Theme Paper

Building confidence | Table of Contents | Making the most of content resources

4. EMPOWERING THE USER

The new emerging technologies and their uses provide our societies with new opportunities for users. Their participation in the Information Society can be strengthened by the measures considered above which are designed to increase confidence for all players.

It is also necessary to provide users with the necessary skills, appropriate information and technical means. More effective use of access to information from the public sector and improved transparency of government activities should be emphasised. The increased potential of modern technology should be harnessed to allow users to determine not only what information they want to receive but also who can dispose of their personal data and for what purpose.

Users include large and small businesses and organisations and those working for them, universities and schools, their staff and students and those using the Global Information Networks from home. The user community therefore includes some who have been using the Net for a significant time and many more who have only recently obtained a connection.

4.1. Promoting electronic 'literacy'

4.1.1. Identified Issues

Fostering the dissemination of knowledge on a world-wide scale and offering access to resources beyond geographical boundaries, Global Information Networks play a central role in the creation of a new "digital literacy". Minors as well as adults are called upon to learn how to master modern communication tools by developing new media skills. This modification of behaviour presupposes a fundamental and priority effort of education, information and awareness-raising of new users, whatever their age, parents, educators and minors concerning the use of information networks in a critical and responsible way.

It is crucial to ensure that Europe's citizens are equipped to meet the new possibilities for jobs created by Global Information Networks. It is no longer realistic to think in terms of education, working life and retirement as successive phases of life, as knowledge acquired in the early years becomes obsolete at an accelerating rate. The concept of lifelong learning was emphasised by the European year of Lifelong Learning in 1996 by promoting education and training throughout the life cycle. It opens up new prospects for the shaping and conduct of people's lives, and for the way they manage both their work and their leisure. Development of lifelong learning should aim in particular to make the best use of available talent, to combat social exclusion, to widen the choice of occupation for girls and women, and to contribute to the reduction of regional disparities. It is of particular importance to small and medium-sized enterprises and opens new careers linked with the technological revolutions in the audiovisual sector and the information society.

Government action may be required to ensure that the benefits of Global Information Networks are shared by all sectors of the community, so that there is no exclusion on grounds of geography, age or social background. Availability of the necessary infrastructure at affordable cost may be ensured through existing structures such as public libraries, or by encouraging collaborative user-groups. New types of multimedia content should be developed to make the best use of the new medium. The availability of linguistically and culturally diverse content will encourage users to acquire the necessary skills and make use of the infrastructure.

A danger sometimes mentioned is that of "information overload". The vast increase in electronic content has produced a need for powerful search engines and search agents. Market forces have already produced such products. A related issue is that of the quality of information. Self-regulatory initiatives by content providers to provide information such as the identity of the author or publisher and the date of last updating of the content would be helpful in allowing users to make their own decision as to the weight to attach to the content.

The challenge is also to ensure that Global Information Networks represent and are seen to be a safe and secure environment for learning, work and leisure. In this context, the European Commission is supporting the creation of a Web site for the development of a European network of schools. Training teachers and trainers has been recognised on top of the political agenda by Ministers of Education (Amsterdam Council 2/3 March 1997). The European Commission has already set up a Web site "Promoting best use, preventing misuse", to promote initiatives which are aimed at increasing the general awareness among parents, teachers, the public sector and the information industry about how to deal with the issue of illegal and harmful content in practical terms. Similar initiatives on national as well as European and global level are required to assist users to become well-informed and vigilant information consumers. National governments, the educational community and industry itself have a crucial role to play in this education towards responsible use of new communications media.

4.1.2. Questions

4.1.3. Possible Solutions

4.2. Data protection

4.2.1. Identified Issues

As increasing numbers of applications and services, both commercial (e.g. electronic commerce) and non-commercial (e.g. news groups), are offered in the global on-line environment, more and more aspects of the daily lives of the world's citizens will be conducted electronically. This information age will bring many advantages in terms of greater economic efficiency and better quality customer service. The available data will enable suppliers to be more responsive to the needs of their customers; it will allow personalised information services, thus reducing information overload. One less welcome by-product is the creation of large quantities of digital 'transaction' data, which could provide a permanent record of every citizen's on-line activities.

In Global Information Networks there are a variety of applications where personal data will be processed, e.g. individual information and consulting services, purchase of goods and services, the use of education services or the transmission of personal data in the medical sector. Processing of data takes place not only in a single information system, but more and more in a network with a global dimension.

The profiling of individuals, by both public and private sector bodies, made possible by the accumulation of such data, may constitute a new threat to individual privacy, which may inhibit many potential users of the global information infrastructure from participating fully in the information society revolution. One way to deal with the problem is to avoid the collection of identifiable personal data in the first place, by allowing anonymous access to the network and anonymous consumption of the services available. This of course is not always desirable nor always possible. Additionally, innovative privacy-enhancing, user-empowering technologies are being developed. These aim at allowing users to make informed decisions about the collection, use, and disclosure of personal information during interactions on the Internet.

In some countries national laws already exist governing the protection of personal data; however, global harmonisation has not taken place. On the contrary most countries in the world have no legislation at all. There are, however, 3 international legal instruments which may provide the basis for some international harmonisation: The 1980 OECD Guidelines, the 1981 Council of Europe Convention and the 1995 EC Directive. Of these the CoE Convention is legally binding for countries which have ratified the Convention. The EC Directive is legally binding for EU Member States and EEA countries. The OECD Guidelines have no legally binding force.

All these instruments share the common basic principles that personal data should only be processed with the informed consent of the person concerned or where the law authorises such processing. Those concerned should have a right to be informed that their data is being processed, a right of access so as to check the extent and the accuracy of the information processed and a right to object to the processing with a right of judicial and/or administrative redress in case of refusal.

The users have a fundamental interest in knowing and deciding what personal data may be processed in Global Information Networks. Rules need to be established which provide sufficient guarantees of this while allowing users to participate in normal flow of information and electronic transactions. Only on this basis will widespread trust in the use of the Global Information Networks evolve.

4.2.2. Questions

4.2.3 Possible Solutions

4.3. Filtering and rating content

4.3.1. Identified Issues

Global Information Networks are a positive instrument, empowering citizens and educators, lowering the barriers to the creation and distribution of content and offering universal access to ever richer sources of digital information.

However, the law may place certain restrictions on the distribution to a minor of content that is liable to be harmful to him. Parents and teachers will need guidance in order to be able to restrict access to such content when minors under their responsibility are accessing the network, and may also wish to apply other criteria in accordance with their personal values or values of the community or establishment to which they belong (e.g. moral, cultural, political or religious). They may themselves also not wish to be exposed to content which is offensive to their personal values. These various categories of content are described for the purposes of this issue paper as "harmful content."

Filtering and rating is a means whereby Internet users are enabled to select categories of content which they prefer to receive or do not wish to receive, and to set parameters for use by children for whom they are responsible. Such rating may be carried out by the content providers themselves or by third party rating systems which are in accordance with the user's convictions or which deal with specific needs not met by the content provider's rating system.

Dealing with harmful content requires users to be empowered and educated to deal in a responsible manner with the contents of the global network.

4.3.2. Questions

4.3.3. Possible Solutions

4.4. Enabling participation by all

4.4.1. Identified issues

One of the most important roles for government in the information society is to secure accessibility of information technology to all, including access for people with disabilities, elderly people, disadvantaged groups or remote regions

Industry and governments must address the challenge of affordability so that individuals confronted with costs of equipment, connection, service subscriptions, and other usage costs can participate and must also ensure adequate infrastructure is physically available to all who require it, for instance for people with disabilities.

User-friendliness is especially important to allow elderly people unused to new technologies to overcome their hesitations. Even if they have reduced mobility, access to networks will allow them to communicate, share their experiences and participate actively in the information society.

Global networks have a much remarked-upon and potentially powerful ability to 'shrink distance'. In essence, new industrial and social geographies could emerge, particularly with regard to services which can be delivered over the wire. In particular, there is scope for new jobs in outlying areas through the growth of teleworking. which could work to the relative economic advantage of non-core regions, especially the less favoured regions (LFRs) in Europe. The potential for catching-up, or even regional 'leapfrogging', could be high in distant regions leading to new commercial activities and the emergence of service providers. The impact of deregulation and liberalisation is likely to make such new opportunities much more transparent. Action is required to redress the fact that the telecommunications infrastructures are relatively less well-developed in some of these regions, in order for them to be able to realise the full potential of Global Networks.

In the field of international co-operation, the more advanced countries can give assistance in ensuring access for countries with less developed infrastructures or economies.

Among third countries, Eastern European countries occupy a unique place in view of their progressive integration to the European Union. At the Second EU/CEEC Forum on the Information Society in Prague on 12-13 September 1996, agreement was reached on the vital importance to all European countries of the global information society made possible by new services and applications based on modern telecommunications and information technologies, and an Action Plan was adopted entitled "Towards the Information Society in the Central and Eastern European Countries: Twenty-seven ideas for European initiatives."

This dialogue will continue with the Forum on Information Society to be organised in October 1997 in Brussels in order to maximise the chances for success for the transition of these economies towards the model of the market, and to start as quickly as possible the distribution of the positive effects of new information technology in society.

On a global scale, the conclusions of the Information Society and Development Conference (ISAD) held in Midrand, South Africa in May 1996 spoke of a commitment to ensure that the development of the Global Information Society benefits all humanity. The E.U. Member States also took part in the Rome Ministerial Conference on the "Construction of the Euro-Mediterranean Information Society".

Within the framework of the formal recognition of the importance of new technologies as well as of the policies of development aid, both Conferences stressed the importance of trans-regional - trans-continental networks to the development of the economies and of local human resources, to the improvement of the health system and of the management of natural resources, to the control of the urbanisation process, to the promotion of cultural heritage and tourism and to the monitoring of the environmental impact of industrial development.

In order to continue the process begun in Midrand and in Rome, the Commission is engaged in the preparation of a Communication to the Council and the European Parliament on the Information Society and the developing countries.

4.4.2. Questions

4.4.3. Possible solutions

Building confidence | Table of Contents | Making the most of content resources

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