Technology and Democracy: Opinion

What do the EU’s ambitious plans for a digital revolution mean for citizens?

The EU’s challenge isn’t just to make Europe fit for the digital age, but to ensure that the digital age fits European laws, standards and values

Darian Meacham
8 December 2021, 10.43am
The European Commission has made ‘A Europe fit for the digital age’ one of its policy priorities from 2019-24
AGF Srl / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved
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It has become commonplace to discuss the ubiquity of digital technologies and their ever creeping influence over even the minutiae of our day-to-day lives. The ways in which most of us work, play, learn, socialise, eat, sleep and have sex are increasingly intertwined with digital platform technologies and the algorithms that structure their influence in our lives.

Access to public goods like education, welfare payments, healthcare, financial services and contact with local government increasingly rely on both hardware and software to which citizens have widely varying levels of access, but which are also designed and built in different social, political and legal contexts where the reach of European laws and values has a weak hold.

The European Commission has made ‘A Europe fit for the digital age’ one of its policy priorities from 2019-24. But, as the commission acknowledges, the challenge isn’t just to make Europe fit for the digital age but to ensure that the digital age fits European laws and standards. A significant test for the EU in the upcoming decade will be to summon the political will to use the regulatory power derived from the size and wealth of the European single market to make sure the ‘digital age’ is not something that the EU has to fit itself to according to standards set in Beijing, Washington and Silicone Valley. Rather, if it’s not too late, the EU can try to mould the “digital age” to address the needs and well-being of its citizens.

The stated ambitions for the EU’s digital transformation are extremely, well, ambitious:

● enable a vibrant and sustainable economy

● open up new opportunities for businesses

● encourage the development of trustworthy technology

● foster an open and democratic society

● help fight climate change and achieve the green transition

These laudable goals should also raise some eyebrows. They are not necessarily the first characteristics that critical citizens might use to describe the present state of the digital transition.

Data-driven technologies and AI open opportunities for businesses, but the rights and interests of workers also need to be protected. Algorithmic management facilitates new forms of relations between employees and employers, or between platforms and workers, which need to be scrutinised and regulated to ensure that labour conditions and the share of wealth going to waged employees doesn’t (further) deteriorate.

Projects like a European digital identity may indeed help to generate trust and improve ease and security in online interactions, but both private sector and government surveillance and data-collection remain serious public concerns.

Online communication can indeed connect citizens across borders and may one day facilitate the dream of a European public sphere. Likewise, digitalisation may also bring greater transparency, efficiency and equity into the functioning of public services. However, social media has also been blamed for toxifying political discourse and worsening polarisation. Local and national governments have come under scrutiny and even fallen for the biased and unethical use of automated decision support systems in various contexts including immigration decisions and welfare fraud detection, leading to severe harms for individuals and families who were unfairly penalised as a result.

Data-driven technologies and AI open opportunities for businesses, but the rights and interests of workers also need to be protected

Coming off what can at best only be called (even euphemistically) a very modest step forward in emergency climate negotiations at COP26, the link between the climate crisis and the digital transition asserts itself ever more. The targets of the European Green Deal have been closely linked to the need to increase data-collection and sharing across many sectors. The United Nations has also emphasized the role of “big data” in meeting its Sustainable Development Goals. But computer scientists have raised concerns about the environmental and societal risks surrounding the use of large language models in AI and large scale data processing more generally. A green lining cannot so simply be hemmed in to digitalisation. In addition to environmental concerns about energy use of big data-analytics are serious social and political concerns about privacy, sovereignty, solidarity, autonomy and identity.

Just as questions about justice have now pervaded the policy discussions around the green transition in the form of debates concerning climate justice, the digital transition must include considerations of justice and the fair distributions of benefits and risks at individual, community, national and international levels. These kinds of questions arise whether we are talking about dating apps, automated welfare and parole decisions, or the use of social media in aiding and abetting human rights violations. The EU has introduced a bevy of new regulations and legislation to try to gain control over the algorithms that increasingly control the lives of Europeans. It remains to be seen how effective these will be, especially given the outsize influence of the tech giants’ European lobbying efforts.

The European Council, which represents the EU member states, is currently pushing for a much narrower definition of AI than originally foreseen in the version of the “AI Act” published in April 2021. Narrowing the definition of AI to “only those where humans did not influence the rules in action” would likely have a significant chilling effect on efforts to regulate the use of many forms of “AI” in both the public and private domain.

The articles in this series take on these questions with specific focus on how they impact the EU and how they should shape and reshape not just the agenda of the European Commission but also the citizens and civil society organisations who are affected by the EU’s approach and actions, and who have to battle with corporate giants to shape the digital transition and with it the shape of nearly every facet of our lives.

*This article series is published in the framework of RELAY, a project led by Maastricht University Campus Brussels that aims to independently scrutinise the political priorities of the European Commission. The project has received funding from the Erasmus+ programme, but the views shared in the articles are solely those of the authors and cannot be attributed to the European Commission. If you wish to contribute to the discussion, please do get in touch.

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