How accessibility in the cloud could redefine European citizenship

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

Extending access to digital goods and services could create jobs and boost social equality. [Dave Herholz/Flickr]

Europe’s approach to the Digital Single Market needs to better serve people with disabilities, argues Tracy Mitrano.

Tracy Mitrano is the director of the Institute for Computer Policy and Law at Cornell University.

Two of the three main pillars of the European Commission’s strategy to complete the so-called Digital Single Market are to support the creation of robust digital networks and infrastructure and to drive investment in research, innovation and new technologies. 

As part of this effort, the European Commission is taking further steps towards a “European Cloud Initiative,” aiming to increase the adoption of “cloud computing,” by taking measures to enhance trust and confidence in the technology. Cloud computing refers to when the service provider holds consumer and customer data within its physical premises rather than on the computers, servers or devices of the individual, business or other organisation.

The European Commission adopted its initial European Cloud Computing Strategy in 2012. A number of measures undertaken since then demonstrate a commitment to supporting cloud computing both as a technology and a business model. Such measures include technical standardisation efforts, the development of model contract terms and work on common procurement requirements for the public sector. All of these initiatives strive to enhance understanding of the effectiveness, efficiencies and issues specific to cloud computing, as well as to make its use easier for private enterprises, public sector customers and consumers. Altogether, the European Commission’s support encourages the adoption of the technology and allows vendors to deliver value added services to more end users.

As an enabler of technological innovation and economic growth, the European Union distinguishes its support of cloud computing by equating technical and market aspects of cloud computing with legal and social ones. End-user privacy and technical security are integral components to the European Union’s support of cloud computing. This integration of privacy and security components into cloud computing services is essential to cloud trust and growth and goes beyond approaches in certain other markets, namely the US, where technologies and new internet business models charge ahead with few restraints from society or the law.

Yet despite this holistic approach, the European Commission’s initiatives on cloud have thus far not sufficiently supported the critically important area of accessibility for people with disabilities. Even the Digital Single Market strategy, whose third pillar is to improve Europeans’ access to digital goods and services limits its ambitions in this area by focusing only on outcomes for consumers and businesses rather than all European citizens. In the EU’s democratic society, access to technology should be a legal right rather than purely a market-driven opportunity. 

To its credit, the EU has made some progress with promoting accessible technologies in public administrations. But new legislation such as the Directive on Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites has not yet been decided. Moreover, member states have yet to transpose key laws into their legal landscape, a step towards full implementation of existing EU Directives and principles. Transposition would also lead to further harmonisation and reduce the fragmentation of rules in Europe that is hindering a faster and wider adoption of accessible technology.

Implementing new rules in public procurement is key to progressing accessibility in ICT, including cloud computing. The EU created an accessibility standard to help public administrations integrate accessibility in their procurement policies. It proposes a series of requirements that can be applied to a wide array of technologies used to deliver public services ranging from mobile apps to websites. Implementing the standard is a relatively easy fix for many of Europe’s problems in completing the Digital Single Market. If Europe’s aim is to create borderless services and cloud capabilities, common rules for public procurement represent one of the building blocks of an integrated Digital Single Market. The current standards should stand alongside strengthened privacy and security requirements and together enhance trust in the culture, law and politics of the Internet. 

Adoption of harmonised requirements for accessibility will also help the European Union on legal access fronts. Harmonised requirements remove barriers and incentivise the exchange of information across countries. These efforts complement the needed reform of Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties that govern the exchange of information for law enforcement purposes. To this end, the Commission should more explicitly integrate accessibility into its work on cloud computing and the Digital Single Market. Not only will integration provide opportunities for people with disabilities, but insight into that process will contribute to a deeper understanding of accessibility as a concept that goes to heart of the EU’s broader goals to extend the definition and meaning of citizenship. 

As more accessible technology is available within public sector entities, more people with disabilities will be able to enter the job market, paving the way for even greater job creation and helping to mitigate persisting social inequalities, another key aim of President Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission. Thus, for the more than 80 million people with disabilities in Europe, the public administrations – whether as lawmakers or procurers – should lead the charge in providing people with the tools to contribute to economic and social progress.

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