Digital Agenda for Europe

The widespread, rapid and extensive development of digital service platforms, as well as debates on public data spaces and new technologies such as artificial intelligence, affect all areas of our society. Many new ways to communicate, shop or access information online have been integrated into our daily lives and are constantly evolving. The European digital agenda for the decade 2020-2030 addresses these issues by focusing on creating secure digital spaces and services, creating a level playing field in digital markets with large platforms and strengthening Europe’s digital sovereignty, while contributing to the European goal of climate neutrality by 2050.

Legal basis

While the Treaties do not contain any special provisions for Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), the EU may take relevant actions within the framework of sectoral and horizontal policies, such as: industrial policy (Article 173 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU)); competition policy (Articles 101, 109 TFEU); trade policy (Articles 206, 207 TFEU); the trans-European networks (TENs) (Articles 170, 172 TFEU); research and technological development and space (Articles 179 and 190 TFEU); energy policy (Article 194 TFEU); the approximation of laws for improving the establishment and the functioning of the internal market (Article 114 TFEU); the free movement of goods (Article 26 and Articles 28-37 TFEU); the free movement of people, services and capital (Articles 45 and 66 TFEU); education, vocational training, youth and sport (Articles 165 and 166 TFEU); and culture (Article 167 TFEU).

Objectives

Following the Lisbon Strategy, the 10-year digital agenda for Europe in 2010 identified for the first time the key enabling role of ICTs in reaching Europe’s goals. In 2015, the digital single market strategy developed the digital agenda further, setting out specific provisions based on three pillars that aimed at ensuring a fair, open, and secure digital environment: 1) providing better access for consumers and businesses to digital goods and services across Europe; 2) creating the right conditions for digital networks and services to flourish; and 3) maximising the growth potential of the digital economy.

In 2020, the second five-year digital strategy – shaping Europe’s digital future – focused on three key objectives in digital: technology that works for people, a fair and competitive economy and an open, democratic and sustainable society. In 2021, the strategy was complemented by the 10-year digital compass: the European way for the digital decade, which puts the EUʼs digital ambitions for 2030 into concrete terms.

Achievements

The first Digital Agenda for Europe: 2010-2020

The first digital agenda focused on better access for consumers and businesses to digital goods and services across Europe by providing the EU with an advanced system of user rights and protection for consumers and businesses, including:

  • Lower prices for electronic communications (Regulation (EU) No 531/2012) and the end of roaming charges on 14 June 2017 (‘Roam Like At Home’);
  • Better internet connectivity for all with comprehensive basic broadband coverage, mainly owing to developments in mobile and satellite broadband to develop gigabit connectivity for all main socio-economic drivers;
  • Better protection of consumers in telecommunications with legislation on privacy (Directive 2009/136/EC) and data protection (Directive 95/46/EC), further improved by the new regulatory framework on data protection (Regulation (EU) 2016/679 and Directive (EU) 2016/680).

In order to create the right conditions for digital networks and services to flourish, the European Parliament strengthened the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), which provides cooperation between national regulators and the Commission, promotes best practices and common approaches, and harmonises regulation on communications in the single market (Regulation (EU) 2018/1971).

The strategy aimed at maximising the growth potential of the digital economy by promoting digital skills and high-performance computing, digitising industry and services, developing artificial intelligence (AI) and modernising public services. New rules on geo-blocking (Regulation (EU) 2018/302) and the portability of digital services (Regulation (EU) 2017/1128) were adopted to allow consumers to also access online content services purchased in one EU Member State when visiting another.

In addition to the new regulatory frameworks on data protection (Regulation (EU) 2016/679 and Directive (EU) 2016/680) mentioned above, the EU has taken a number of steps to facilitate the development of a data-agile economy, such as:

  • The Regulation on the free flow of non-personal data (Regulation (EU) 2018/1807), allowing companies and public administrations to store and process non-personal data wherever they choose;
  • The Cybersecurity Act (Regulation (EU) 2019/881) strengthening the EU Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) and establishing a cybersecurity certification framework for products and services;
  • The Open Data Directive (Directive (EU) 2019/1024) providing common rules for a European market for government-held data.

The second Digital Agenda for Europe: 2020-2030

The second digital agenda focused on profound changes introduced by digital technologies, the essential role of digital services and markets, and new EU technological and geopolitical ambitions. Based on two strategic communications, namely, shaping Europe’s digital future and Europe’s digital decade, the Commission set out the specific actions it will undertake to aid the creation of safe and secure digital services and markets. Furthermore, the development of quantum computing, a blockchain strategy and a trade policy based on blockchain, human-centric and trustworthy artificial intelligence (AI), semiconductors (European Chips Act), digital sovereignty, cybersecurity, gigabit connectivity, 5G and 6G, European data spaces and infrastructure, as well as setting global technology standards, are all priorities for the current decade. On 9 March 2021, the EU proposed a Digital Compass (COM(2021)0118) with four digital targets to be achieved by 2030:

  • Skills: At least 80% of all adults should have basic digital skills and there should be 20 million ICT specialists employed in the EU, while more women should take up such jobs;
  • Businesses: 75% of companies should use cloud computing services, big data and AI; more than 90% of EU small and medium-sized enterprises should reach at least a basic level of digital intensity; and the number of EU unicorns should double;
  • Infrastructure: All EU households should have gigabit connectivity and all populated areas should be covered by 5G; the production of cutting-edge and sustainable semiconductors in Europe should make up 20% of worldwide production; 10 000 climate-neutral highly secure edge nodes should be deployed in the EU, and Europe should have its first quantum computer;
  • Public services: All key public services should be available online; all citizens will have access to their e-medical records, and 80% of citizens should use an electronic identity solution.

The digital Europe programme, a new EU funding programme for digital technology with a planned overall budget of EUR 7.5 billion for the 2021-2027 period, will provide strategic funding to support projects in five areas: supercomputing, AI, cybersecurity, advanced digital skills and ensuring a wide use of digital technologies across the economy and society, including through Digital Innovation Hubs. The fund will be complemented by other EU programmes, such as horizon Europe, the connecting Europe facility for digital infrastructure, the recovery and resilience facility and the Structural Funds Facility. In the context of the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Member States must allocate at least 20% of their recovery funds to projects that digitalise their economies and societies (Regulation EU 2021/694).

As indicated in the White Paper on Artificial Intelligence released in February 2020, AI is deemed to play a pivotal role and is expected to bring multiple societal and economic benefits to a wide range of sectors. In October 2020, the European Parliament adopted three pieces of legislation on AI covering ethics, civil liability and intellectual property (IP), asking the Commission to establish a comprehensive and future-proof European legal framework of ethical principles for the development, deployment and use of AI, robotics and related technologies. On 21 April 2021, the European Commission released its proposal for a new Artificial Intelligence Act (COM(2021)0206), enshrining in EU law a technology-neutral definition of AI systems and adopting a different set of rules tailored on a risk-based approach. The regulation could enter into force in the second half of 2022 with differentiated starting dates of applicability and transitional periods to facilitate implementation.

Data sharing is the second main axis the new European Digital Agenda is based on. While pursuing data-based innovation, the EU intends to safeguard the balance between the free flow of data and the preservation of privacy, security, safety and ethical standards. This includes examining ways to use and share non-personal data in order to develop new profitable technologies and business models. In this regard, in February 2020 a European strategy for data was published together with the White Paper on AI. Data is considered an essential resource for societal progress in general, and for economic growth, competitiveness, innovation and job creation in particular. The creation of a European Data Space is one of the 2019-2025 Commission’s priorities and it will include nine sectors such as health, the environment, energy, agriculture, mobility, finance, manufacturing, public administration and skills. The EU will enable a European cloud as part of its NextGenerationEU plan based on Gaia-X, an open, transparent and secure digital ecosystem, where the free flow of data and services can be made available, collated and shared in an environment of trust. Another cornerstone of the digital strategy is the creation of a safer and more open digital single market protecting users’ fundamental rights and establishing a level playing field for businesses. Therefore two regulations were proposed to upgrade the rules governing digital services in the EU: the Digital Services Act (DSA) (COM(2020)0825) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA) (COM(2020)0842). These legislative packages seek to complete the digital single market through a coherent set of new rules applicable across the whole EU.

Building trust in the online environment is key to social and economic development and hence a further priority. The Regulation on electronic identification and trust services for electronic transactions in the internal market (Regulation (EU) No 910/2014) is a milestone towards creating a predictable regulatory environment helping citizens, businesses and public authorities carry out secure and seamless electronic interactions. As part of the new agenda, the digital services package will be reviewed to improve its effectiveness, extend its application to the private sector and promote its use.

In addition to consistent regulation across the single market, the EU is also placing a focus on educating its citizens in the use of digital technologies. The digital education action plan (2021-2027) is a renewed EU policy initiative to support the sustainable and effective adaptation of the educational and training systems of EU Member States to the digital age. To achieve these objectives, the action plan sets out two priority areas: fostering the development of a high-performing digital education ecosystem and enhancing digital skills and competences for the digital transformation.

In a communication (COM(2020)0784) from December 2020, the Commission articulated its action plan to support the recovery and transformation of the European media and audiovisual sector, tackling long-standing issues, such as market fragmentation. The action plan also stresses the need for the EU and Member States to increase national support for funds made available via approved national recovery plans. The action plan mentions the disruptive impact of global online platforms on the media sector and the need to address the hegemony of these platforms on data and advertising markets.

The European democracy action plan goes hand in hand with the media and audiovisual action plan, which aims to help the sector recover and make the most of the digital transformation. The former also addresses the deterioration of media freedom, as physical and online threats against journalists have been on the rise in several Member States. The digital economy and society index (DESI) is a set of indicators tracking the digital progress of EU countries in realising the single European digital market. Each year, DESI country profiles support Member States in identifying areas requiring priority action. The new indicators have been adjusted to include the recovery and resiliencefFacility (RRF) and the digital compass.

Role of the European Parliament

Parliament advocates robust and advanced resolutions on digital policies and has been very active in the adoption of legislative acts in the area. It has also helped to keep the focus continuously on digital subjects, through own-initiative reports, oral and written questions to the Commission, studies, workshops, opinions and resolutions, as well as through calls for greater coordination of national efforts for the development of pan-European services and EU support for digital research and development.

Parliament systematically consolidates these guarantees through legislation. It is at the forefront in removing obstacles within the digital single market and modernising EU policies for today’s digital and data products and services in order to maximise the digitalisation of the European services sectors, which leads to employment opportunities. It is aimed at boosting cross-border commerce, harmonising digital contract rules, guaranteeing affordable cross-border parcel delivery services, supporting the free flow of non-personal data and implementing simpler VAT declaration procedures. Parliament especially focuses on ensuring digital privacy for EU citizens, and on maintaining and adjusting a high level of consumer protection.

In its resolution of 12 March 2019, Parliament called on the Commission ‘to assess the need to further enlarge the scope of the Network and Information Security (NIS) Directive to other critical sectors and services that are not covered by sector-specific legislation’ and to respond to the growing threats posed by digitalisation. These efforts should be complemented by a strengthened common cybersecurity policy, which includes a common European platform and an enhanced role for (ENISA. The NIS2 Directive will replace the previous Directive (EU 2016/1148) by effectively obliging more entities and sectors to take measures to increase the level of cybersecurity in Europe. Within Parliament, the file has been assigned to the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, which adopted a report on 28 October 2021. The proposal is now subject to negotiations between the co-legislators, Parliament and the Council of the EU.

The Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) most recently adopted its position on the DSA. The DSA will set out clear responsibility and accountability rules for providers of intermediary services and, in particular, online platforms, such as social media and marketplaces. Very large online platforms (VLOPs) will be subject to specific obligations due to the particular risks they pose in the dissemination of both illegal and harmful content. The plenary voted on the amended DSA proposal in the January session. The approved text became Parliament’s mandate for negotiations with EU governments, which are planned to start under the French Presidency of the Council in the first quarter of 2022. Similarly, the IMCO Committee has also adopted its position on the DMA proposal, which sets out the rules on what companies with ‘gatekeeper’ status will be allowed to do in the EU. The proposed regulation will apply to the major companies providing so-called core platform services most prone to unfair practices. These include online intermediation services, social networks, search engines, operating systems, online advertising services, cloud computing, and video-sharing services, which meet the relevant criteria to be designated as ‘gatekeepers’. The DMA file was voted on in the plenary on 15 December 2021. The approved text is also due to be negotiated under the French Presidency of the Council in the first quarter of 2022.

Parliament’s work on the digital transformation has been continuously supported by its Policy Department for Economic, Scientific and Quality of Life Policies through a series of studies and a workshop[1] with a focus on the challenges and opportunities which exist. Of relevance for the DSA and DMA proposals, a study[2] specifically looked into the effects of targeted advertising on consumers and the advertising market. Further academic and market insights were obtained through a workshop[3] that explored the implications and deficiencies of the proposals in their current form, as well as through a hearing with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen (who elucidated some of the malpractices of Big Tech). An upcoming study on the impact of influencers on advertising and consumer protection in the single market will investigate the extent to which influencers are responsible for spreading misleading information and promoting unsafe products. Another upcoming study will elaborate on how new technologies may be used to enhance product safety and hence boost consumer protection. The insights from these studies will likely influence future legislation on the issue in the second half of the legislative term.

 

[1]Blandin, L., E-commerce rules, fit for the digital age, Publication for the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection, Policy Department for Economic, Scientific and Quality of Life Policies, European Parliament, Luxembourg, 2020.
[2]Fourgberg, N et al., Online advertising: the impact of targeted advertising on advertisers, market access and consumer choice, Publication for the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection, Policy Department for Economic, Scientific and Quality of Life Policies, European Parliament, Luxembourg, 2021.
[3]Wiewiorra, L and Godlovitch, I, The Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act – a forward-looking and consumer-centred perspective, Publication for the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection, Policy Department for Economic, Scientific and Quality of Life Policies, European Parliament, Luxembourg, 2021.

Christina Ratcliff / Barbara Martinello / Matteo Ciucci / Fabian Sofsky / Kevin Paul Kaiser