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28th May 2022

EU Commission wants to set world's first digital standards

  • EU Commission vice-president Margrethe Vestager and internal market commissioner Thierry Breton spell out the role for the digital principles (Photo: European Commission)
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The EU Commission on Wednesday (26 January) set out a proposal for digital rights and principles, with the aim to protect people's rights, privacy, democracy and security in the online world.

The principles are to provide a guideline for policymakers in the 27 member states, public administrations, and companies when dealing with or developing new technologies.

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The commission wants to sign a joint declaration with the European Parliament and the EU Council by the summer and to have the principles act as "a reference", "a benchmark" for all in the bloc. It will not act as a legislation, however.

"We are not creating new rights or principles, we already have fundamental rights that do apply online," commission vice-president Margrethe Vestager said.

"All that what is illegal in the physical world should also be illegal in the digital world," internal market commissioner Thierry Breton told reporters.

The principles are rooted in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the EU treaty.

The declaration wants to make sure that "technological solutions respect people's rights, enable their exercise and promote inclusion".

It also commits to "ensuring access to excellent connectivity for everyone", "protecting a neutral and open internet", promoting digital education, and promote a safe and inclusive online environment.

The declaration wants to ensure "that everyone shall be able to disconnect" to protect the work-life balance.

It also wants to make sure "that all Europeans are offered an accessible, secure and trusted digital identity", and that data does not predetermine people's choices in education, health, and private life.

The declaration also aims to ensure "transparency about the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence", defending from data breaches and cyberattacks, and to protect freedom of expression.

Catch-up with China and US

The EU executive wants these rights and principles to shape global digital rights protection standards, as the US and China have been at the forefront in developing online platforms and devices with the EU playing catch-up.

US tech giants, such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, dominate the online world, with Chinese companies - Huawei and Alibaba - not falling far behind, and are in the lead when it comes to shaping the rules in the online world.

The commission has been pushing for a digital transformation of the bloc's economy, including doubling the EU's microchip manufacturing capacity, and ramping up data storage and processing centres.

The real-world struggle between democratic societies and authoritarian governments is also present in the debate on how to run the internet.

The US is planning to launch "in the coming weeks" a so-called Alliance for the Future of the Internet, a coalition of democracies, committing to support the free and open internet. The EU was also invited to be part of the initiative, which was postponed due to criticism by rights groups.

"We see similar discussions happen in Australia, in India and in the United States," Vestager told reporters.

"We aim to be in the forefront of this global momentum and create something that allows us to take action on the ground and to take action together if we can inspire like-minded partners," she added.

The commission has also been pushing legislation to regulate online platforms and defend fundamental rights.

The Digital Services Act aims to become the world first-ever legally binding tool setting out transparency obligations for online players and holding tech giants accountable.

The EU executive also set out proposals for online campaigning and political advertising, and also laid down draft rules on how to use artificial intelligence to defend fundamental rights.

Tight-lipped on Pegasus

The commission also hopes the principles will help citizens' be more aware of their digital rights.

However, the two commissioners were tight-lipped when asked about the Polish and Hungarian government's use of the Pegasus spyware to track journalists and opposition politicians.

Breton said the commission is following investigations that are ongoing in member states, and added without naming the two countries that "any attempt by authorities to spy or to intimidate journalist is forbidden".

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