Whether it’s a place to do business, study, shop, keep in touch, find a partner, or sustain a lifeline to family and friends, we did not need a pandemic to show us why the internet matters. But the pandemic has reminded us that when we act to shape the online experience, we need to get it right. How we manage the digital world says a lot about who we are. But how should we manage it? For starters, it helps to know specifically what we hope to achieve. For example, we want people to have access to affordable networks and the skills to use technology. We want to choose which data we share, and when and with whom we share it. We want to know the carbon footprints of our tablets and the videos we stream. We want to be protected as much online as we are offline. And we want to be able to disconnect.
Everyone in Europe – and in the rest of the world – should be able to rely on these basic principles. Everyone should know that these rights exist and deserve protection. In addition to national governments and members of the European Parliament, 82% of people across all 27 EU member states say they want the European Commission to define and promote a common framework of digital rights and principles. And now we have done precisely that. The Commission’s proposed declaration of digital rights and principles, released late last month, puts people first. Digital policies should be human-centric and designed to leave no one behind. At a time when digital technologies play an increasingly prominent role in social, economic, and political life, we want safe tools that work for everyone, and that respect our rights and values.
Building on this vision, we grouped our proposed principles and rights into six chapters. First, technology should have a worthy purpose: to serve us, the people, who are at the center of the digital transition. We should be able to pursue our aspirations knowing that we are secure, and that our fundamental rights will be respected. Second, social solidarity is key. Everyone must be able to feel like they belong and can benefit from becoming more digital. That is why our proposed framework includes commitments on digital education, connectivity, and digital public services. Reliable access to digital health care across the European Union (which would have helped us immensely during the pandemic) also falls under this heading. The third chapter focuses on freedom of choice. Artificial-intelligence technologies must not predetermine people’s decisions, algorithms must be transparent, and data samples must be as unbiased as possible. These principles are necessary to protect not only our rights and personal agency but also our health and safety.
Fourth, we must ensure widespread participation in the digital public sphere. This implies efforts to safeguard our democracies, whether through measures to protect freedom of expression or rules against illegal content or disinformation. We want the online information ecosystem to stimulate democratic debate, not create filter bubbles or foment division and polarization. People should have access to diverse sources of information in a language they know. Fifth, safety, security, and empowerment are crucial. Everyone should have access to digital technologies, products, and services that are safe from cyberattacks and designed to protect user privacy. We especially must protect our children from crimes committed through, or facilitated by, the internet. A final priority is sustainability. We must ensure that users have access to information about a technology’s environmental footprint, and we must promote technologies that will help us achieve our most ambitious climate targets. Fortunately, digital technologies have the potential to help us cut more emissions than they cause, by enabling more innovative business models, more efficient services, and better resource management.
In short, our declaration captures what matters most in Europeans’ daily lives. It is about empowerment, participation, accessibility, resource use, and security. It is about using technology in ways that unite, rather than divide, people. By articulating these principles and rights, we have a clearer point of reference – a blueprint for the digital transition. That is the first step for policymakers who are developing new initiatives, and for businesses that are working on new technologies. With our digital principles, we are setting a European standard that we hope will anchor similar approaches around the world – just as we did with data protection and consumer rights. Many of our international partners are holding similar debates, and when I recently discussed our approach in Washington, DC, I could see that it has a lot in common with proposals in the United States for a digital Bill of Rights.
To give the declaration the visibility it deserves, we want the declaration to be signed this spring by the presidents of the European Parliament, the European Council, and the European Commission. We also intend to include it in our annual monitoring of progress toward the EU’s 2030 digital targets, and we will be consulting Europeans about their digital concerns and priorities every year. When we polled Europeans a few months ago, we found that eight in ten expected digital tools to bring at least as many advantages as disadvantages. But a significant share of the respondents (almost 40%) were unaware that they have the same fundamental rights (freedom of expression, privacy, nondiscrimination) online as offline.
Our consultations tell us that we are hitting a nerve. The more digitized our societies become, the more we need to improve awareness and enforcement of our rights online. The declaration of digital rights and principles should become our default thinking. The human-centric approach to the digital transition must underpin everything we do. It is as simple as that. Respect for fundamental rights – both online and offline – is at the very core of what it means to be European.
‘Declaring Our Digital Rights’ — Commentary by Margrethe Vestager — Project Syndicate.