Sustainable, inclusive and fair digitalisation

It is time to begin a political and public debate on how to prepare democracies and societies for a digital future that guarantees adequate levels of equality and social welfare.

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Christoph Steck /@christophsteck

Director of Public Policy and Internet at Telefónica  


It is time to open a political and public debate on how to prepare democracies and societies for a digital future that guarantees adequate levels of equality and social welfare.

Digitalisation is the main driver of economic and social change in the 21st century. The combination of various factors such as broadband and Internet connectivity, the scope of new technologies such as the Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain or the Internet of things, as well as penetration increasingly high more than smartphones in societies, is creating a new social paradigm that is changing our lives at never before seen speeds.

It is not surprising that, in the face of such rapid changes, a political response has not yet been generated to solve complex challenges. Even so, the lack of political and public debate about how we should prepare our democracies and societies for a digital future in which adequate levels of equality and social welfare are maintained. We are, therefore, at a time of enormous challenges, but also of great opportunities.

Digitalisation and New Digital Deal

We know from historical experience that every time that a technological revolution occurs, the foundations of common coexistence are questioned. The rights and obligations that we agree to in order to live in society, are not immune to changes, on the contrary, the adapt to reality.  In the change from agricultural to an industrial society, it was necessary to create a public education system for all and the development of rights for workers and consumers.

This will require a renewal of social, economic, and democratic institutions, as well as closer and more open collaboration between the public and private sectors. We need a new social contract that defines the borders of this new digital age and to be able to bypass the uncertainty associated with the challenges presented.

People must be at the centre of the changes and it has to promote a collective understanding of how digitalisation can be done in a sustainable and responsible manner, improving equity and guaranteeing non-discrimination, inclusion, transparency and accountability, as well as expanding the individual’s capacity for choice.

Companies should define a New Digital Deal that promotes a collective understanding of how digitalisation can be done fairly, in an inclusive and sustainable way. This will require a public and political debate on how to face the digital change in several aspects.

Firstly, it must be ensured that no one is left behind in the digitalisation process. Half of the world’s population, mainly in developing countries, is still not connected, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in its latest 2017 report and this implies that many people could be excluded from the benefits of digitalisation, both from an individual and collective point of view.

Given that connectivity is the basis of digitalisation, the public and private sectors have to work hand in hand to connect everybody together. We need more innovation from the private sector in the development, operation and commercialisation of connectivity networks; and from the public sector, the appropriate policies and regulations to attract private investments and increase the use of the Internet and digital services. In addition to this, the progress made to date in AI, the Internet of Things and the emergence of the Industrial Internet let us know about profound changes in working models.

Digital Bill of Rights

The Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development (OECD) indicates that 65% of today’s children will have jobs that don’t exist yet. Besides, McKinsey Global Institute predicts that almost half of the work we do today is will be automated in 2025. Machines and people will coexist in a new way in the workplace, and social and human rights will have to adapt to the new environment.

This progress may also generate new forms of inequality that will require public policies for the integration and adaptation of some parts of our society. Digital change will also generate groups of people who will need more time and help to adapt. This means that the digital transformation must be accompanied by social and educational policies to support people through this profound change brought about by digitalisation.

Secondly, we must promote a new approach to company responsibility based on existing values and ethics. Companies must be driven by values and adequately contribute to societies to make digitalisation sustainable. First and foremost, new data ethics are necessary. A human-centred model should enable everyone to decide how and when their data is used. These are a valuable resource for society, and people need to feel comfortable with the use that is made of them. In addition, technology companies should ensure an ethical use of AI and algorithms. Any unjustified discrimination or anti-competitive employment can generate barriers to the acceptance of these technologies. From the same design, they must respond to ethical criteria and be held accountable for their ability to respect people’s rights. Decisions made about people by AI systems and algorithms must be auditable and responsible.

Thirdly, we must modernise our policies and institutions for the digital world and establish the foundations of a Digital Bill of Rights that protects fundamentals. This Digital Bill of Rights must serve to address the problems related to constitutional freedoms in the age of digitalisation in a public debate. This includes, for example, the right to education, information, digital identity, as well as to privacy and data protection.

In addition, a paradigm shift in the traditional conception of the preparation of public policies and regulatory frameworks is essential. Considering the global nature of the Internet, it is necessary to reach global or regional agreements and establish legal interoperability, a framework that enables that the various national standards are compatible and, at the same time, able to protect people.

Although States remain the main actors in the international stage, the digital challenges require greater dialogue with companies and the private sector. It is increasingly obvious that governments, alone, have problems when facing a phenomenon as transversal, complex, fast and global. Several initiatives have already emerged that seek to create standards and regulations of the world level between States and private actors. This is the case, for example, of the global Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network, a multi-stakeholder platform that facilitates the establishment of a process to promote legal interoperability, as well as procedural guarantees between different countries.

In the field of cybersecurity, agreements of a global nature are also being promoted, such as the first Convention on Cybercrime, known as the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, signed in 2001 and which since then has promoted cooperation to promote a common criminal policy.

But it is especially in the field of taxation and the use and data protection which need an update of standards and processes. Governments must rethink tax architectures to ensure fair and equitable tax treatment in the field of digital services. It is about achieving a Level Playing Field in the tax framework that not only guarantees fair treatment of traditional and digital companies, but also to ensure the sustainability of public services such as education and social policies to the challenges and fractures that generates the digitalisation. The OECD, at the request of the G20, has developed proposals on how to achieve an improved system in its BEPS (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting) project, but we need to implement them in agreements and tax practice.

More international cooperation is needed also in the field of data protection to facilitate its cross-border flow in a secure manner. Examples include the Privacy Shield for the legal interoperability of data protection standards between the United States and the European Union, as well as other similar agreements of the EU with third-party countries. In turn, data has become a great competitive asset. Digital services are paid often not with money, but with data and thus need to be considered by the Competition Authorities in the supervision of the markets. This is an example of how the supervision of markets need to modernise to be able to defend fair competition in digital markets which are increasingly becoming more specific and dominated by few global platforms.

New Digital Deal Manifesto Digital Telefónica

In general, given the growing convergence of markets, legislation and the supervision of activities should focus on regulating activities (‘’the what’’), instead of on regulating entities (‘’the who’’), therefore applying the same service, same rules principle.

Thus, regulation must promote innovation and leave room for experimentation for the market players, but being able to act quickly if necessary. Here new regulatory concepts such as Sandbox can be useful, in that they help companies to contrast technologies and new business models in a secure testing environment, without having to face the entire burden from the beginning.

In conclusion, a new paradigm, based on accountability, transparency and the self-regulation of the private sector, together with a more adapted approach to the digital environment of public policies and the supervision of markets. In this way, international cooperation and public-private collaboration are set up as effective solutions to respond to the challenges that arise, given the global nature of the Internet and digital services.

A roadmap should include a Digital Bill of Rights to protect our values and which guarantees the fundamental rights in the digital age, to ensure that digitalisation is sustainable, fair and inclusive. We need a public and political debate that leads to define a New Digital Deal to support our societies and individuals in the transformation towards a digital and automated world.

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