proceed better.
The public sector can lead by example. We can ensure our contribution to this exciting time of change is not only positive, but is in fact innovative.
The debate on e-Government started in Tallinn, we hold it today in Berlin and it will continue in Lisbon.
It’s a discussion that is taking place all over the world. Probably even in Cleveland, Ohio!