European Affairs

It was partly in order to bridge that gap that the EU last year adopted its so-called "eEurope Action Plan," an ambitious initiative which also aims to reduce the significant digital divide among countries inside the EU itself.

The EU's sense of urgency was heightened by forecasts that the information technology revolution, which started going global in the 1990s, is likely to have an even stronger impact during the first years of the new millennium. Telecommunications are now the fastest growing market in the developed countries.

The eEurope program was launched by the European Commission in December 1999, with the goal of guaranteeing the EU's IT development, and thus also its competitiveness. The program was adopted by European heads of government at their summit meeting in Feira, Portugal, in June 2000.

The program has two objectives: first, to accelerate the development of the information society in Europe; and second, to ensure that its potential is available to everyone - all member states, all regions, all citizens.

The first of these goals concerns mainly the economic dimension of modern IT-technology and its impacts on the economy. The EU's economic competitiveness is to be improved by bringing the speed of IT development up to the pace achieved by the EU's main economic competitors, the United States and Japan.

The second goal - wide availability of modern technology - concerns the digital divide within the EU. This goal is thus in line with traditional EU policies, such as those promoting regional development through the EU's structural funds, which have helped lift underdeveloped areas to the overall EU-level.

There are clear, national differences within the EU with regard to the penetration and use of modern information and communication technology, with the three Nordic member states, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden, matching the high levels achieved in the United States and Canada.

In Finland, for instance, a small nation of little more than five million inhabitants, the information society is already a part of everyday life. The number of mobile phones continues to rise, reaching 70 percent of the population last year. Globally, this puts Finland in the lead, followed by Iceland.

The eEurope Action Plan identified 11 priority areas in which faster progress is necessary. The Action Plan is to be implemented by 2002, with close collaboration between member states, the European Commission, and the industry. The 11 priority domains have been regrouped around three key objectives: a cheaper, faster, and more secure Internet; investment in people and skills; and greater use of the Internet.

EU leaders examined the eEurope Action Plan's progress during their Stockholm meeting in March 2001. The benchmarking of eEurope, as based on a set of agreed indicators, allows a comparative analysis between member states and enables policy conclusions to be drawn. Progress had been made in all member states since the launching of the eEurope program, but the digital divide within the Union had not diminished.

The traditional view of a North-South divide within the Union is portrayed by the European Commission as too simplistic. The situation is said to be more varied, with the Nordic members ahead in Internet penetration, the Southern members also doing well on mobile phones, and France and the UK strong in digital-TV.

Internet penetration in homes has shown encouraging growth. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden lead Internet access in EU households, with Portugal, Spain, and Greece at the lower end of the range. Although differences persist between the member states, those with the lowest Internet penetration have experienced the fastest growth.

Many people in Europe gain access to the Internet outside the home, particularly at work or in college. When these figures are included, the total number of Internet users in the EU represents 40 percent of the whole population.

Internet access costs have fallen considerably since eEurope was launched in 1999. Nevertheless, crucial cost differences remain between member states, and the differences are broadly correlated with penetration rates. Costs have generally fallen fastest where Internet use is most widespread.

Recent British research has also shown, however, that even a deprived region can have a high level of Internet access. This suggests that prices are falling to a level where large parts of the population can afford home Internet access.

Nevertheless, e-commerce remains less developed than in the United States. Only a minority of European Internet users - less than five percent - regularly purchase goods on the Internet. Around 25 percent shop via the Internet "occasionally" or "rarely."

Here again, national differences are clearly visible, with countries like Sweden, the UK, and Germany at the top, and Italy, Portugal, and Greece at the lower end.

The European Commission rightly emphasizes that basic public services should be available on-line. Public institutions should set the example by adapting to electronic services, and the use of such services is beginning to develop.

Most interactions, however, are passive, in the form of information search and downloading. There are few electronic versions of official forms on the Internet, and only eight percent of European public institutions allow their citizens to return these forms via e-mail.

At this stage, the digital divide inside the EU is not a troubling phenomenon. New technologies have always spread at an uneven pace. Cars, telephones, and television first spread to large cities and more af§uent households before becoming commonplace.

The same pattern of distribution now applies to mobile phones and Internet access, and will also apply to new IT-products. The eEurope Action Plan helps to speed this process along.

The internal European divide, and the divide between the EU and the United States, are also much less worrying than the major challenge the world faces at global level. Ninety percent of all Internet users live in the developed world. The global digital divide thus threatens to widen an already tremendous development and living standard gap between developed and developing nations.

The importance of spreading new technologies to developing countries cannot be overemphasized. This is an area of common concern between the United States and the EU. The Okinawa Charter on Global Information Society of July 2000 indicates that the leaders of the developed nations recognize the problem.

Bridging the global digital divide may seem difficult, if not impossible. It should be kept in mind, however, that even relatively small measures could achieve positive results.

An interesting example is the Kenyan handicrafts company Naushad Trading Company, which raised its turnover from $10,000 to $2 million in just two years. The company was able to attract new customers worldwide by distributing its catalogue via the Internet.

Bridging the global digital divide is not only of economic importance, but carries implications for governance and democracy, as well. The progress and development fostered by democracy and good governance are generally recognized.

Modern information and communication technologies offer new possibilities for spreading the concept of participatory governing. Access to unbiased information should become one of the fundamental human rights.

The Internet and modern information technology offer new possibilities - especially in countries where the media have traditionally been under state control. Information technology can increase transparency and accountability in governance, thus promoting human rights and strengthening democracy. Enhanced cooperation between the Old and New Worlds to bridge the gap to the Third World is strongly needed.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number II in the Spring of 2001.