The European Union and Information Society

As early as 1993 and the famous Delors report, The European Commission highlighted the emergence of the Information Society and the important economic and social changes it implied. That led the next year to a report on "Europe and the global information Society". This report stressed that IS was affecting every economic sector and could be compared to the industrial revolution. In 1995, a high-level expert group (European Commission 1997) was formed to analyse the social aspect of the Information Society. This report emphasized on all benefits that can be gained from it, such as new sources of jobs, but also stressed that it represents a cohesion challenge for Europe. It took time to get a concrete plan from the Commission on the Information Society and not until December 1999, was an initiative presented by M. Prodi called "eEurope - An information Society for all" (European Union, 1999).

The key objectives are:

  • Bringing every European online and into the digital age.
  • Creating a digitally literate Europe,
  • Ensuring that the whole process is socially inclusive

In 2000, The European Council affirmed the shift to a knowledge-based economy and that required to build common policies in favour of the development of the Information Society. To respond to this need, an action plan based on eEurope was adopted in June, "eEurope 2002. An information Society for All". The impact of the IS on economy and employment had forced the Commission to consider eEurope 2002 a political priority for the European Union (European Union, 2000).

eEurope 2002 action plan

The action plan sets a key date, 2002 where all targets should be met, but also provides a longer-term perspective. Eleven Targets are set where co-ordinated action by Member states are needed:

Objective 1: Cheaper and faster Internet access

  • Cheaper and faster Internet access
  • Faster Internet for researchers and students
  • Secure networks and smart cards

Objective 2: Investing in people and skills

  • European youth into the digital age
  • Working in the knowledge-based economy
  • Participation for all in the knowledge-based economy

Objective 3 - Stimulate the use of the Internet

  • Accelerating e-commerce
  • Government online: electronic access to public services
  • Health online
  • European digital content for global networks
  • Intelligent transport systems

The full action plan has many aspects to influence the development of the Information Society in every field, but a few points can be highlighted that have a significant impact on bringing IS to all. First, the possibility to use the Structural funds to provide access to the Internet for Schools and provide training for teachers is essential since those funds had always had a big impact on less developed regions of the union. Once again, they could be helpful for the southern Member States that are far behind the Scandinavian countries in this field and could help bridge International Digital Divide, which is important even within the European Union.

In addition, the possible use of the European Social Funds to increase the information technology training places and courses could benefit many people. These funds available everywhere in the Union could also help prevent the Domestic Digital divide by financing projects in remote and poorer regions. But eEurope leaves the Member States in charge of developing national Action plans to reach its goal. The action plan also specifies the necessity to establish that Public Internet Access Points in public spaces. To insure that the targets would be reached, benchmarking has also been introduced with indicators related to the digital divide such as:

  • Internet penetration
  • Internet access costs
  • Number of public Internet access terminals per 1000 people

Another interesting point to notice is that the main indicators of the European Union, such as the Eurobarometer have now all figures about the Information society, which was not the case before.

While the implementation of the plan has to be done mostly by Member States, the Commission also set many initiatives on its own to reach eEurope objectives; it might be interesting to detail some of them:

  • e-Inclusion is the information society dimension of "Social Inclusion Process" launched at The European Council in Nice. In their strategy to fight exclusion, member states must include opportunity for all to participate in the Information Society as stated in the initiative "As the Information Society advances it becomes more important to ensure that disadvantaged people are not left behind. The emerging risks of digital divide underline the urgency of preventive actions for specific target groups mobilising both public and private actors" (European Commission (2), 2001).

This initiative also stresses the new digital opportunities for the inclusion of socially disadvantaged people and less-favoured areas but recognised also that new risks of digital exclusion need to be prevented.

  • eGovernment wants to develop Internet based services to improve access of citizens and businesses to public information and services and at the same time improve the transparency of the public administration. A list of 20 basic public services has to be available on line, such as access to all official documents for example (full list in Annex II).
  • eContent is a programme aimed at stimulating the creation of European contents and promoting linguistic diversity on the web.

eEurope +

In March 2000 Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) decided to launch an "eEurope-like Action Plan" by and for the Candidate Countries in order to prepare their integration in the EU, but also to be part of this knowledge-based economy. It has been called eEurope+ and to facilitate comparison amongst the Candidate Countries but also with EU Member States, actions are clustered around the same three priority objectives and targets identified in eEurope and the same indicators are adopted for monitoring and benchmarking of progress (European Union, 2001).

However, the Candidate Countries, aware that they were not at the same starting point as the EU, included an additional new objective, not previously found in eEurope, which aims to assist in putting in place the fundamental building blocks of the Information Society and provides actions, which tackle the specific situation of the Candidate Countries. The importance of fulfilling this objective to make possible the realisation of the three other ones is stressed by the fact that is has been put before them.

Objective 0.    Accelerate the putting in place of the basic building blocks for the Information Society

  • Accelerate the provision of affordable communication services for all

  • Transpose and implement the acquis relevant to the Information Society

In clearer terms, it means that CEEC must adapt their infrastructure in terms of communication services in a liberalized market. The goal is to ensure that all citizens have access to good quality and affordable telecommunication services

Europeans and Internet

It seems interesting to look at what are the expectations of Europeans concerning the Information Society and more particularly the Internet. All figures in this paragraph have been taken from the latest Eurobarometer in June 2001 (European Commission (2), 2001).

When asked why they do not use the Internet, Europeans put forward the lack of access as the main barrier (58%) underlining the fact that it is unavailable for them or unaffordable. Not surprisingly, cost factors are underlined most by the unemployed. The lack of knowledge is cited by 39.6% and is more frequently admitted as a main barrier by women non-users (49 % compared to 28 % among men) and older people (51 %). Interestingly more than 40 % think that the lack of appropriate contents is also stopping them from using Internet. Aside from that, 28 % declared themselves not interested. This high figure shows that besides Access, Training, and contents a fourth point to consider is Attitude. You cannot force people to use Internet and it is a personal choice to make. Nevertheless, the groups already in a difficult social position are the ones who are the more reluctant to use Internet, maybe simply because they do not see what the point is for them. In the more advanced Information Society Countries such as Sweden or Denmark, only less than 10 % of the population shows no interest to use the Internet, maybe because there people can see the advantages of using Internet.

Preventing a digital divide is widely supported by public opinion and 64% Europeans are in favour of public authorities actions to give access to ICT to everyone. When asked which measure should be developed, the creation of Public Internet Access points comes first (59.4%) followed by the creation of more online public services (49.3%) and adequate training (40.5%). It is interesting to notice the similitude with eEurope 2002 action plans.

When these people were asked what measures would make them decide personally to go from non-user to user of Internet, they emphasized the need to lower the costs of equipment and connection and the provision of adequate training as the most significant means to do so. That demonstrates that people want to have personal access, which is without any doubt the best way to use Internet, especially for the use of emailing. Everyone, particularly those who do not have access at the workplace and/or cannot afford it at home, should be enabled to use Internet access in the neighbourhood therefore the need of PIAP is real as shown before. The survey confirmed that point in showing that Public Internet Access points are more used by disadvantaged people. While in Europe only 8 % of Internet Users use PIAPs, this figure rises to 12.2% for unemployed and jumps to 19.9% for low-income women. If in more advanced countries, there are much more personal access, the PIAPs there are use by 20% of the Internet Users and shows that the potential is much wider for the use of PIAPs. Last point, non-users stress the importance of appropriate public locations and especially the possibility to access Internet free.