The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) flags up the opportunities of the digital revolution but also warns of threats: if implemented too quickly, digital solutions could lead to a large part of the EU population being excluded. Digital technology must not replace the role of humans but rather complement it and, at the same time, it must be inclusive and protect vulnerable groups such as older people.
Many Europeans are not yet digitally literate and most national administrations have not yet implemented digital solutions. Making people's access to some services of general interest conditional on having a digital identity could result in a lose-lose situation: a significant number of Europeans could see their right to access these services being denied.
The EESC opinion adopted at the July plenary session and drafted by Dumitru Fornea sounds the alarm. New governance tools introduced with the digital and industrial revolution must not be oppressive and make people's daily lives contingent on having to sign up to digital technology systems that are controlled in an undemocratic way.
The advantages of digital technology solutions are obvious, said Mr Fornea.
However, their rapid implementation, especially for services of general interest such as digital identity, could lead to the exclusion of a significant number of Europeans. We must ensure that humans remain in command, with democratic control and with the involvement of civil society organisations.
Digital solutions bring benefits if they complement the role of humans
Europeans are generally keen to avail of digital technology solutions: they are often useful for streamlining administrative procedures and help with a number of other issues in everyday life. A digitally literate population can use a digital identity to benefit from simplified access to services provided by public authorities or businesses.
However, since the entry into force, in September 2018, of the section of Regulation (EU) No 910/2014 dealing with electronic identification, only 14 Member States have reported having at least one electronic identification system. This means that only 59% of EU residents have had access to secure and reliable electronic identification systems across borders and only seven systems are fully mobile, meeting current user expectations.
According to the EESC, digital technology solutions such as digital identity, digital means of payment and incorporation into virtual and augmented reality platforms should remain complementary tools and should not completely and unfairly replace other practices that have been developed and perfected by humans over thousands of years.
The EESC was the first European institution to call for the "human in command" approach when dealing with AI systems and reiterates that it is paramount for humans to have the last say and be in full control of decision-making processes when it comes to machine developments.
The Committee also points out that digital technology solutions should be subject to democratic control and that people's data should be protected by achieving EU digital sovereignty, i.e. data created in the EU should also be stored in the EU.
A fair digital society cares about vulnerable groups
Human control and human rights are therefore the two pillars of a fair digital transition.
To ensure equal access to the opportunities of digitalisation, the EU needs a strong education system, with digital literacy and digital transition schemes in place for its workforce. Specific programmes must be rolled out in all Member States, together with lifelong digital learning, vocabulary tutorials and practical training.
Digital disparities are growing between Member States and this worries the Committee, which is particularly sensitive to the lack of protection of vulnerable groups and calls once again for an EU that embraces digital inclusion where no one is left behind, with special attention paid to the older generation.
In order to move democratically towards a fair digital society that is accepted by EU citizens, in-depth involvement of civil society organisations is key.
Any initiative to integrate people into the European digital identity system should be based on impact assessments and comprehensive sociological surveys, and the final decision should only be made with people's informed and freely expressed consent.
The European Commission should carry out impact assessments on several issues: for example, the impact of digitalisation and the automation of human interaction on quality of life and working conditions, especially in terms of human relations, such as increased prevalence of loneliness, mental health issues, declining cognitive and emotional intelligence and a greater risk of social alienation.