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Document 51997AC0768

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the 'Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on Europe at the forefront of the global information society: rolling action plan'

OJ C 296, 29.9.1997, p. 13–18 (ES, DA, DE, EL, EN, FR, IT, NL, PT, FI, SV)

51997AC0768

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the 'Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on Europe at the forefront of the global information society: rolling action plan'

Official Journal C 296 , 29/09/1997 P. 0013


Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the 'Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on Europe at the forefront of the global information society: rolling action plan` (97/C 296/04)

On 29 November 1996 the Commission decided to consult the Economic and Social Committee, under Article 198 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the above-mentioned communication.

The Section for Industry, Commerce, Crafts and Services, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 4 June 1997. The rapporteur was Mr Pellarini.

At its 347th plenary session (meeting of 9 July 1997), the Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 119 votes to one.

1. Introduction

1.1. The Economic and Social Committee has been asked to prepare an opinion on the communication from the Commission on the strategy, adopted by the European Union in July 1994 (), for ensuring the establishment of the information society (IS) in Europe.

1.2. The communication comes as a follow-up to the July 1996 communication on priorities (), which announced an amended and updated rolling action plan for phase II of the EU information society strategy.

1.3. The rolling plan is the result of a wide-ranging assessment of the information society, which has led to the identification of four new priority areas (see chapter II):

- improving the business environment, within a liberalized telecommunications framework, including new measures to assist SMEs;

- investing in the future, putting special emphasis on schools and young people;

- putting people first, with special emphasis on cohesion and employment;

- meeting the global challenge by establishing international rules on market access, intellectual property rights, privacy, protection against illegal uses, etc.

1.4. The aim of the plan is 'to present a list of all important actions, in particular legal measures, required to further implement the information society in Europe` (see chapter III). The annex to the communication lists the main measures taken by the Community in this sphere.

1.5. The communication therefore:

- serves as a navigation tool for the Member States and the EU institutions;

- helps the business sector to plan its investments;

- provides the social partners with full information, enabling them to comment and make suggestions;

- serves as a useful internal management tool for the Commission.

2. General comments

2.1. The communication is undoubtedly of great strategic interest and value, given that the information society will provide a key to economic and social opportunities for the individual Member States and for the EU as a whole.

2.2. As on many occasions in the past (), the Committee stresses that the establishment of the information society is a complex challenge, and it welcomes the steps taken to revamp the action plan.

2.3. The efforts of the individual Member States and of the European Union (as a player in the political and economic spheres) should be directed to defining and establishing a European model for the information society.

2.4. In developing such a model, attention should not focus solely on achieving the highest technological standards, on framing laws and regulations (important though these are) and on the information society's effects on the economy, on finance and on trade.

2.4.1. As well as ensuring the highest possible level of competitiveness and full integration in the global market, the European IS model must also take account of social issues, i.e. employment, cohesion and equal conditions for all, and cultural factors.

2.5. As the Commission stated in its Green Paper on Living and working in the information society (), the human dimension has top priority. So that this does not remain a mere declaration of intent without real substance, strategy and operative decisions in respect of the information society will have to accommodate the actual requirements of business, individuals, the social partners and those involved in the cultural sphere.

2.6. There is no doubt that the range of actions listed in the rolling plan (some major objectives already met, other measures under way and a programme for the future) provides a systematic response to such requirements.

2.7. However, because many interests are involved and, above all, because the information society will have a major impact on economic and social development, and even on the policy-making role of the European Union, it is essential that all the institutional players evaluate strategies and programmes very carefully indeed.

3. Comments

3.1. The rolling plan which, in the Commission's own words, is 'the result of a wide reflection process on the information society` (see chapter II, paragraph 5), also provides an opportunity to monitor the progress of the various information-society programmes and measures, and to assess them in general and in policy terms.

3.2. The Committee wishes, through the present opinion, to express its views on the strategy pursued to date, to identify some priority areas, and to reiterate those comments made in its most recent opinions on the information society which have not been followed up.

3.3. Indeed, a careful review of the rolling plan programmes immediately reveals some major problems.

3.4. First and foremost, there is the question of EU deadlines for implementing the information society, particularly those for telecommunications, and the path being followed.

3.5. Given all the measures still under way or yet to come, it is possible that the minimum legislation for the liberalization of the telecommunications sector might not be in place by the 1 January 1998 deadline.

3.6. It is worth recalling here the Committee's recently expressed surprise that the Commission has stuck to a strict implementation of its schedule, although it considers a clear-cut, stable legislative framework to be essential for the development of the information society ().

3.7. It is clear, looking carefully at specific measures for which the decision-making process is either still under way or has not even started (see attached table), that some major directives and decisions have not yet been approved (). Without them, the full potential of telecommunications liberalization and of the information society would not be tapped, and economic and social imbalances could be exacerbated.

3.8. This does not mean, of course, that the liberalization deadline should be called into question. However, Community bodies should be prevailed on to ensure that clearly defined rules, designed to make liberalization useful for the public and the business sector, are framed by 1 January 1998.

3.9. The Member States should also take early steps to bring their rules and regulations into line with one another, especially with respect to telecommunications and audiovisual services.

4. Priority areas

4.1. The first question is both general and policy-related. The Geneva agreements on the liberalization of basic telecommunications and the agreement on information technology (), due to be signed soon, open up new scenarios and a wealth of new opportunities. It has been said that telecommunications are the way ahead in the new millennium, and the figures bear this out: 50 million computers were sold in 1995, as against less than 35 million motor vehicles.

4.2. However, it will take at least four or five years for the real benefits of liberalization to work through. Although the agreement formally enters into force on 1 January 1998, many of the 69 participating countries will bring the more radical changes into effect over the following five years.

4.3. Liberalization's main beneficiaries will be the large industrial groups and the technologically and industrially advanced countries. Exactly how competition will be affected is anybody's guess. In the UK, British Telecom still controls more than 80 % of the fixed telephone market ten years after liberalization; in other Member States (Italy, for instance) the sector is still monopolized by a single company.

4.4. The likelihood is that vitally important matters will be resolved for the benefit of those who are able to exert the most political pressure. The trend for increasingly close links between telecommunications and media firms in many countries should be curbed via tighter checks and in keeping with Community competition rules.

4.5. As on many occasions in the past (), the Committee again stresses that it is absolutely vital to define access to ownership, both in the telecommunications sector and in the media (Communication measures 106 and 111), and to examine the implications of convergence (green paper - measure 114), thereby ensuring that liberalization does not lead to media concentration and loss of pluralism.

4.6. Liberalization will also vastly increase the range of services offered. Ways must therefore be found to distribute costs fairly and squarely between cable network owners and operators, and programme suppliers and users.

4.7. The universal service is another issue which is not yet completely resolved. It is not merely a question of clearly defining universal service (this has already been done), but of making it clear who pays and how much, while at the same time ensuring that, after liberalization, the same conditions apply to traditional operators and new entrants.

4.8. Who will pay the costs of access to the 'social` networks, e.g. hospitals, universities or schools? How will geographical coverage be guaranteed in non-profitable areas?

4.8.1. It would be wise to clarify these important questions before 1998 and to spell out how the social costs, that might be ascribed to the universal service, would be funded.

4.8.2. Leaving this until after liberalization could make things even more difficult.

4.9. The three directives listed under points 203, 204 and 205 covering interconnection and universal service are of priority importance for effective liberalization, and will have to be finalized in the coming months.

4.10. Protection of encrypted services (measure 113), which is necessary to ensure the public's right to privacy, is another delicate and as yet unresolved problem. It is to be hoped that Europe will develop innovative and original technologies in this area too.

4.11. There is considerable uncertainty in the television sector as regards competitiveness, especially with respect to wide screens and advanced services (measures 109 and 201). Any delays here could heavily penalize European industry.

5. Public authorities' strategic role

5.1. Another major problem is the 'foot-dragging` and resistance to change by the public authorities.

5.2. Indeed, the Commission puts 'organizational inertia` (see chapter II, paragraph 4) at the top of its list of major obstacles to the information society.

5.3. A solution to this widespread problem has to be found, as many key services for both the general public and business are managed by public authorities. This is one of the major impediments to a successful information society. Ensuring that public authorities implement the IS should be given top priority, with the EU and the individual Member States allocating resources to bring this about.

5.4. Public authorities require funds for technological modernization, but they also require suitable human resources. There is therefore a need to continue and to strengthen training and retraining programmes for civil servants.

6. Towards a European information society model

6.1. The Committee remains convinced, as already stated in the opinion on the Green Paper on living and working in the information society (), that the EU information society should be based on a coherent European model. The Committee also feels that this will require an overall strategy which should be implemented via the overall plan and the individual measures.

6.2. A European model should not only be designed to meet technological and industrial requirements, but should promote quality of life, cohesion, democratic principles, equal opportunities and cultural pluralism.

6.3. The design and implementation of a European information society model is all the more necessary as the pace of development of the information society has varied from one Member State to another, and between Member States and the countries seeking EU membership, such as the CEEC. A considerable effort will therefore be required to provide the technology that is lacking and to ensure that what is already available is compatible and homogeneous.

6.4. Care should be taken to ensure that the EU does not end up with an information society that is liberalized, yet very differentiated vertically (by social grouping), or horizontally (by geographical areas and countries).

6.5. When establishing a European IS model, the Commission should be pressured to act on at least three issues: protection of minors, training and information for young people and adults, and cohesion.

6.6. The strategy designed to protect minors and combat illegal on-line content should be buttressed by rapid operational decisions and effective actions. The Commission has done excellent work via its communication and green paper (), on which it is conducting extensive consultations.

6.6.1. An international conference on these delicate issues, proposed by the German government and accepted by the Council of Industry Ministers on 8 October 1996, was held in July 1997, to which the UN specialized agencies were invited. The Committee understands that this was the import of measure 131, although this is not clearly stated.

6.7. In discussing training, the communication on the rolling plan oversimplifies matters when it states that 'broadly speaking, the information society is also a generation phenomenon` and that 'only by introducing specific actions focusing on the younger generation can the best conditions be prepared for access and acceptance of (the) information society by the population at large` (chapter 2.2).

6.7.1. The questionable nature of this statement is borne out by the mention, within the same paragraph, of 'life-long learning` in reference to 'Learning in the information society`.

6.7.2. It is not sufficient to involve young people. Adults too must be targeted via information and training programmes designed to ensure that they fully grasp and are able to exploit the opportunities held out by the information society.

6.7.3. Finally, special attention should also be focused on trainers and on all communications sector operators, in order to ensure that the measures taken have as wide and sustained an impact as possible.

6.8. Although the information society provides excellent opportunities for enhancing economic and social cohesion, it could also herald major new dangers.

6.8.1. Given the cost involved and the knowhow required, even today, substantial sections of society find it difficult to secure access to and may be unable to exploit the services which offer the most extensive range of contents and new technology. It is feared that future IS development could further marginalize the unemployed, the elderly and low-income groups.

6.8.2. Particularly important and welcome in this connection is the communication on cohesion and the information society (measure 122) () which examines the possible role of the Structural Funds in the sector; the Committee has been consulted on the communication and is to deliver an opinion.

7. Conclusions

7.1. The Committee is aware that the construction of the information society is a long and complex process, opening up ever new scenarios and a wealth of opportunities for economic and social development. The process will involve decisions that will have to be taken as part of the overall blueprint rather than separately, bearing in mind their legal, organizational, economic, social and cultural implications.

7.2. The Committee confirms its position, already expressed on numerous occasions, on the need for a European IS model laying equal stress on integration and competitiveness in the global market, and on social and cultural factors.

7.2.1. The European IS model must not only meet justified demands for technological development and economic profitability; it must also respond to the needs of a democratic society, promote pluralism and cohesion, and improve quality of life.

7.3. The Committee welcomes the sustained efforts undertaken by the Commission and all the EU bodies involved in the rolling action plan; although rather sceptical about the short timeframes, the Committee is hopeful that a solid legislative framework covering liberalization and guaranteeing competition and pluralism will be put in place by the 1 January 1998 deadline.

7.3.1. The Committee will closely monitor the Commission's efforts to enact the legislation that is essential to achieve the type of liberalization that will boost the telecommunications market and meet the needs of private individuals and businesses alike.

7.3.2. In particular, the Committee would ask the Commission to take all the measures set out in the rolling action plan which are designed to ensure sound management of the universal service, the licensing of services, and protection of the public's right to privacy.

7.4. The Committee is concerned that large, less favoured sections of society, such as the unemployed, the elderly and low-income families, might be unable to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the information society.

7.4.1. The EU and its individual Member States must take the necessary steps to ensure that they do not end up with an information society that is very liberalized, yet very differentiated vertically (by social grouping) or horizontally (by regions, depending on their prosperity levels).

7.5. Major importance should be given to the public authorities' role in developing the information society. In this connection, the public services' technological modernization programmes must be relaunched and strengthened, and a large-scale training programme for civil servants must be undertaken.

7.6. The Committee draws the Commission's attention to the need for information and training for adults, as well as for young people, to ensure that they are aware and make the most of the opportunities held out by the information society.

7.7. Serious attention should also be focused on providing protection for minors, in terms of the content of audiovisual services and Internet use. The Committee wishes to be kept informed of measures designed to address this delicate issue and hopes, in particular, that the international conference held in Germany identifies effective ways to help families control and guide minors' use of electronic media services.

Brussels, 9 July 1997.

The President of the Economic and Social Committee

Tom JENKINS

ANNEX

>TABLE>

() Europe's way to the information society - an action plan (COM(94) 347, 19. 7. 1994).

() The information society: from Corfu to Dublin. The new emerging priorities (COM(96) 395 final).

() Opinion on the Communication: the information society: from Corfu to Dublin. The new emerging priorities; and on the Communication on the implications of the information society for European Union policies - preparing the next steps; OJ C 66, 3. 3. 1997, p. 70.

() COM(96) 389 final.

() Opinion on the Communication on the information society: from Corfu to Dublin. The new emerging priorities; and on the Communication on the implications of the information society for European Union policies: Preparing the next steps, OJ C 66, 3. 3. 1997, p. 70, paragraph 3.2.

() In particular, Commission measures listed under points 109, 110, 111, 112, 113, 120, 200, 201, 202, 203, 204, 205, 207, 208, 209, 210 and 211.

() The European Commission approved the terms of an agreement to be recommended to the Council: the EU will cut semi-conductor tariffs in three stages by 1999, and the US will eliminate tariffs on ECU 2,3 billion worth of EU exports in July 1997. As a result, the EU semi-conductor industry will become a full participant in the agreement reached between US and Japanese semi-conductor companies.

() OJ C 66, 3. 3. 1997, p. 70, Ibidem, point 3.3 referring to previous ESC positions.

() Opinion on living and working in the information society: people first; OJ C 206, 7. 7. 1997.

() Communication from the Commission on illegal and harmful content on the Internet, (COM(96) 487 final); and the Green Paper on the protection of minors and human dignity in audiovisual and information services, (COM(96) 483 final).

() Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions - Cohesion and the information society (COM(97) 7 final).

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