EESC-EC Conference "Safeguarding fundamental rights in the digital age”

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Dear Participants,

It is my pleasure to welcome you to this Conference which the EESC organises jointly with the European Commission.

Together, we wanted to make the most of the publication in December 2021 of the latest "annual report on the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union" and to offer a space for dialogue on the topic of the report – "safeguarding fundamental rights in the digital age".

I would like to warmly greet the Director General of the European Commission Directorate General for Justice and Consumers (DG JUST) Ms Ana Gallego.

I am very happy about this cooperation on fundamental rights, because I believe that acting jointly and connecting actors is the best way to defend what unites us all – our values.

The EESC has always stood very strongly in defence of the EU's founding values. In the last years, the Committee has also developed an original “socio-economic” viewpoint, debating topics like "populism and fundamental rights", "the impact of the rule of law on growth", or " public services as stabilisers of democracy".

The topic of today's event is obviously important. It is enough to look at our room to understand the importance that the digital world has taken in our lives. I am speaking to you remotely and all registered participants are joining this discussion on line. The EESC room may look empty, but our virtual room is full! We can be grateful that digital solutions have kept us together in these challenging pandemic times.

The EESC has been a forerunner on issues related to digitalisation. We started our work on artificial intelligence – one of the two topics of this afternoon – as early as in 2017.

Since then, we have adopted 9 opinions covering the general challenges and opportunities represented by Artificial Intelligence. We have also tackled more specific aspects like the anticipation of the impact of Artificial Intelligence on jobs or the development of Artificial Intelligence in European micro, small and medium enterprises.

The EESC is fully supportive of the European Commission in developing a Human-Centric approach. We believe that it is only by putting the human at the centre, that we can avoid Artificial Intelligence from being misused to harm fundamental rights, democracy and rule of law.

But this "human-in-command" approach should not be an abstract principle. A 2020 survey by the European Consumer Organisation, showed that a majority of European citizens  - 56 % - did not trust in authorities’ capacity to effective control Artificial Intelligence, in particular as far as discrimination is concerned.

We must hear that concern. We have entered into a world where Artificial Intelligence will soon be used for many decisions having major impacts on all aspects of our lives, in areas as diverse as recruitment procedures, education, targeted political advertising, personalised information to public service users, or risk profiles in the area of insurance.

It is therefore essential that fundamental rights fully apply to Artificial Intelligence and the digital world in general. We should bring back the digital world in the remit of law, or we will risk letting develop a parallel world that will reproduce and amplify societal biases leading to unacceptable violations of human rights.

So, we look forward to hearing the invited experts on these challenges.

Beyond Artificial Intelligence, we should not forget other challenges linked with the protection of fundamental rights in the digital age, which were also highlighted in the EC annual report on the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

With the European Commission, we have chosen to also focus on the topic of "content moderation", because of the incredible importance that social media platforms are now playing in our lives. These platforms transform the way we interact amongst citizens, but also with public administrations and businesses. And we have all seen the impact that social platforms can play in relation with elections.

Here too, the EESC has been quite active by calling for stronger regulation in opinions related to disinformation, democracy and elections, the impact of COVID-19, or the extension of EU crimes to hate speech. 

The common feature to all these areas of concern is the human rights dilemma that content moderation puts to the forefront. On the one hand, it is clear that content moderation is necessary to address illegal or harmful content like hate speech and disinformation. On the other hand, we must ensure that this does not endanger freedom of expression, the right to information and privacy, the right to non-discrimination, or freedom to conduct a business.

Like for Artificial Intelligence, we do not expect to exhaust the richness of the topic today. But we are very eager to hear what civil society experts have to say.

To conclude, I would like to insist again on the importance of the objective of safeguarding fundamental rights in the digital world. We are speaking here about a race against time between technology and law. A few years ago, we were in a position of losing this race. Today, we cannot yet say that we are going to win it, but we have started running faster, and it is a good thing.

What is essential is that – despite their differences – all EU institutions share the same commitment for a European model where the human is at the centre. I am very glad to see that this joint effort is symbolised by the presence of the French Presidency, the European Parliament, and the European Agency for Fundamental Rights in our conference.

An even stronger symbol is the proposal made by the European Commission a few days ago for a joint "Declaration on European Digital Rights and Principles". Although it is too early to already convey the official position of the EESC, I can say that the Declaration covers themes that are dear to our Committee.

If one day the right to access the internet is added to our common Bill of Rights, it will only make sense if people and businesses enjoy equal rights in the digital world as in real life.

With this thought, I would like to give the floor to Ms Ana Gallego, so that she shares with us her insights as Director-General of DG JUST.

Thank you.

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Safeguarding fundamental rights in the digital age