Digitalisation must be responsible and leave nobody behind, EESC expert roundtable says

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At a hearing organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), experts agreed that digital system data must be subject to democratic control to respect confidentiality and avoid possible misuse. They highlighted that the digital transformation, especially in view of the EU's population ageing, must be inclusive and allow access to basic services for everybody.

In an increasingly hyperdigitalised and hyperconnected society, the issues of data ownership, security and protection are key and some form of democratic control over data must be put in place. These are the points that the expert roundtable organised by the Section for Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society (TEN) addressed on 19 April 2022.

Digital identity is high on the agenda at the moment and data protection and security are priority topics. Issues such as data confidentiality, possible manipulation of data, facial recognition, and abusive situations that may violate fundamental human rights are very sensitive and have to be tackled, declared Baiba Miltoviča, president of the TEN Section.

The hearing brought together experts from different backgrounds to take stock of current topics such as digital identity and data sovereignty. The use of digital technologies on a massive scale has made an unprecedented development possible in the history of mankind. Now is the time to discuss their democratic control, because they have advantages but also side effects that need to be considered, said Dumitru Fornea, rapporteur of the ongoing EESC own-initiative opinion on the subject.

Digital identity and data sovereignty

Digital solutions are of great interest to Europeans, as they simplify people's everyday lives and take the stress out of administrative procedures. For example, digital identity can provide people with easy access to public or business services.

However, since September 2018, when part of Regulation (EU) No 910/2014 on electronic identification entered into force, only 14 EU Member States have put in place at least one electronic identification system. This means that, for the time being, only 59% of EU residents have access to secure and reliable electronic identification systems across borders and only seven systems are fully mobile, meeting current user expectations.

However, while the advantages of digital systems are clear and obvious to everybody, they must be implemented with care: a rollout that is too quick, especially if a digital identity is required to gain access to some services of general interest, could lead to delicate situations where a significant number of people are denied the right to access basic services such as electricity, heating, healthcare or transport.

Antonio García del Riego, president of the EESC opinion study group, pointed out that in the race to advance in the digitalisation of our economy and society, that will provide better living standards, more progress and higher productivity, we cannot forget to focus on the inclusion of those who risk being left behind. The EU's population is ageing and this is a factor to keep in mind when thinking about access to basic services, in both the public and private sectors. Digital inclusion is crucial.

Considering that on the one hand the EU still has a low level of digital education, although it has set the target for 80% of its population to have acquired digital skills by 2030, and on the other, the evolution of technologies cannot be stopped, the guiding principle must be to incorporate these technologies into our lives and societies, responsibly.

The voices of civil society organisations

During the debate, the BusinessEurope representatives pointed to the importance of having an easy, operational and human-centric digital transformation. Svetlana Stoilova emphasised that its key objective should be the integration of the EU internal market, with a digital economy and legislation based on proportionality and clear rules, and that trust was essential for people to adopt digital services.

Adnane Lachheb added that artificial intelligence was indeed seen as a necessity in Europe and could bring a lot of benefits to society: for this reason, it was important to minimise mistakes and think of the cost of not using artificial intelligence.

On the side of the digital security industry, Alban Feraud, representing Eurosmart, stated that digital developments should be in line with the principles of the Charter of Human Rights and focus on creating a trustworthy, open and transparent ecosystem based on secure identity and data protection.

Diego Naranjo, on behalf of European Digital Rights, advocated for the protection of digital rights, stressing that people's rights came first and mentioning the areas of data protection, privacy, freedom of expression and platform regulation.

All these contributions will now feed into the EESC opinion on Digital identity, data sovereignty and the path towards a just digital transition for citizens living in the information society (TEN/773), which is scheduled to be adopted at the July plenary session.