The importance of technology, connectivity and cybersecurity in everyday life has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The introduction of lockdowns to prevent the virus spreading meant society became dependent on digital technologies like never before.
In an effort to save lives and ease the pressure on hospitals, millions of people began working remotely from home while much of our shopping, socialising and learning activities was done using computers and mobile devices.
Even crucial public services became accessible online and the pandemic provided a glimpse of both the possibilities and potential vulnerabilities of technology and digitisation.
It has been a new experience for many, but even before the coronavirus struck the European Commission had already made creating a Europe fit for the digital age one of its main priorities for 2019-2024.
Ireland’s digital life
The European Commission monitors the digital progress of Member States through annual Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) reports. Ireland ranks 6th in the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) for 2020 and has been the fastest growing Member State in the EU over the previous five years.
Ireland ranked first in the Integration of digital technology dimension, and maintained a leading position in the use of e-Commerce by SMEs. The country report also noted that work was underway amongst local authorities to develop local digital strategies.
Ireland lags behind other EU states when it comes to connectivity, ranking 23rd overall but is sixth when it comes to fast broadband that’s being rolled out under the National Broadband Plan.
The EU digital strategy aims to get more women interested in technology and increase the number of female tech entrepreneurs. According to the European Commission’s 2020 Women in Digital (WiD) Scoreboard, only 18% of ICT specialists are women.
Ireland ranks 7th in the WiD Scoreboard and is first in female STEM graduates and women in specialist skills and employment.
Digital strategy for Ireland
Ireland has not updated its National Digital Strategy since 2013 and while a public consultation on a new strategy was held in 2018 it remains to be seen exactly how Ireland will deliver its digital transformation.
However, digital transformation is one of the core economic policy issues in Ireland and development of an artificial intelligence strategy is at an advanced stage. A new Digital Strategy for Schools was also introduced in 2021 and an Adult Digital Literacy Strategy is being developed while a strategy for the digital transformation of the manufacturing sector and its supply chain has been in place since 2019.
The European Commission is working on a digital transformation that puts people first, opens new opportunities for business and works towards achieving Europe’s Green Deal ambition of becoming the first climate neutral continent by 2050.
The EU approach to the digital future is designed to ensure technology improves the daily life of citizens and creates an environment that makes it easier for businesses to start, grow, innovate and compete.
The digitisation of Europe will take time, and it presents many challenges, including bridging the digital divide between those with access to computers and the internet and those with limited access or who struggle with technology.
The European Commission has set up a ‘Digital Compass’ that translates the EU’s digital ambitions into concrete targets to be achieved over the next decade.
The rights and freedoms of citizens must be protected in the digital transition and a framework of principles will be developed through a wide societal debate to help promote and uphold EU values in the digital space.
Digital Decade targets for 2030 include:
- At least 80% of all adults should have basic digital skills, and there should be 20 million employed ICT specialists in the EU, with more women taking up these positions;
- All EU households should have gigabit connectivity and all populated areas should be covered by 5G;
- Three out of four companies should use cloud computing services, big data and Artificial Intelligence and more than 90% of SMEs should have at least a basic level of digital intensity;
- All key public services should be available online and all citizens should have access to their e-medical records.
To reach the objectives set out by the Digital Compass, the European Commission is accelerating the launch of multi-country projects that will develop pan-European technologies and digital infrastructure.
These will be funded by combining investments from the EU budget, Member States and industry. Member States are committed to dedicate at least 20% of their Recovery and Resilience Plans to the digital priority.
Every day terabytes of information passes across the internet including private, personal data.
Under EU rules personal data can only be gathered for a legitimate purpose, under strict legal conditions, and anybody who collects and manages personal information must protect it from misuse.
Data protection was enhanced across the EU in 2018 through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This regulation gives individuals the right to request a copy of any personal data organisations may be holding about them. Citizens also have the right to have their data erased swiftly under the GDPR, and companies and organisations have to follow strict rules when it comes to data processing.
In 2020 the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy presented a new EU Cybersecurity Strategy.
The new strategy aims to safeguard a global and open Internet by developing tools to ensure security and protect European values as well as the fundamental rights of everyone.
The European Union has already made progress in bringing technology closer to people, while ensuring privacy and data rights are respected.
One of the most visible benefits of EU Digital Strategy has been the elimination of mobile phone roaming charges. Since 2017 phone calls, SMS messaging and going online with your mobile phone are all covered by your mobile subscription, wherever you travel in the EU.
Unjustified geographically based restrictions – or geoblocking - that undermine online shopping and cross-border sales also ended in 2018.
A European Commission initiative is providing free Wi-Fi for millions of citizens in Europe’s parks, squares, public buildings, libraries, health centres and museums. Under the WiFi4EU initiative cities, towns and districts in Member States can apply for vouchers to the value of €15,000 to install Wi-Fi equipment in public spaces. Ireland has been awarded 114 WiFi4EU vouchers so far.
The European Commission has also taken action to combat online fake news, and increased pressure on social media platforms to stop the spread of disinformation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
The Commission also helped citizens, including teachers, to utilise digital networks to help with work, creativity and entertainment during the pandemic and initiated the Digital Green Certificate to facilitate the safe, free movement of citizens within the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic.