The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic created a unique state of affairs for global economies and society as a whole. As communities worldwide faced unprecedented challenges, many actors across Europe, including states and the private sector, had to adapt and act quickly to adjust to the new circumstances. That said, the global health crisis also brought about new opportunities for the European digital economy.
Panellist Ms Audrey Plonk (Head, Digital Economy Policy Division, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)), Mr Patrick Penninckx (Head, Information Society Department, Council of Europe), Ms Caterina Bortolini (Head, International and European Institutional Affairs, TIM; Member, Executive Board, European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO), and Mr Stephen Taylor (Deputy Director General, AREA Science Park) came together to discuss the risks and opportunities COVID-19 brought to Europe’s digital economy.
Internet access is not a luxury
Resilient and stable network operators played a fundamental role in the context of the COVID-19 crisis and economic functioning. The main reason was the increased demand for broadband services due to the rapid shift to online working and learning, which saw many network operators experience a 60% increase in Internet traffic compared to before the pandemic.
Nevertheless, the crisis also further exacerbated the gap between those who were connected and those who were left behind. Reflecting on the lack of Internet access, the speakers agreed that being connected to the Internet is not a luxury, but a prerequisite and a critical infrastructure for societies and economies.
It was therefore highlighted that the telecommunications industry has to apply a forward-looking approach that promotes investment and co-investment in both the short and long term, in addition to building trust and upskilling on information and communications technology (ICT) matters in order to bridge the digital divide in the recovery process.
Human rights in the digital economy
The speakers also touched upon the issue of human rights in the digital economy that was brought into greater focus by COVID-19. In order to flatten the curve of the pandemic, many states and tech companies started developing and adopting digital contact-tracing systems that raised serious concerns over privacy and data protection.
The participants stressed that there should be no disparity between health security and human rights, and that contact-tracing apps should therefore be subject to independent and effective oversight and audits. In this regard, data protection authorities should be involved from the outset of the development of systems, and should use their powers of intervention and investigation to ensure data protection requirements are really enforced.
Given that new challenges have emerged for human rights in the digital age, continuing the business-as-usual approach will translate to going down the wrong path. Instead, we should reflect on the type of sustainable society that we want to create, and what should be the role of digital technology in that society.
Science as a source for innovation
The discussion also covered how science can contribute to more sustainable innovation and evidence-based decision-making. As a field where new ideas are developed, tested, and evaluated, science can help provide the necessary evidence, and advance the implementation of new technological developments and innovations into the industry. Science can also help contribute to a hybrid and flexible approach that will become increasingly present in the future where certain activities will remain onsite while others will move online.