Digital societies: Towards a human-centred, trustworthy, and value-based digital transition

24 Sep 2020 18:30h - 20:30h

Event report

Without a doubt, the future is digital. However, a digitalised world can either promote or undermine human rights, access, and offer different threats. People must be at the centre of digital services and no one should be left behind. Digitalisation is about helping people, and it will often save lives, too. The Internet has to be kept free, open, and a value-based space for all people. ‘Common sense of values is needed when it comes to regulations. It is an act of balance’, says Mr Markus Richter (State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community and Federal CIO, Germany). All solutions need to have data protection and security in mind; only in this way can solutions gain acceptance and trust by people. As well, digitalisation is not something that belongs to one nation. It can be achieved only by working on solutions together, incorporating positive values.

The public sector needs to be more involved in the attainment of trust and interoperability needed for inclusive digital governance. Public services need to be citizen- and business-driven; they need to be a joint effort of citizens and businesses in working locally to provide well fitted and quality services; only then can governments move to higher levels to look for value-based services for all, says Mr Mario Campolargo (Acting Director–General for Informatics (DIGIT), EU-Commission). Connectivity, digital skills, and a human-centred digital society needs to be in the centre of a digitised future.

Portugal is investing in administration of public services. As well, due to investment into entrepreneurship, Portugal now has some worldwide known brands. Mr André de Aragão Azevedo (Secretary of State for the Digital Transition, Ministry for Economy and Digital Transition (Portugal)), noted the WebSummit Initiative, taking place in Portugal, as the biggest startup event in the world. When it comes to digitalisation, Portugal is working on three levels: digital skills (there is still a gap in Portugal in comparison to some other countries in the European Union); enterprise pillar; reinforcement of the strategy for public administration.

Azevedo believes that considerable space and opportunities exist to intensify cooperation efforts. While risks online continue, the digital economy, for example, is bringing positive changes. The momentum that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about is an opportunity to evolve both socially and economically through digitalisation. Regulation is a challenge, due to the fact that the evolving speed of digitalisation and legislation are different. ‘We cannot regulate what we do not know yet; and new digital solutions are coming up fast. This requires supranational efforts’, says Azevedo.

Digitalisation has to serve the needs of citizens. Developing states have more challenges, and so it is even more important for them to be part of these discussions. Mr Pedro Lopes (Secretary of State for Innovation and Technical Training (Cabo Verde)) says that in Cabo Verde they have developed a strategy to work on social inclusion and reduction of inequalities in the digital sphere. They are creating the necessary conditions, that is, creating a regulatory environment and improving educational systems, to be more ICT friendly. In the effort to keep young people from leaving the country, they have created three hubs: a connectivity hub, a capacity building hub, and a service provision hub. Digital literacy is crucial in solving challenges such as hate speech or violence online. Lopez expressed concern regarding the protection of human rights in an analog world of today, especially in small states. Data protection is the biggest concern for future generations. He asks, can people in developing states survive this digital revolution?

Digital skills have always been important for social inclusion. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that ‘societies have to act now’ in providing these skills, says Ms Polonca Blaznik (Director Information, Society Office (Slovenia)). Access to technology is more difficult for women and vulnerable groups. The digital divide is a collective responsibility and only collaboration can close the digital gap. Open education is important and should be based on inclusiveness. It is an important educational layer for all citizens in both a formal and informal way. ‘Let’s keep the pace with digitalisation while protecting a human-centric attitude, and let’s not forget about ethics when we talk about new emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI)’, says Blaznik. Everything begins and ends with trust. Digitalisation depends on the trust of citizens. For Uruguay, promoting digital society means ‘leaving no one behind’. Eliminating all digital gaps is eliminating social gaps. This is a global challenge to which no country is immune. Digital transformation for a free, open, and inclusive society is a responsibility of states, notes Mr Rodrigo Ferrés (Deputy Secretary to the Presidency and Boardmember AGESIC (Uruguay)). Development of digital technology has had significant consequences for socio-economic changes at the global level. Eruption of smartphones and quality connectivity in private and public spaces has changed the ways people receive an education. Digital transformation is about inclusion, openness, transparency, and democratisation. Uruguay is working very hard to improve in the fields of cybersecurity, interoperability, electronic signatures, and data protection, among others.

Mr Fabrizio Hochschild (Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General) notes that no differences appear in applying human rights in an ‘offline’ and a ‘digital world’. The challenge persists because human rights norms were drafted in the pre-digital age, while the digital sphere has some specific issues. Existing norms give good guidelines to address these specific issues. Because of this, global approaches are required. The EU can take the lead on working together in building such approaches. While all countries are fighting against child abuse online, the reality is that it is on the rise. This points to a lack of collaboration and leadership efforts. Power and diplomatic efforts are aiding in the fragmentation of the Internet, rather than making it more affordable and accessible, notes Hochschild. He called for a collective effort to build a digital society based on strictly human-centric, value-based principles.