The EESC assesses Europe's "third way" to digitalisation

With the Declaration of Digital Rights and Principles and the Data Act, the EU is taking two more steps towards the creation of a digital space that puts people at its centre, a debate at the EESC's June plenary highlighted.

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on 15 June hosted at its plenary session a debate on digital rights and principles with Professor Andrea Renda, senior research fellow and head of Global Governance, Regulation, Innovation and the Digital Economy at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). The debate was linked to the adoption of the EESC opinions on the draft European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles and the Data Act.

Opening the debate, EESC president Christa Schweng highlighted the fast growth of the data economy, which according to European Commission projections will reach EUR 829 billion by 2025 in the EU27, which is why the two pieces of legislation under consideration are so important if Europe hopes to stay competitive globally while protecting its democracy and people's privacy.

Digital principles such as internet access for all, a secure online space and the creation of algorithms that respect people are essential, she said. Our top priority is to promote and uphold EU values in the digital space. We must see digital rights and principles as an opportunity for Europe and for businesses of all sizes. Indeed, it is our chance to defend and promote our vision of a fair and ethical digital transformation.

Prof. Renda expressed support for the Declaration of Digital Rights and Principles and for the Data Act as two pieces of the puzzle of the EU regulatory system (which includes, among others, the AI Act, the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act and the Data Governance Act) being put together. This system constituted an alternative to both the US system, dominated by private governance at the hands of giant corporations, and the State-controlled Chinese system, where the data acquired by large tech giants has become a tool of mass government surveillance.

Prof. Renda explained that this "third-way" model was based on ideas such as user-centric digital services, an inclusive digital environment which requires skills, empowerment and access to connectivity, freedom of choice, pluralism, participation and the prevention of manipulation by individuals.

We have these ideas of safety and security, which require not only more responsible individuals and private companies, but also sharper and more powerful governments that have the tools to look into what is safe and secure and what is about to evolve into something that is not, he said. And we talk about sustainability – not only environmental, but also increasingly economic and social sustainability, because the model we've seen until now is economically and socially unsustainable.

Digital rights and principles: a great step forward

Committing the European Union to digital rights and principles is highly relevant to address the still prevalent digital divide, particularly when it comes to access to online public services and private services for aging and rural populations, said Philip von Brockdorff, rapporteur of the EESC opinion on the draft Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles.

He also emphasised that the declaration should support sustainable development in its entirety, not just insofar as environmental objectives are concerned, but also in regard to social sustainability, minimising the harmful effects of digital technologies and maximising their potential and positive impact on the economy and society.

The Data Act: addressing citizens' legitimate concerns

Presenting the EESC opinion on the Data Act, rapporteur Marinel Dănuț Muresan compared the impact of the Data Act to that of land laws on the way people own and use land. He stressed the need to address civil society legitimate concerns: The security of EU citizens is very important. Each stakeholder needs to have access. We have to develop data centres that follow the rules on cyber security, ensure that there is continuous professional training for everybody who processes data and fair access for all stakeholders and particularly SMEs.

The EESC opinions will soon be available on the EESC website.