The European Commission has called for the creation of an all-inclusive digital society, embracing the one in three people across the EU currently excluded from digital society through lack of access and skills.

The Commission estimates that economic benefits of €35-85 billion could be generated over five years, if broadband internet were available to all citizens and key services become available to all online, together with society becoming more inclusive.

Last week the Commission launched its e-Inclusion initiative, calling on Member States to support key actions, including an awareness campaign for 2008 "e-Inclusion, be part of it!" e-Accessibility legislation, similar to that of the USA, is also under consideration.

"In today’s society, access to information by all citizens is a right as well as a condition for prosperity. It is neither morally acceptable nor economically sustainable to leave millions of people behind, unable to use Information and Communications Technologies to their advantage" said Viviane Reding EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media.

She said progress on tackling the digital divide had only been half as fast as it should be. “The Commission is sending today a clear signal to all parties concerned: industry, regulators and governments that we must act together now to ensure a barrier-free information society for all."

Setting out its position the Commission said, “Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) must provide freedom of choice and be designed for use by everyone regardless of their personal or social situation, so reducing social disparities”.

In the 2006 Riga Declaration, EU Ministers committed themselves to halving the gaps in internet use digital literacy, and set out plans to achieve 100% accessibility of public websites by 2010. However, progress has remained slow and fragmented and the commission says that Most of the Riga objectives will not be met on time

Without further intervention it warns the current digital divide gap will only be halved in 2015 instead of 2010. The latest assessments conducted for the Commission show that accessibility of websites, communication terminals, TV sets and other ICT remains problematic, with lower-educated, economically inactive and elderly people at the greatest risk of being left behind.

During 2008, the Commission will raise awareness through the aforementioned "e-Inclusion, be part of it!" campaign. This will culminate with a Ministerial Conference towards the end of the year, to demonstrate real progress and to reinforce commitments at all levels.

As well as supporting research and pilots, the Commission will work towards a horizontal legislative approach to make the information society more accessible, to guarantee equal rights and to ensure an effective single market. Several EU Member States (such as the UK, Spain, and Italy) have already started to adopt legislative measures for e-accessibility. In the USA, the "Americans with Disabilities Act” of 1990 led to great improvements, and has recently been applied to on-line services such as websites.


Jon Hoeksma