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Inclusivity, safety & engagement: Europe presents draft declaration of rights for digital age

“We want safe technologies that work for people, and that respect our rights and values”

Margrethe Vestage and Thierry Breton in June 2021. Stephanie Lecocq/Pool via REUTERS
Margrethe Vestage and Thierry Breton in June 2021. Stephanie Lecocq/Pool via REUTERS

The European Commission (EC) made history on Wednesday when it introduced a proposed declaration of rights and principles that will guide the EU’s digital transformation.

The “European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade” will promote “European values” of putting people and their rights at its center, supporting solidarity and inclusion, ensuring online freedom of choice, fostering participation in the digital public space, increasing individuals’ safety and empowerment, promoting the sustainability of the digital future, and enhancing democracy and democratic practices.

Further, the declaration’s intent is to provide a clear reference point as to the kind of digital transformation Europe promotes and defends, serve as a guide for policymakers and companies when dealing with new technologies, and be the torchbearer as other nations also introduce such documents.

“We want safe technologies that work for people, and that respect our rights and values,” said Executive VP for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age (as well as European Commissioner for Competition), Margrethe Vestage, in a statement. “This declaration gives us a clear reference point to the rights and principles for the online world.”

“The declaration of digital rights and principles also establishes once and for all that what is illegal offline should also be illegal online,” said Commissioner for the Internet Market, Thierry Breton.

“We also aim to promote these principles as a standard for the world.”

“People are at the centre of the digital transformation in the European Union. Technology should serve and benefit all Europeans and empower them to pursue their aspirations, in full security and respect of their fundamental rights,” says the draft.

What does this mean in practice?

“Everyone should have access that aims at uniting, not dividing, people,” says the declaration. The EC commits to a digital transformation that leaves no one behind and is inclusive to the weaker, more marginalized members of society, and to develop frameworks for the benefit of all market actors.

The declaration further commits to ensure excellent connectivity for all EU citizens and provide them with access to digital education and training as well as “fair, just, healthy and safe” working conditions and protection, including work-life balance.

Regarding interaction with algorithms and AI, the declaration aims to ensure that all individuals can benefit from their advantages and be safe from potential risks. The declaration pledges to ensure algorithmic transparency, and ensure that they are based on suitable databases and do not pre-determine people’s choices.

Promoting individual engagement and democratic participation and taking measures to create safe online spaces that are free from illegal or harmful content is also discussed, as is the right to fair competition and innovation.

The draft specifies that “Everyone has the right to the protection of their personal data online. That right includes the control on how the data are used and with whom they are shared. Everyone has the right to the confidentiality of their communications…and no one shall be subjected to unlawful online surveillance or interception measures.”

But as far as commitments on the matter are concerned, the EC only commits to “ensuring the possibility to easily move personal data between different digital services.”

Lastly, the draft addresses the need to empower “children and young people” to make safe and informed choices online, and be exposed to positive, age-appropriate materials that should improve their experience and well-being. The EC commits to protecting children from harmful content, exploitation, abuse and manipulation online.

For the next step in the draft’s journey to become a binding declaration, the European Parliament and the Council should now discuss it, with the aim of endorsing it “at the highest level by this summer.”

This is the EC’s second significant act this month alone regarding adapting to the digital, after last week it agreed on a draft proposal for the Digital Service Act, a set of measure to tackle illegal content, ensure social media platforms are held accountable for their algorithms, and improve content moderation.

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