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Making the EU fit for the digital age

Could digitalisation divide Europe? Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, examines this question at the Global Media Forum.

European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel
European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel © European Commission

How do the media cover global inequalities? Do they do enough to condemn institutionalised racism, differences in income, digital division and abuses of power? Questions like these are being discussed at the Global Media Forum 2018 which is hosted by Deutsche Welle in Bonn. This international media conference brings together decision-makers and opinion-formers from journalism, the digital media, politics, business, civil society and research. There, Bulgarian European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel, is examining the consequences of digitalisation for the European Union (EU).

From your point of view, does digitisation deepen inequalities – for example, between people who do and do not have access to the Internet – or can it help to overcome them?
Digitisation does not only present an opportunity for stimulating the economy, but also creates a risk of greater social exclusion and poverty, as well as differences between European regions and between member states. We must eliminate the difference between urban and rural areas in access to the network. Connectivity has improved, but is insufficient to address fast-growing needs. Indicators show that the demand for fast and ultrafast broadband is rapidly increasing and is expected to increase further in the future. The Commission has proposed a reform of EU telecoms rules to meet Europeans’ growing connectivity needs and boost investments.

The diffusion of advanced digital technologies will increase productivity and create new economic opportunities. But we need skilled people for this.
Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society

More and more Europeans use the Internet to communicate and that is why we have launched the Wifi4EUe programme, which provides citizens and tourists with free Wi-Fi in public spaces. Even the smallest municipalities can offer a high-quality Wi-Fi connection to citizens and businesses.

How can the EU support digitalisation?
It has been said many times that we are in the middle of the 4th industrial revolution. Digital technologies are exerting a transformative force the like of which has not been seen for over a century. This certainly brings challenges, but it also provides huge opportunities for our economy and society. To be able to fully capitalise on these opportunities, we have to make the EU’s single market fit for the digital age – tearing down regulatory barriers and transitioning from individual, national markets to a single market.

To do this, three years ago, the European Commission launched the Digital Single Market Strategy. Since then, we have delivered on all of our proposals; more than 50 initiatives have been put forward, with more than half of them legislative proposals to the Council and the European Parliament.

Automation and the diffusion of advanced digital technologies will increase productivity and create new economic opportunities – but there is one problem we still have to address. The success of the introduction of ever-more sophisticated digital technologies requires enough skilled people to develop and use these technologies in all economic sectors. We need skills: if we have people who are prepared to control and drive the technology we can maintain the approach that puts humans in command and at the centre of activity. More action is needed to develop digital skills. Even today, 43% of European citizens do not have basic skills in this area.

We are stepping up our efforts with training and education programmes that promote the learning of digital skills at school and with initiatives such as the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition, the Digital Education Action Plan, EU Code Week and Women in Digital Strategy. We have launched the Digital Opportunity project that will give 5,000 to 6,000 EU students the opportunity to complete paid digital internships lasting four to five months.

What role can the media play in overcoming inequalities – and are they up to the task? 
One of the essential roles of the media is that of empowering citizens. This implies that media freedom and pluralism are needed, not only to ensure that journalists can freely report and comment on current affairs and societal issues, but also that citizens must have the right to freely access information and knowledge. Indeed, if media freedom and pluralism are fundamental rights, this is because they are an essential cornerstone of democracy.

I believe that the media can play an important role in overcoming inequalities, for instance not only by condemning various forms of discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion or other grounds, but also by raising awareness of the deep foundations and causes of inequalities. They can also open countless windows on the world, offering their audiences access to culture, knowledge and entertainment. However, stereotypes, biased reporting and even disinformation are too often present, especially – but not only – in the online environment.

For good or for bad, the media, whether traditional or new, play a crucial part in shaping society. They are probably not always up to the task when it comes to overcoming inequalities, but here I would like to praise the work of so many journalists and media actors who are working relentlessly to develop the public sphere and to hold the powerful to account. Quality journalism and media literacy are certainly among the best tools to inform the debate and combat inequalities, but they cannot, by themselves, overcome all inequalities.

What do you expect from the Global Media Forum in Bonn?
I am really looking forward to interesting discussions and presentations at the Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum. I find it extremely stimulating that so many participants from different backgrounds and origins will combine their efforts in order to better understand the driving forces of global inequalities – and the role of technology and the media in tackling them.

Facts about digitalisation in the European Union 

  • Ultrafast connectivity of at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps) is available to 58% of households and the number of subscriptions is rapidly increasing. 15% of homes use ultrafast broadband: this figure is twice as high as just two years ago and five times higher than in 2013.
  • 80% of European homes are covered by fast broadband with at least 30 Mbps (76% in 2017) and a third (33%) of European households have a subscription (23% increase compared to last year, and 166% compared to 2013).
  • The number of mobile data subscriptions has increased by 57% since 2013 to reach 90 subscriptions per 100 people in the EU. On average, 4G mobile networks cover 91% of the EU population (84% last year).
  • The highest increase in the use of Internet services is related to telephone and video calls: almost half of Europeans (46%) use the Internet to make calls, this is an almost 20% increase compared to last year and an over 40% increase compared to 2013. Other indicators show that 81% of Europeans now go online at least once a week (79% last year).

Global Media Forum in Bonn from 11 to 13 June 2018

Mariya Gabriel’s keynote speech on “Digitalisation in Europe – how does Europe meet the challenges?” will be broadcast live here; time: Monday, 11 June 2018, 10:30 to 11:00 am CET.