In her first State of the Union Address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen extensively outlined the next steps for the development of digital policy in the EU.
Reiterating the Commission’s plans for further digitalization in Europe, the President has once again stressed the need to strengthen the EU’s commitment towards a common digital policy, not only as an effective means to face the multiple challenges that the coronavirus pandemic has presented, but also to support Europe’s transition to a greener and more innovative Union.
With regards to the EU’s next steps for digital policy development, Von der Leyen proposed to allocate 20% of the total Recovery Fund package towards financing digital policies In particular, she has identified three fundamental policy areas – data, artificial intelligence and digital infrastructure – that will become increasingly pertinent in the forthcoming years, which she defines as Europe’s “digital decade”.
On the matter of data, her address highlighted the potential benefits of leveraging industrial data, expressing concern at the fact that “80% of industrial data is still collected and never used.” She has defined these huge amounts of unused data as “pure waste”, which are to be secured and made “easily accessible” to public and private actors to encourage innovation through universities, research centres and regional clusters. On data, she also shed light on issues related to personal data and B2C data, calling for common data collection at the European level – especially for energy and healthcare sectors – through an EU cloud system based on the ongoing Gaia X project.
In the area of artificial intelligence, Von der Leyen stressed the importance of increasing transparency in how algorithms operate. “Algorithms must not be a black box and there must be clear rules if something goes wrong,” she said, conveying the need to establish clear regulations with regards to AI. In this regard, von der Leyen has announced the Commission’s plan to develop a ‘secure and transparent’ European e-identify platform. This would allow the creation of an ‘EU-wide public electronic identification system’, thereby allowing citizens to safely access cross-border digital services.
On the third policy area, digital infrastructure, the Commission President expressed her wish to significantly improve connectivity in Europe’s rural areas and to bridge the existing connectivity divide, deeming it “unacceptable” that 40% of people in rural areas lack any fast broadband access. Especially in this time period, connectivity has become a crucial aspect of our lives as the scope for online learning, shopping and smart working have largely increased due to the coronavirus. As part of her digital infrastructure vision, von der Leyen also announced a foreseen investment of 8 billion euros in the ‘next generation of supercomputers’ and in the future development of processors.
Notwithstanding the comprehensive nature of her speech, on der Leyen was criticised for failing to address the Digital Services Act, the Commission’s forthcoming regulation package concerning online services. This omission was described as “completely disappointing” by a Renew MEP, who even expressed doubts on the President’ “real interest” regarding future digital policy in the EU.