COVID-19 has highlighted the role technology plays and accelerated Europe’s digital transformation.
In the pre-COVID-19 days, technology was present – from online courses for continuous education to devices connected through Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and entertainment on tap. Yet everything was running in the background – there and assuming it will always be there.
The coronavirus pandemic brought technology right up to the forefront. With schools and shops shuttered, the majority of people working from home, and families and friends having to keep in touch through video calls, everyone became very much aware of how technology was helping people persevere, while easing the burden of confinement. The demand on the technology infrastructure and connectivity obviously increased, to the extent that, for instance, Netflix and YouTube took actions – following a conversation with Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton in March– to reduce the pressure on internet infrastructure.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of technology, not only in the role it continues to play in combating the spread of COVID-19, but also in how people will work and play in a post-pandemic Europe.
Europe’s current regulatory framework for digital services dates back two decades, it does not cater to many of today’s questions on the role and responsibility of online platforms.
All this necessitates an unforeseen acceleration in the digital transformation of Europe, in order to reduce regulatory fragmentation across member states, ensure that everyone in Europe is protected online; and offer European businesses a level playing field to innovate, grow and compete globally.
Last February 19, the European Commission adopted as a priority its Digital Strategy, with the aim of making a digital transformation that works for people and businesses, while helping the EU achieve its target of a climate-neutral Europe by 2050.
With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, this strategy has gained new and amped-up impetus. The EU is deploying digital tools not only to to monitor the spread of the virus, research and develop vaccines and treatments, and ensure that Europeans can stay connected and safe online, but also to support the gradual lifting of coronavirus containment measures through mobile data and apps.
Currently the EU is even running a public consultation on the Digital Services Act. The consultation, open until September 8 - and covering issues such as online safety, freedom of expression, and a level playing field in the digital economy - seeks to gather views, evidence and data from people, businesses, academics, civil society, online platforms and interested parties to help Europe shape its future rulebook for digital services.
The public consultation covers the two work strands announced by the Commission as part of the Digital Services Act package, a landmark package of legislation for the EU aiming to shape Europe’s Digital Future.
The first set of rules would relate to the fundamentals of the e-commerce directive, particularly the freedom to provide digital services across the EU single market.
The aim is to establish clearer and modern rules concerning the role and obligations of online intermediaries, and a more effective governance system to ensure such rules are correctly enforced across the single market, while guaranteeing the respect of fundamental rights.
The second measure would address the issue of the level playing field in European digital markets, where currently a few large online platforms act as gatekeepers. The aim is to explore rules to address such imbalances and ensure consumers have the widest choice and that the EU single market for digital services remains competitive and open to innovation.
MEP Alex Agius Saliba, rapporteur for the European Parliament on the Digital Services Act, sees a central role in the social and economic life of people for digital services such as search engines and social media platforms in this new digital world.
“Today, digital services are key enablers in bringing people and/or businesses together. They help facilitate social and commercial exchanges of goods, services and information, which would not otherwise happen.
“Among the many dimensions revealed by the current crisis, the role of digitalisation and digital services features prominently. The COVID-19 crisis further reinforced the importance of digital services for the proper functioning of our society.
“The shutdown of many EU countries due to COVID-19 demonstrates the importance of having a sophisticated digital infrastructure and digital services to keep countries, economies and even people running at a basic level.
“During these difficult past weeks, digital services have enabled many people to continue working from home and have supported private life, assisted in providing people with food and supplies, entertainment, and the possibility to meet and work remotely. They have also enabled people and children to continue remotely with their learning and education and have access to culture and online leisure, as well as online social networking.
“The EU has managed to continue governing and take decisions by digital teleworking and remote meetings and voting.”
He added how without the existing digital solution, the crisis would have had a much worse impact.
“At the same time, the digital information and tools can play a major role in fighting the pandemic – or other forms of crisis that risk to emerge in future
“The COVID-19 pandemic is showing the resilience of the e-commerce sector and its potential as a driver for relaunching the European economy in the post crisis world. E-commerce will definitely be part of the solution.
“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has also shown how vulnerable EU consumers and users are to misleading trading practices, of selling fake or illegal products online that are not compliant with Union safety rules or imposing unjustified and abusive price increases or other unfair conditions on consumers.
“It is unacceptable that the digital services have – to some extent – become an enabler for widespread consumer law violations; a revenue stream for the sale of advertising or promotion of dangerous, unsafe, illegal products online.
“The Digital Services Act to be proposed by the Commission at the end of the year will be the legal framework in the EU for all digital developments over the next decade that is why it is of paramount importance to understand the upcoming new challenges in digital services and to find proper solutions.
“My main objective and focus as the rapporteur for the IMCO Committee on the DSA, is to propose to the Commission a set of workable solutions and measures that will make the digital word more safe and secure for users and consumers by addressing the current shortcoming and making the e-commerce sector more resilient in the future,” he concluded.
The Commission is also consulting on other emerging issues related to online platforms, such as how these present self-employed people opportunities and challenges.
Digital transformation and Europe’s present and future run in parallel. Indeed, the European Parliament - in a resolution adopted on April 17 wherein it called for a massive recovery and reconstruction package and an ambitious Multiannual Financial Framework – MEPs stressed how digital transformation and the European Green Deal should be at the core of this package.
When this package – the Next Generation EU recovery plan – was revealed on in Parliament May 27 by Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, it did indeed aim to address the damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and reach the EU’s objectives of climate neutrality and digital transformation, and to reinforce the EU’s role as a global player.
Digital transformation was also included as an area of focus in the Commission’s country-specific recommendations – proposed on May 20 – in which member states were encouraged to, in the short to medium-term, achieve sustainable and inclusive growth which facilitates the green transition and digital transformation.
On June 9, the Council adopted conclusions on shaping Europe’s digital future – covering areas such as connectivity, digital value chains, artificial intelligence, digital platforms and eHealth.
The text adopted also highlights the importance of digital transformation in fighting the pandemic, and its critical role in helping Europe gain economic recovery and green growth, post-COVID-19.
State of play
Europe’s digital performance
Published on June 11, the 2020 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) monitors Europe’s overall digital performance and tracks the progress of EU member states’ digital competitiveness.
This year’s results show there is progress in all member states and all key areas measured in the index. DESI also shows that member states should step up their efforts to improve the coverage of Very High Capacity Networks, assign 5G spectrum to enable the commercial launch of 5G services, improve citizens’ digital skills and further digitise businesses and the public sector.
Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands scored the highest ratings in DESI 2020 and are among the global leaders in digitalisation. Within the EU they are followed by Malta, Ireland and Estonia.
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