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European initiative on an all-inclusive digital society - guide

29 November 2007
by eub2 -- last modified 29 November 2007

Despite technological progress and enhanced competition, more than one in three Europeans are still excluded from fully benefiting from the digital society. Benefits of EUR 35-85 billion over five years could be generated if society would be made more inclusive, websites more accessible and broadband Internet made available to all EU citizens. The European Commission on 29 November 2007 presented its e-Inclusion initiative to Council, calling on EU Member States to support a number of 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.


What do we mean by an all-inclusive digital society?

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) play an essential role in supporting daily life in today's digital society. They are used at work, in day-to-day relationships, in dealing with public services as well as in culture, entertainment, leisure and when participating in community and political dialogues. Inclusion in the digital society (e-Inclusion) points to the necessity for everyone to be actively engaged with society and the economy. Affordable access to technologies, the accessibility and usability of ICT tools and services, and the ability and skills to use them are essential for this.

e-Inclusion policy aims at reducing gaps and disparities in ICT usage. Such policy promotes the use of ICT to overcome social exclusion, and improve economic performance, employment opportunities, quality of life, social participation and cohesion.

Why is e-Inclusion important?

About 30-40% of the population does not fully benefit from the digital society. There are many reasons for this: geographic location, disability and age, gender, culture and language, lack of skills and information, or precarious economic conditions. All told roughly 200 million Europeans do not use the Internet. This can be further broken down by:

  • education: only 25% of those with lower levels of educational qualification are Internet users against 77% of those with higher education;
  • age: only 10% of those over 64 use the Internet, against 73% of young people (16-24 age group);
  • employment: 38% of unemployed and 17% of economically inactive persons use the Internet, compared to 60% of those employed, and 84% of students.

Such disparities could worsen existing divisions of social and economic well-being in our society, if left unchecked.

Despite visible improvements in broadband coverage which can today potentially reach of 89% of the EU27 population, availability in rural areas is only 71% with lower download speeds than in urban areas and less competition between alternative providers. The EU Telecoms reform package aims to reduce the digital divide between urban and rural areas.

Europe cannot afford to exclude so many Europeans from digital society. This would result in fewer jobs, higher costs, especially faced with an ageing population, less social cohesion, and ultimately a less competitive Europe.

Is it important for ICT to be accessible?

Yes, accessible ICT is a key enabler for e-Inclusion that will become even more important as the average age of Europeans increases. "e-Accessibility" concerns the design of products and services based on ICT, which need to be usable by everyone, including older people and those with disabilities. For people with visual impairments, hearing impairments or other difficulties to communicate, e-Accessibility is indispensable, since products and services based on ICTs are essential for everyday social and economic life.

About 15% of Europe's population are disabled. Comments from blind and hard-of-hearing users illustrate how ICT can make a difference: "This GPS technology is so useful to know where you are and to get familiar with the path to follow, especially with routes that I don’t know yet!" and "When I tried this new phone with the avatar translating into lip-reading movements, I had a totally new experience with communication and my younger nephew liked it too!"

Improved accessibility benefits everyone, facilitating the use of ICTs use in a wide variety of situations (e.g. hands-free usage, in noisy or poor lighting environments, or in emergency situations in which anyone could feel "disabled", etc).

Estimated user demand for accessible ICT products, services and assistive technologies among the EU25 50+ population (in Mio)

From Study "The Demographic Change – Impacts of New Technologies and Information Society"

A lack of e-accessibility can cause large productivity losses, with many people being unable to fully participate at work, in education, or in a wide range of economic and social activities. People's choice of leisure activities may be narrower than it otherwise could be. The cost of making products and services more inclusive need not be very high. The lack of progress on e-Accessibility reflects the current fragmented approaches to producing accessible ICT products and services, which rather limit their economic potential, and create a barrier to a thriving single market for these in Europe.

How accessible are ICT products and services?

Unfortunately not very. Text relay services (essential for deaf and speech impaired people) are only available in half of EU Member States. Emergency services are directly accessible by text telephone in only seven Member States. Only 5% of public websites comply with minimum web accessibility guidelines and the provision of subtitled audiovisual programming varies widely (from 2.5% to 95%). Sign-language programming ranges from less than 0.5% to 5%. Broadcasting with audio description ranges from less than 1% to slightly more than 10% of programmes. In only six Member States has one of the leading retail banks installed automatic tellers with ‘talking’ output (enabling self-service for customers with visual impairments). On average, only 8% of all ATMs that have been installed by the EU's two main retail banks provide such ‘talking’ output.

In addition e-Accessibility for disabled people across Europe as a whole compares very unfavourably with that of Australia, Canada and the US. Amongst Member States there are also wide disparities.

How can citizens and Europe benefit from e-Inclusion?

E-Inclusion can deliver tangible benefits to citizens such as improved skills, increased employability or new entrepreneurial opportunities; better health awareness and online access to health services; increased quality of life; strengthened community cohesion and trust; better access to information and engagement in public issues (e-Participation).

"Accessible ICT products and services will foster disabled users participation in education, employment, culture and society in general. People with disabilities and/or older people represent a significant number, so the integration of the people within the information society will bring both social, cultural and economic benefits," was the view of one respondent in June's public consultation about the future EU e-Inclusion strategy.

What is the economic benefit of such a policy?

The economic impact of e-Inclusion is expected to be significant, with estimated gains of €35 to €85 billion over five years. This includes gains resulting from:

the unemployed finding jobs as they become digitally literate;

  • increasing the intensity of ICT use,
  • increasing productivity in the workplace;
  • savings for public administrations;
  • increased market opportunities for ICT tools and services

Inclusion allows the digitally excluded that are unemployed to find a job (new skills and new networks) and improves productivity. It can also capitalise on the unused skills and stimulate the creativity of marginalised youth. Digital inclusion also means increased demand for ICT products and services from digitally-literate citizens, further boosting the ICT sector with a proven impact on GDP growth.

"Over 5,000 unemployed people have changed their lives by participating in ICT training programmes, attaining skills and employment opportunities” is the declared result by the Irish FIT initiative for ICT training of marginalised young people (

The number of people over 50 will rise by 35% between 2005 and 2050. Without more older people in jobs, and without better tailored and more effective social services, this will put serious pressure on Europe (the 80+ group will double by 2050). ICT can help deliver social and healthcare services effectively and efficiently. This is crucial for the sustainability of our social models and to accommodate the needs of the ageing population.

In Scotland the West Lothian authorities have achieved a dramatic reduction of hospitalisation, from 57 days to 9 days, and reduced costs by a factor of 3 by implementing technology packages into existing houses and the newly built housing with smart technology: (the gross annual cost for one care home place stands at £21,840, compared with £7,121 for supporting a community package including tele-care technology, 24 hours response and ten hours of care). One home user said of the system: “I said I will be going away for a week, and when I came back in and pressed the button to say I was home, within a few minutes somebody else was on saying have you had a nice holiday...[I’ve] nothing but praise for them!"

As for savings in public administrations in 2006, just 21% of EU residents used basic e-government services. More digitally-included individuals will mean increased uptake of e-government services resulting in increased efficiency and productivity. However, for this to become a reality, on-line government services should be provided in inclusive ways in order to respond to users needs taking in special account the weakest ones.

Why does the Commission need to act?

Currently there is a lack of coherence between initiatives at Member States and EU level with insufficient focus and targeted policies for groups at risks. e-Inclusion requires coordinated policy approaches at all levels. The potential of the internal market for inclusive ICT remains under-exploited. Many Europeans cannot fully realise their right to benefit from the information society and are effectively discriminated against. The main shortcomings are:

  • fragmentation and lack of coordination;
  • lack of consideration of e-Inclusion issues across policies;
  • poor focus on the needs and interests of disadvantaged groups.

What does the Commission want to do?

The Commission wants to promote both inclusive ICT and the use of ICT to achieve wider objectives of social and economic inclusion which are essential for economic growth and new business.

The new eInclusion Initiative follows the commitments that 34 European countries expressed in signing the Riga Ministerial Declaration in 2006, to promote an inclusive and barrier-free information society. It aims to:

  • enable the conditions for everyone to take part in the digital society;
  • accelerate effective participation of those at risk of exclusion and improving their quality of life;
  • integrate e-Inclusion actions at all levels to maximise lasting impact.

The initiative encourages ICT industry to rapidly establish, during 2008-2010, privacy-friendly accessible solutions for persons with sensory, physical, motor and/ or cognitive restrictions to make use of digital TV and of electronic communications to safeguard access to emergency services (notably '112' accessible for all). It calls upon industry and users to continue their cooperation with European Standardisation Organisations, to enhance the use of accessibility standards in public procurement. Member States are called upon to agree by mid 2008 on a roadmap for accessibility of public websites.

The Commission will work towards a horizontal legislative approach for an accessible information society, to guarantee both equal rights to participation in the information society and an effective single market for accessible ICT. It will also encourage research and innovation activities for fostering "inclusive design" early-on when designing general purpose ICT tools and services.

It calls on authorities and industry to step up in 2008 their efforts to promote e-skills and basic digital literacy training, notably for those that are most at risk of exclusion.

"There is a need for e-skills in the sense of how to operate ICT products and services, but the need for this should better be reduced by better user-friendliness of products and services. Ideally, there would be no need for basic 'digital' literacy, just like there is no need for 'TV literacy' or 'refrigerator skills'...," said a respondent in June's public consultation about an EU e-Inclusion strategy.

Regional activities for the further development of broadband should also be pursued to promote an inclusive information society through thematic networks in the Commission's initiative on "Regions for Economic Change". The Cohesion Policy Fund will continue targeting investment in knowledge in areas where commercial deployment of ICT infrastructure and services is inadequate. The Commission will support, via the ICT-Policy Support Programme, a web platform to encourage exchange of practices on regional initiatives for the information society, and will conduct a survey on EU funding for regional information society projects.

The e-Inclusion Initiative calls for industry, user organisations, Member States and the Commission to cooperate in implementing the EU action plan on "Ageing well in the information society", aiming to accelerate the delivery of benefits to older citizens, companies, social and healthcare authorities in Europe. Common approaches for inclusive public services for socially disadvantaged people, resulting from the 2006 e-Government Action Plan (introduce new Lisbon Conference will be developed and shared in line with the 2007 e-Government Ministerial Declaration. The Commission will issue in 2008 a Recommendation on e-Health interoperability (addressing core e-Health infrastructure data of patient summary and emergency data set) and launch in 2008 a new European initiative on telemedicine. A process will also be started to define additional targeted actions, by the end of 2008 (ICT for marginalised young people and migrants at risk of exclusion).

The initiative also aims to create a common and systemic approach to e-Inclusion. Common monitoring and benchmarking will generate considerable added value. It also includes a monitoring mechanism – the so-called "Riga Dashboard"- to report progress in achieving the Riga targets.

The Commission plans to raise awareness of the opportunities of digital inclusion. It will stimulate the exchange of best practices and will establish an Award Campaign through a dedicated eInclusion website. The 2008 awareness campaign will culminate as a major contribution to a political and high-visibility e-Inclusion Conference at the end of 2008. At the joint Portuguese Presidency – Commission Ministerial Event on e-Inclusion on 2-3 December in Lisbon, a summary of some of the best e-Inclusion initiatives will be presented.

"Public campaigns should target older people demonstrating the benefits of public and commercial online services for their daily lives. Business would financially contribute to raising awareness campaigns as an instrument to encourage the use of commercial online services," felt one respondent in June's public consultation about an EU e-Inclusion strategy.

Does this initiative complement existing and future Telecom Rules?

The current Telecom Rules and the terminal equipment Directives promote e-Accessibility in electronic communications. However, implementation is still open-ended or of limited effectiveness. In the meantime Member States have started proposing national legislation, increasing the risk of fragmented approaches across the EU and raising concerns for the European industry.

The proposals to reform the EU Telecoms Rules introduce positive adaptations. Essentially, they make previously voluntary provisions compulsory. In addition the proposed European Telecom Market Authority will contain an e-Inclusion working group. However, the reform covers telecoms only. Digital TV, 112 emergency and ATM services and key websites should become accessible for all, including for people with disabilities. A specific legislative approach to e-accessibility is considered justified. This should take into account the importance of ICT for everyone, including people with disabilities, in the economy and society, the specifics of the ICT sector with its high interest in the single market and the rapid development of ICT.

The Commission intends to promote social inclusion in its 2008 review of the i2010 initiative, the review of the universal service for telecoms and in its international strategy for the information society.

Source: European Commission

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