Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has laid out her vision for the development of digital policy in the EU, with an accelerated commitment to innovation in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, her State of the Union speech also drew criticism on Wednesday (16 September) for failing to address some of the pressing issues of the platform economy, as she steered clear of any reference to the EU’s ambitious regulation of online services, the Digital Services Act.
Presenting her future vision to MEPs, von der Leyen outlined three areas that have become more pertinent in the context of the coronavirus, referring to forthcoming years as Europe’s ‘digital decade’ and proposing that 20% of the bloc’s recovery fund be spent on digital initiatives.
On data, she conceded that Europe had lost out in terms of making the most out of the personalised data race – something that she does not want to see happen in the industrial data space.
“The reality is that 80% of industrial data is still collected and never used. This is pure waste,” she said.
Referring to the plans outlined in the EU executive’s data strategy published in February, von der Leyen highlighted the need for the establishment of common data spaces, in particular across the energy and healthcare sectors.
However, the narrative that Europe ‘lost out’ on making the most of personalised data, struck some in Brussels as disingenuous in failing to praise the past regulatory efforts of the Union, which have helped to substantiate a culture of privacy in Europe.
“The EU has established itself as a global leader on data protection,” Daniel Leufer, Europe Policy Analyst at digital rights group, Access Now, told EURACTIV.
“We have seen that the companies and governments who have spearheaded the harvesting of personal data have been responsible for innumerable violations of human rights. The EU should not be aiming to compete with this harmful approach.”
Moreover, there was a degree of criticism with regards to the president’s failure to address the future of EU-US data transfers, after the European Court of Justice invalidated the Privacy Shield agreement in July, saying that it did not provide for sufficient protection of EU data when sent across the Atlantic, with Renew MEP Moritz Körner describing the omission as “completely disappointing”.
Körner also levelled criticism at von der Leyen for evading any reference to the Digital Services Act.
“She did not speak about the main project of the commission, the digital service act, at all,” he told EURACTIV. “It looks as if the Commission President has no real interest in shaping digital rules for the future.”
A new law is in the offing in the Artificial Intelligence space, von der Leyen revealed, as she called for transparency in the operation of algorithms.
“Algorithms must not be a black box and there must be clear rules if something goes wrong. The Commission will propose a law to this effect next year,” she said, adding that the executive would seek to “tackle unconscious bias that exists in people, institutions, and even in algorithms.”
Von der Leyen’s position was welcomed by Green MEP Alexandra Geese, who has led an opinion in the European Parliament on the ethical aspects of Artificial Intelligence.
“I strongly welcome von der Leyen’s statement that algorithms may not be black boxes,” she told EURACTIV.
“We need AI to serve the people and hence we need to understand what they do. Europe needs rules and investment for AI incorporating European values.”
In addition, much of what happens to our data when we log into an online service is a mystery to consumers, von der Leyen highlighted, and as a result, the Commission would soon propose a secure and transparent European e-identity platform.
In this respect, at the end of this month, EU leaders are set to call upon the Commission to develop an EU-wide public electronic identification system (e-ID), that will allow citizens to access cross-border digital services.
The Commission President noted on Wednesday that she wants to revitalise Europe’s rural areas and bridge Europe’s patchy connectivity divide, saying that its “unacceptable 40% of people in rural areas still do not have access to fast broadband connections.”
In this vein, the Commission last week launched a review on its state aid policy with regards to the public financing of broadband networks across EU member states. A public consultation is currently underway on the plans until January 2021.
The executive currently applies the 2013 Broadband Guidelines when deciding on staid aid financing of broadband networks, which apply strict conditions to the public funding of broadband networks even in urban areas.
Moreover, in a bid to make broadband network deployment more cost-efficient, the Commission has been planning an update on the Broadband Cost Reduction Directive and has also launched a separate public consultation for this purpose.
In the infrastructure space, Von der Leyen also announced as part of the bloc’s €750bn recovery fund instrument, an investment of 8 billion euros in the next generation of supercomputers, as well as fostering the development of next-generation processors.
The executive had been expected to announce a new regulation on High-Performance Computing earlier this week, but it is understood to be preparing the proposal for publication for the coming days.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]