The digital union: is Big Brother friend or foe?

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

A robot by Pollen Robotics is displayed during the CES Unveiled Las Vegas at the 2020 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 05 January 2020. [EPA-EFE/ETIENNE LAURENT]

Europe’s coming revolution in Artificial Intelligence and robotics technologies brings with it a series of new challenges that must be met head-on, writes MEP Ismail Ertug.

Ismail Ertug is Vice President of the S&D Group in the European Parliament and is also in charge of the group’s Digital Agenda.

I am old enough to remember life before instant connectivity. My first mobile phone was just that – a not-so-small machine that sent and received calls and texts. It had one game. I remember when research for a paper meant spending hours in a library, going through pages of information before finding what I needed. I remember writing letters to get in touch with friends. I remember having to get up from the sofa in order to change the TV channel.

Digitalisation has improved our lives so much and in such a fast way that we do not even realise the impact these changes have sometimes. Nearly every aspect of everyday life is now digitised; we shop, we talk, we vote, we date online. We pay our bills online. We look for jobs on the internet. All our most personal, individual information is out there. Do we know how much we are putting ourselves at risk? Is there anyone who makes sure that this incomprehensibly vast amount of information does not go into the wrong hands? Our work on this is now more important than ever!

Our Europe must be green, social and digital. A well-regulated approach to the digital transition is just as important as the transition to a carbon-neutral economy and investments into ecologically friendly industries. My Group’s aim is to make sure nobody is left behind in this brand new digital age we are all driven into.

Working online? We’ve got your back!

This is why our digital Europe needs to have a social dimension. The digital revolution must, in no case, lead to a “race to the bottom”. Both offline and online economy need to firmly stand on the European Pillar of Social Rights. Workers in shared economy, on digital platforms and on-demand workers must have the same social benefits as everyone else. New technologies and digital trends must be tailored in order to tackle social inequalities and discrimination. Collective agreements for Uber drivers? Why not! Even more now that we see how much workers need the extra income that they receive this way.

Speaking about Uber – we’re not just stopping at taking care of the workers. Companies that hold monopoly on one part of the market, making it impossible for smaller companies or for newcomers to have access to the same niche should definitely be better regulated.

Fair competition is key if we want European companies to grow! Fair competition and, naturally, fair taxation. In fact, we are now demanding a minimum effective level of taxation of 18% to make sure that all companies, tech giants included, pay their fair share of taxes.

On the long term, we also need to challenge the already existing taxes, mostly reliant on regressive consumption taxes, as well as labour taxation. And these new taxes will help local and regional communities grow. We’re trying to put in place a virtuous circle that will allow the EU to have its own resources to support its own companies and producers.

New laws on AI and robotics

We’re far away now from my first mobile phone. The small device I use every day can now recognise my face. So do the scanners in airports. So does Facebook. And while I agree that in this fast-forward world this saves crucial time, I want to be certain that my data will always be protected.

For us to be able to answer to the real technological challenges, we must first understand how we can make them work in favour of the people. This is why the S&D Group firmly believes that the European Union needs new, better laws on Artificial Intelligence and robotics.

These should, first of all, focus on ethical aspects, legal safeguards and liability, so that we can protect the citizens, as users and consumers. It is of paramount importance that any new legislation in this field does not undermine our fundamental rights! Do we want “voices out of the sky” telling us that we’re walking on the wrong side of the street? Do we want drones supervising us? And on behalf of whom?

I remember reading “1984” in my youth and thinking Big Brother is this dystopian, totalitarian regime. Not anymore. Big Brother today comes with a friendlier face. And we willingly allow it access to our homes and personal lives.

No, robots will not rule the world

Myself, the vast majority of my colleagues, we come from backgrounds where our families have never been faced with such an avalanche of new technologies as we are today. All these changes, they aim to improve people’s lives. But, still, people need to understand the way they work. My friends back in Germany, my family, they need to know that robots will not rule our workplaces. On the contrary – they will make their home lives and working spaces more accessible. All my efforts in the European Parliament aim towards that.

Managing our common digital future cannot be complete without one essential aspect – dealing with disinformation. We have all seen the devastating effects this has on societies. Just last week we faced the terrible outcome of massive disinformation campaigns based on fake news and manipulation during the referendum in the United Kingdom.

Do we want that to happen again? Of course, the fundamental right to freedom of expression should never be put into question. However, we need to make social media and online platforms more responsible and accountable for content distributed there.

We are not here, in the European Parliament, just to go ahead with business as usual. Europeans depend on us, now, in the new digital age, more than ever. And we will deliver!

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