Digitalisation with a human face 

 

Letter by European Parliament President David Sassoli on universal internet access originally published in La Repubblica

Dear Sir,

The letter which President Romano Prodi addressed to me raises an issue of central importance for the future of democracy and the European social model. I too firmly believe that the European Union can play a leading role in setting global standards on equal access to the internet for all, not least by contributing in multilateral fora to the debate launched by the United Nations.

More than ever in these months of lockdown, many millions of people in Europe and around the world have been forced to rely on an internet connection to work, study, buy food and communicate with their loved ones. At the same time, lack of access to the internet, for geographical, economic or social reasons, has proved to be a major cause of marginalisation.

Throughout these long months, many children have been denied the fundamental right to education and knowledge for the mere fact of not having access to the internet. And that is not all. For many women and men, not being able to go online has deprived them of information and put their lives at risk.

The internet as we know it is based on the radical and profoundly democratic principle of net neutrality. This principle states that every bit circulating on the internet must be treated in the same way, without distinction. Bits cannot be slowed down or prioritised according to the purchasing power of the sender or the recipient. At present, the European Union is the main global player which safeguards by law this fundamental principle of our time.

But this is not enough. If it is not to be a source of inequality, access to the internet must be based on rules which guarantee fairness. As in the case of electricity or other essential services, lack of access to the internet – the so-called digital divide – has implications which go beyond its impact on employment, businesses and scientific, social and cultural development. Equally significant is the impact on people’s everyday lives, not least in terms of their personal well-being and happiness.

Equality is not a starting point, but an objective.

We have got used to thinking about the internet too much in terms of platforms and algorithms, and not enough in terms of rights. However, we need to come up with democratic answers to questions that appear to be technical when in reality they are not.

Back in 2016, the UN Human Rights Council took an important step by adopting a resolution on the promotion, protection and exercise of human rights on the internet. The aim of the decision is to protect the rights of people using the internet, and it calls on states to adopt public policies on universal internet access. This key step forward followed on from the pioneering initiative taken by the Obama Administration, which in 2014 proclaimed the internet a ‘public service’. That decision was then reversed three years later, under President Trump, when the rule establishing net neutrality was repealed.

This state of affairs now leaves it to the European Union to be the point of reference when it comes to establishing access rights.

COVID-19 has made something which was already clear glaringly obvious: digitalisation will not wait. The issue is not whether it will happen, but whether it will happen for everyone.

We must abandon hackneyed ways of thinking, adopt a rational approach and commit the institutions to driving this process of change. We cannot continue to flip-flop back and forth between unconditional faith in technology and the obscurantism of those who blame digital technology for all the ills of our time.

The internet is not just a technology: it is the name of the age in which we live. The same thing happened with the printing press: what was invented was not just a machine, but a tool which gave access to information and made modern public opinion-forming possible. It is not necessary to understand the technology by means of which books are produced to benefit from what they contain.

It is misleading to make people believe that cannot enjoy fair and dignified access to what the digital world has to offer if they are not familiar with the technology behind it. This leads to injustice. We do not want to see users bombarded with apps until they become hooked or, exhausted, stop using these tools for good. The aim must be to guarantee transparency, and the availability of information, so that everyone can understand and take decisions for themselves. This is why a new, central role for public institutions and close dialogue with businesses and citizens are essential to promote inclusive, not monopolistic, models.

This will enable us to take initiatives, to broaden our knowledge, to hold governments to account for their decisions, and to ensure that digitalisation does not violate personal freedoms through data mining and data privatisation.

Access to the internet must be recognised as a new human right. The European Parliament is ready for this challenge. There are already two dates to note on the European agenda: the discussion after the summer on the EU Commission’s proposal for a Digital Services Act, and the debate in the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Only we can write the history of our time. To do that, we need to chart a course towards digitalisation with a human face.

David Sassoli

President of the European Parliament