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Bridging the digital divide

In an era defined by the rapid evolution of the digital society, the European Union stands at the forefront of efforts to bridge the (geographical, socioeconomic, generational, educational, ethnic) divide caused by digitalization between certain groups of its societies. As the world grapples with the impact of algorithms on society and elections, it is essential to explore the legal dimensions of this digital transformation. In the legal field, the digital society is generally concerned with the regulation of algorithms and their impact on society as well as on elections and voters. In this blog post, I will write from a different perspective, about the role of the state in relation to the digital society.

The information society is a new form of social coexistence in which infocommunication tools, the content associated with them, the knowledge that can operate them, generate knowledge and then innovation that catalyze and reorganize socio-economic and cultural processes. The term ‘information society’ refers to the enormous role that information plays in building and shaping society, the rapid development of information and communication technology (ICT), which has led to new ways of life, functioning and behaving, and the associated globalisation of the manufacturing, service and media industries. Now we live in a network society, that is an emerging form of society where new communications technologies have enabled social relationships to form that are no longer geographically bounded.

The information society first developed in the United States and Japan in the 1960s and then in the UK in the 1970s. It emerged in the “little tiger” states in the early 1990s and in the millennium in the states that later joined the EU. The global digital society is estimated to be in place by 2018-2020, but it is not yet present in parts of Africa, Asia or Latin America, for example.

The criminal law problems associated with the digital society date back to the 1950s in the form of computer-related crime: the first computer-related embezzlement in 1959 and the first “real” computer crime in 1966.

The development of artificial intelligence is linked to the emerging opportunities of the information society and will undoubtedly make a significant contribution to shaping the future of the information society. Artificial intelligence can help improve healthcare, make cars safer, and create customised, cheaper and more durable products and services. It can also facilitate access to information, education and training – something that has become particularly important with the rise of distance learning. AI can also help make workplaces safer and create new jobs through robots, as AI-enabled industries continue to develop and grow.

Those disadvantaged by digital inequalities will not (or only marginally) benefit from the positive effects of AI, but will be more affected by its disadvantages. For example, the European Parliament estimates that 14% of jobs in OECD countries could be highly automated and a further 32% could face significant changes. The use of artificial intelligence is also expected to lead to many job losses. While AI is expected to create better jobs, education and training will play a crucial role in providing a skilled workforce in the field.

Digital inequality means that the gap between those who have access to and use info-communication technologies and services and those who are unable to do so is reproducing and deepening social inequalities.

This can be along a number of dimensions, for example at the age level, in which case there is a gap between young and older users. In this case, the intergenerational gap is at the expense of the older generations, and the term ‘reverse socialisation’ is used to describe the age-old tradition of young people teaching older people in this area. There is also often a geographical difference: in the order of the spread of the devices, the capital comes first, followed by the larger cities, and so on. Smaller communities are sometimes completely excluded from the digital society, or only join it with a significant lag, so that digitisation takes place at the expense of lagging regions and areas. There is also digital inequality at the material and existential level, where there is a divide between those who can afford these technologies and those who cannot.

The dimensions are mostly combined, resulting in a cumulative disadvantaged status. For the groups at the more disadvantaged end of the scale, as listed above, the ICT infrastructure available is often limited to community spaces, minority government offices and schools. Surveys of the digital divide found that the largest gaps were found among minorities living in the state, those with low levels of education and those aged 60 and over, and those living in smaller communities.

Closing the digital divide is a modern-day public task. It is not by chance that the OECD made its recommendations on digital government in 2014. Among its expectations were an emphasis on ensuring openness and greater transparency and accountability in government processes and operations, and on reducing the digital divide and digital exclusion by providing technological infrastructure and knowledge.

There are many methods and examples of how states are trying to address this challenge. For example, as in the case of traditional social inequalities, the education system can play an important role in this situation. At present, there are basically three types of attitudes on the part of educational institutions and educational policy, which can be grouped around the ‘ban-tolerate-support’ approach.

An example of the ban is France, where the lower house of parliament passed the so-called ‘detox’ law, which bans the use of mobile devices by French students on school premises from September 2018, to prevent children from becoming addicted to screens. The aim of the rule is to create the right to disconnect from digital pressures and stress during school hours. This new right in the adult world, means that employers cannot, for example, oblige their employees to monitor their email after working hours. As of 1 January 2017, in France, workers are not obliged to answer their phone after 5pm if their boss calls them, nor do they have to reply to office emails.

There are arguments for and against this regulation. The arguments in favour are that internet addiction, the latest form of behavioural addiction, and school-age youth and young adults in particular are at risk. They are unable to reduce their Internet use by their own choice, and typical symptoms include not eating, staying up all night, and disruption of daily rhythms. And if deprived, they suffer withdrawal symptoms: they become anxious, restless, irritable, like other addictions.

In this regard, Hungary is in a mixed situation: there are examples of bans, where a school’s policy is that children are not allowed to bring phones to school, or they have to hand them in in the morning and only get them back in the afternoon, but for the ban to really work, it needs to be very consistent both from the school and from individual teachers. However, it cannot be said that there is a clearly established position in education on tackling digital inequalities. For example, the provision of free computing equipment is mentioned, which is linked to the very different approach that is being taken to the inclusion of digital tools in education as a goal. This is where the responsibility and role of the state is most strongly expressed, as part of the Digital Wellbeing Programme 2.0 and the Digital Education Strategy in Hungary. 2017 also saw the first Digital Education Conference and Exhibition (DOKK), where the aim was to ensure that no one should be excluded from education without basic digital skills, and that young people should have equal opportunities regardless of where they study, what kind of school they attend or what their social background is.

In Italy, one of the countries that have undergone the biggest development with regard to digital inequalities out of all EU countries, the aim is to promote information and communication technology-related professions and to increase the number of companies employing information and communication technology professionals. The Italian government in 2009 started the e-Gov 2012 plan as a part of a broader action targeted  to  innovate  and  modernize  the Italian  PA.  The  plan had  the  merit  to contribute to diffuse ICT technologies in schools and universities with specific regard to  the  improvement of  administrative  processes,  the  promotion of transparency  and efficiency,  and  to strengthen  PA’s capability  of offering  better  services to  citizens. With regards to the education sector, the plan contributes to diffuse Internet technologies in schools and  universities to  provide better  services to schools/universities, but  also  to  families  and  students.  In  particular  at  the  primary  and  secondary  school level a set of priority projects were started for: offering all schools an Internet connection; including digital contents into education processes, also involving publishers; offering a set of  web-based  services  to  ease the interaction between the families and the schools through the use of several different digital media; creating a  public  online  registry  in  which  performance  evaluations  of  single schools shall be made transparent and available to citizens; providing students  with a  personal  computer  as a  personal  tool  to  support  their learning activities.

The Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), which summarises indicators of Europe’s digital performance and tracks the progress of EU countries, has identified Finland as the best performing Member State in the digital sector. For example, the country has placed particular emphasis on ensuring that older people have the widest possible access to the internet, and is also paying close attention to education. In general, there is a strong emphasis on catching up. An initiative taken by the Finnish government is the Kansalaisen tieto (Citizen’s Information) program. This program provides free access to government websites and services, including healthcare and education, to anyone with a Finnish social security number. This ensures that everyone has access to important information and services, regardless of their financial situation. In addition to government initiatives, Finland has also seen success in bridging the digital divide through community-based programs. For example, the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Libraries have implemented a program called “Library on Wheels,” which brings mobile libraries equipped with computers and internet access to underserved communities. This program not only provides access to the internet but also promotes literacy and education. The government has set a goal of providing all citizens with access to a high-speed broadband connection by 2025. This policy includes investing in infrastructure to expand broadband coverage to rural areas and providing subsidies to low-income households to help them afford internet services.

In recent years, states have increasingly focused their attention on eliminating digital inequalities, which is no coincidence: with the increasing development of artificial intelligence, if the necessary steps are not taken sooner, the gap between the population and infrastructure of impoverished and lagging regions and those of more digitalised regions will only grow, which could lead to irreversible disparities.

In conclusion, the digital divide is a multifaceted challenge that transcends geographical, socioeconomic, generational, educational, ethnical and other boundaries. As we’ve explored from the European Union’s legal perspective, the divide is a pressing issue in the modern world, one that demands coordinated efforts and legal frameworks to bridge these gaps.

In the ever-evolving digital landscape, access to information and communication technologies is no longer a luxury but a necessity. The European Union recognizes this and is actively working to ensure that all its citizens have equal access to the opportunities and benefits offered by the digital age.

Efforts are being made to regulate algorithms, promote digital literacy, and reduce disparities in digital infrastructure. However, there is much work to be done. The EU’s commitment to inclusivity, transparency, and accountability in the digital realm is a cornerstone of its strategy. As we move forward, it is imperative that we continue to prioritize digital inclusion and address the legal challenges presented by the digital divide. By doing so, we can work toward a future where every individual, regardless of their background, has the means to thrive in the digital society and where no one is left behind in the digital age.

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