The Digital Single Market is an opportunity to empower citizens

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Eva Paunova [Eva Paunova]

The first legislative proposals of the Digital Single Market strategy will be brought to the European Parliament this week. The debate must focus on the needs of European citizens, not vested interests, writes Eva Paunova. 

Eva Paunova is a Bulgarian MEP (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) and the Vice-President of the European Movement International, where she chairs the Political Committee on Jobs, Competitiveness and Sustainable Growth.

The Digital Single Market promises to deliver on several key measures this year to allow Europe to become the global leader in providing businesses and individuals with opportunities for development.

Most of us use digital services every day. We access online banking, waste time on social media, rely on smart phones for even the simplest of tasks (when was the last time you opened a paper map or glanced up at a street name?) or binge-watch shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime. The effects of this digitalisation of the everyday on both our private and professional lives cannot be underestimated. Yet few realise to what extent being able to fully engage with and manage the ‘5th freedom’ of the Single Market depends on the creation of a true European Digital Single Market (DSM), ? project expected to add over €415 billion annually to the European GDP and create nearly 3.8 million new jobs.

This requires, among other things, a long-term commitment to developing e-skills in schools, as well as through lifelong learning courses for people of all ages who are already in work or further education. The leap into digital that most industries are currently going through will allow for access to an enormous pool of untapped skills and potential, and a holistic approach to the transition will have a huge impact on the business climate for SMEs, and on the ease of operating across borders.

Several elements of the DSM offer the opportunity to make the European public sphere more buoyant and to increase citizens’ participation in political life. But despite its potential, many citizens still do not have the information and digital literacy that would enable them to engage with the ‘digital by default’ model. The only way to foster its widespread adoption is for governments to fully buy into the idea via e-government solutions, which have the added benefit of providing more transparent, accountable and effective governance, on top of bridging the gap between politics and the public.

Geo-blocking is a particularly pertinent issue for many European citizens: making online purchases from another member state is currently needlessly complicated and goes against the very idea of the European project. Its removal will allow users across the continent to access otherwise restricted websites, services or content. Apart from the obvious benefits to online media, entertainment and trade, this move will also contribute enormously towards the creation of a common European public space.

Related to this, the development and enforcement of a modern copyright framework, which guarantees the rights of all stakeholders and a fair remuneration for creators of digital content, should underpin any cross-border access to legally purchased online services. This would mean, for example, being able to login to your Belgian Netflix account when on holiday or working abroad in Italy.

In order for this connected world to become a reality and for the EU to cement its global competitiveness, European institutions and national governments alike need to work together and drop the ‘pick & choose’ attitude to protecting vested interests that do not benefit European citizens. It is important to consider how to implement legislation across member states, how to focus public debate on the practical benefits the DSM would bring, as well as how to encourage members to put in place the required infrastructure (including universal, affordable internet access) and empower disadvantaged groups to develop their e-skills.

Keeping in mind that users’ trust in digital services is vital to innovation and growth in the digital economy, reinforcing that trust – through robust data protection policies and high-level security standards, for instance – should be at the core of both public policy and business models.

The Digital Economic Model should strive to strike a balance between the economic benefits of universal internet access on the one hand, and privacy concerns (surveillance, data interception and collection, identity theft) on the other. The establishment of a European public-private partnership on cybersecurity should reflect this balance, and explicitly address any concerns expressed by citizens and other stakeholders. As representatives of our communities, we need to ensure that our engagement with digital technologies results in a safer and more secure online environment for everyone. Then and only then can we truly move into the world of tomorrow.

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