1989 Generation Initiative

This article is part of a series of papers based on the preliminary results of the 1989 Generation Initiative’s policy cycle “Tackling Populism: Hope over Fear”. The following article is based on the results of the Roundtable “Digital Single Market” at its launching conference. Written by Martin Garrigue, External Content Officer.

Europe 2.0: Making the Single Market work for all (digital) workers and consumers

To the lately dampened spirits of European policy-makers, digital technology appears as a solace of hope. Promoted in the 2010 “Digital Agenda for Europe” as part of the seven flagship initiatives for the Commission’s Europe 2020 Strategy, progress on the ground since then seems to warrant optimism. €13bn have been invested in European tech start-ups in 2016 compared to €2.8bn in 2011. Traditional industries have likewise opened up to tech, with two-thirds of Europe’s largest corporations by market cap making investments in a tech company. European politicians, in turn, have jumped on the bandwagon, hoping to attract global “tech” refugees from the US; French presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron recently appealed to American scientists and entrepreneurs unnerved by Trump’s administration to come find “a new homeland”. Policy-makers and businesses, evidently, are buoyed by the promise of economic growth digital tech holds for Europe.

Yet, for all its encouraging prospects, the EU project for digital technology, the Digital Single Market, stands on rocky grounds. Aiming at abolishing barriers in the sector across Europe, any moves in that respect will bring its cohort of winners and losers, with political and economic consequences. Industrial disruption and labour insecurity has the potential to further fuel xenophobia and populism. Conversely, the rise of online media means barriers across European countries to digital tech has not only economic, but also cultural effects. Crucially, the full implications of a Digital Single Market are all the more important to flesh out at a time when only 47% of the European population can be considered as “digitally skilled”.

The five fears of trailing behind

As the transition from a “consumer” internet to a “industrial” internet takes hold, a new group of workers, whose job are at risk of important changes through digitalisation, join those who were already left behind by globalisation and the unleashing of the “knowledge economy”. The maturing of the “consumer” internet also poses grave questions for consumers over the privacy of their personal lives.

“A new group of workers, whose job are at risk of important changes through digitalisation, join those who were already left behind by globalisation”.

In this context, five fears thus form the core of apprehension over the Digital Single Market. Primarily, a fear of being “digitally left-behind” as digitalisation takes hold without having the tools to follow; closely related, a “fear of disruption”, as 90% of jobs will require “digital know-how” soon. To consumers particularly, there is also a “fear over privacy” and the loss of control over one’s data, with 6 out of 10 internet users increasingly concerned over online privacy in 2016, up compared to 2015. Partly fed from the last three, fear also emanates from the complexity of it all, fuelled by the current climate of distrust of experts and not helped by the technical nature of debates at the European level. Finally, and for actors engaged in the digital economy, there is a specific fear over foreign tech giants: only 7% the size of the US tech sector, the European sector has to contend with American and Asian tech giants snapping up European companies, like Google’s acquisition of Britain’s leading AI Company Deep Mind in 2014. All those fears will need to be considered if the Digital Single Market is to fully deliver the benefits policy-makers expect from it.Digital Single Market roundtable

It’s the internet, stupid! Getting ready for the economy’s digitalisation

Though more can always be done, the EU has up to now been proactive in tackling privacy concerns. The so-called ‘Cookie Law’ from the EU’s ePrivacy Directive requires websites to seek prior consent for the storage of cookies, and the EU has been at the forefront of the implementation of the “right to be forgotten” in search engines’ databases. Amongst other trends, the rise of the internet of things and heightened privacy concerns derived from it means work in the area is far from over.

“Though more can always be done, the EU has up to now been proactive in tackling privacy concerns.”

Beyond privacy, two areas should be the focus European attention: jobs and inclusion. In terms of jobs, it is understood that some traditional policies cannot work at the EU level. The EU Globalisation Adjustment Fund, aiming at helping unemployed workers to transit to a new job, has had inefficiencies, plagued as it is by too large a task for too small a budget. The EU, in any case, should not promise things it cannot deliver, like its communications around youth unemployment. It remains the member-states’ job, thus, to help through training the transition towards the digital economy. Instead, the EU should focus on improving job opportunities of those already trained across member-state borders. A way to do this could be through creating a digital platform at the EU level mimicking the model of Fiverr, helping match digital workers to employers on digital projects across frontiers. Similarly, the harmonisation of standards and job protection could be encouraged through the creation of a platform publicising standards in the digital field across countries: this would increase transparency, enabling comparison between member-states and information availability to consumers.

“The goals, beyond economic ones, are also of European inclusion; European shows crossing borders, for example, help towards the development of a European feeling of togetherness – a European ‘We’.”

As a partial response to the fear of being “digitally-left behind”, the EU should also encourage inclusiveness in digital services. Supporting the use and improvement of eGovernment services, at state level, appears in this respect to be the way to go. The idea of transitioning government services, such as taxpaying, online, eGovernment services, next to its cost-saving potential already outlined by the Commission, will also help to foster digital inclusiveness of citizens. The two obstacles to its development, civil sector job loss and cyber-privacy concerns, can be met through state-led retraining for the former and EU-piloted initiatives for the latter. Fostering civic technologies, by creating platforms for civic participation, possible under the Europe for Citizens programme, should also be considered; fostering platforms attached to the Makers movement in the US to boost innovation can also be an avenue to explore. Finally, as for online media, the goals, beyond economic ones, are also of European inclusion; European shows crossing borders, for example, help towards the development of a European feeling of togetherness – a European ‘We’. In that respect, the current EU proposal to impose 20% of content offered to be produced in the EU to counter Hollywood’s dominance will not ensure that said-content will be viewed: instead of a quota method, direct support to European media production, through subsidies or help to cross-border advertisement, seems more fit to the goals the EU has in the area.

“Making globalization work for everyone”, all the way up to Davos, has been a recurring theme of late, and so should be the EU’s ambitions. This will go through ensuring the transition to the digital economy occurs smoothly. Limited by its means, the EU cannot achieve everything in that respect, and member-states will have to bear the brunt of changes. Nevertheless, by fine-tuning the delivery of the Digital Single Market, Europe can have a strong role to play in the transition, making the digital economy for all.

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