Access To Public Information:
A Key To Commercial Growth And Electronic Democracy

Conference - Stockholm
27/28 June 1996

Flags of 15 EU Member States

Opening Speech

Dr. Paul Weissenberg

Head of Cabinet of Dr. Martin Bangemann,
Member of the European Commission

Proceedings ]

I. Preliminaries

Dear Members of the Parliament, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you on behalf of my Commissioner, Mr. Bangemann, to this conference. Unfortunately, Mr. Bangemann cannot attend this congress. The Italian presidency called the Telecom Council at very short notice for a meeting today in Luxemburg.

It is very appropriate that the conference takes place in Sweden, still considered as a new Member State and the country with the oldest access law to public information in the world. We are looking forward to hearing from Madam Minister Freivalds and from Professor Seipel, the Swedish views and experiences, which trace back more than 200 years.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Minister's presence and the very high number of participants from Sweden clearly shows the interest this issue still attracts in this country.

It is also of increasing interest in the European Commission and in the European Union as a whole, and this from many different but related perspectives, all relating to our work on the information society.

II. Challenges of the information society

A new revolution is carrying mankind forward into the Information Age on the eve of the 21st century: a revolution that will change the way we work and do business; how we educate our children, study and do research, train ourselves and how we are entertained.

The smooth and efficient transition towards the information society is one of the most important challenges facing us.

The origin of the Information society is to be found in the technological advances of the recent years; technological advances for example in the field of digitisation, data compression and advanced telecommunication networks.

These advances in technology are profoundly influencing our existing concepts of time, space, distance and knowledge.

Although the Commission has been active in the field of information and communication technologies since the 1970s, the information society concept first appeared in the 1993 White Paper on " Growth Competitiveness and Employment ".

We are not only faced with a technological revolution but also with important economic, social and societal implications:

Florence European Council which took place some days ago, confirmed the overall importance of the Information Society.

The Council underlined the need for the educational systems in the European Union to adapt profoundly. It welcomed the Commission's intention to present a proposal for life-long learning. The Council called upon the Commission to work out an Action plan on the initiative " Learning in the Information Society ".

In early 1994, a small group of distinguished personalities in the information and telecommunications industry was set up under the Chairmanship of Mr. Bangemann and produced a report called "Europe and the global information society" which was endorsed by the Corfu European Council in June 1994 and which was the basis of the Commission action plan "Europe's way towards the information society" adopted in July 1994.

On behalf of Commissioner Bangemann I deeply thank the European Parliament for the excellent work it has done in this field. It has issued a number of statements in which improved access to public sector information is called for.

I am sure Mr. Alan Donnelly, prominent Member of the EP, will speak of those and of his own personal views, which I know are very strong on this issue.

III. The concept of the information society

Since the very beginning, the Commission has been using the "information society" concept in order to stress that the main beneficiary of the different actions should be the European citizens in their different capacities: citizen, employee, professional, businessman, consumer.

Concern for the citizen, in particular, has been expressed in a number of applications and projects, which relate to public sector services: health, transport, administrations, urban and rural areas, elderly and handicapped persons, etc.

These form part of the Telematics Applications Programme. Of equal importance are the projects aiming at improved data interchange between administrations in the context of the IDA programme.

These projects enable public administrations to operate and better serve citizens across Europe. You may see a demonstration of the IDA programme in the exhibition hall.

A Commission Communication to the Council on the "Information Society and the Citizen" will appear in the coming weeks.

Both the 1993 White Paper and the 1994 Bangemann group report have stressed that extensive use of ICTs in the information society should not lead to "information have and have nots".

Universal service, access to information, specific projects addressed to the citizen, will play an important role in this respect.

This has recently been stressed also by the Information Society Forum, a new group created by Mr. Bangemann last year and bringing together distinguished personalities from all areas of social and economic activity.

The purpose of this group is to study, discuss and make proposals on all different aspects of the information society: economy, employment, social and democratic values, public services, education and training, mass media and culture, sustainable development, technology and infrastructure.

Following extensive work in working groups, the Forum has adopted yesterday in Brussels a very interesting report, which also addresses the main issues we will be discussing in this conference.

Unfortunately Ms Birgitta Carlsson cannot attend this Forum. On behalf of Mr. Bangemann I extend my thanks to the chairman of the working group dealing with social and democratic values, Mr. Aidan White.

The Commission has pursued, since its very early days, an active policy of information on the different EU activities: If we want to convince other we have to start within the Commission.

The Commission's policy has taken the form of the Official Journal, including legislative texts, calls for tender and other types of official information; Green Papers, inviting public debate on specific issues; White Papers, announcing the Commission's intentions to propose action; information brochures on the different Community policies; extensive studies undertaken on specific issues.

Commission's information policies could not have been unaffected by technological developments, in particular the Internet. In the exhibition hall you can see a number of information services offered by the Commission's World Wide Web servers.

An important development took place in 1992, when the Union Treaty was adopted in Maastricht. A declaration was added to the Treaty, which stressed that transparency of the decision-making process strengthens the democratic nature of the institutions and the public's confidence in the administration.

It asked the Commission to submit to the Council a report on measures designed to improve public access to the information available to the institutions. Following this declaration, both the Commission and the Council have taken a number of decisions and have adopted a Code of Practice establishing a policy of access to their documents.

IV. Access to public information

The issue of openness and access to public sector information has also been addressed by the G7, in their meeting organized by the European Commission in Brussels in February last year.

A number of projects adopted in that meeting address this issue. Most directly, this is done by the "Government Online" project, which is under the joint responsibility of the U.K. and Canada.

The objective of this project is to exchange experience and best practice on the use of online information technology by administrations. The way is to establish procedures for conducting electronic administrative business between governments, companies and citizens.

Citizens' participation and government transparency are essential elements in our democratic systems.

Extended use of ICT's by public authorities can make sure that citizens may access government information more quickly and easily. There must, of course, exist a right of access to such information, for which Sweden gives a good example.

On the other hand, public sector information may be a major vehicle for economic growth. The public sector is the biggest single producer of information in areas like legislation, statistics, culture, finance, geography, transport, research etc. This information can be obtained by the private sector enriched with additional information and turned into commercially attractive multimedia information products.

Recent developments have shown that the most growing and potentially competitive area in the ICTs market is the area of information content. Europe has an enormous wealth of information content, much of which is held by the public sector.

Europe has to develop a successful, competitive information content industry that will create jobs and wealth for its citizens. Unemployment is the European Union's biggest problem. If the economic potential of the information society is well exploited, new employment opportunities will be created.

At a time when Europe's traditional industries are facing fierce competition in the world market, the information industry appears as our main competitive hope. We cannot afford to let it go.

Last month the Council adopted a new programme, proposed by the Commission, INFO2000, to stimulate a European multimedia content industry. There it is made clear that a European policy on access to and exploitation of public sector information is required.

Citizens' access and commercial exploitation issues cannot be seen isolated from each other, especially at a time when the public sector increasingly intervenes in the information market or when it is able to offer electronic information services of a quality comparable with that of the private sector at much lower prices.

The questions we are faced with are not easy. I think this will be made clear by the speakers, including our guests from the United States, who will refer to the different national experiences and to a number of specific issues, such as competition, copyright or privacy protection.

Given the complexity of some issues, before proposing a European policy, the Commission has decided to publish a "Green Paper on Access to Public Information" later this year. A Green Paper is a document asking questions and calling for a wide debate with all interested parties. This helps the Commission to take its decisions on a wider basis.

Madam Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen, no matter how complex some of the questions may be, our objectives should be very clear to everybody:

Firstly, more transparency for the benefit of the citizen, both at the European institutions and at the Member States level.

Secondly, improved synergy between the public and private sectors that will help create a competitive European information content industry.

How these objectives will best be achieved by way of maximizing benefits and minimizing is a matter for open discussion. We are very pleased to see such a large interest, reflected by over 300 participants from all areas of life. This combination is a promising start for a successful conference. I am confident that, at the end, the Commission will have obtained very valuable contributions both for its Green Paper and for the policies to follow.

I wish the full success for the Conference and interesting discussions.

Thank you for your attention.

Proceedings ]

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