The Malta Independent 6 December 2023, Wednesday
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It’s high-time for internet access to be recognised as a fundamental right – MEP Josianne Cutajar

Sunday, 22 October 2023, 10:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

The subject of today’s interview with MEP Josianne Cutajar is on the digital transition, which impacts the lives of thousands of Maltese, Gozitans, and more broadly, Europeans. Cyberspace is one of Cutajar’s key policy areas, as she has successfully worked on numerous pieces of legislation directly affecting citizens, having always negotiated in favour of a just digital transition that leaves no one behind.

Q: Recently we've been frequently hearing about the phrase "European digital sovereignty". What are your thoughts on this?

A: Sovereignty means   having the independence, resources, and skills necessary to be able to thrive in a given field, such as on tech in this case.

More than sovereignty, I like using the word 'leadership'. I feel that this is better phrasing as it implies a stronger sense of cooperation with other players while also adding the idea of ‘teaching’ and therefore suggesting that skilling those around you is essential.

During the pandemic, we saw an increase in demand for components such as the microchips we find in our everyday appliances and other electronics. This led us to better appreciate the importance of forging a more robust supply chain of these resources in the European Union. In this regard, before the summer recess, the European Parliament voted in favour of the European Chips Act, a new law that will incentivise the production of these vital components which have become essential for our economy. .

The aim is to see that the funds available and offered will lead to an EU with additional resources and strengthened  basis to manufacture these products. A point I pushed for in the ITRE Committee, which successfully made it into the final law, is that of including new funds not only for new chips manufacturing operations but also for already established companies such as STMicroelectronics in Malta.

Aside from the Chips Act, we also have several other laws and policies to make sure that no one is left behind. From my work as Socialist negotiator on the Digital Decade Programme, to my work as Rapporteur on the Transport and Tourism’s position on the Artificial Intelligence Act - I ardently fought not only on the ground of better EU tech leadership, but also for a just transition with a social conscience.

European leadership must extend beyond tech, I believe that the pharmaceutical sector is an example of a policy area where we are still dependant on third countries. This needs to change. The pandemic taught us on the importance of increasing both supply and manufacturing capacity in Europe, for Europe. This is not simply a question of security, but also one of standards.


Q: One of your proposals is that the internet should be recognised as a fundamental right. Why do you feel that there is a need for this to be the case? Couldn't you say that everyone has access to the internet nowadays?

A: Many of us assume that since we have access, others do as well. Nowadays a lot of services have gone online and therefore the internet has gone from being a luxury to being a necessity. The reality is that there are still many people, not only among us but especially beyond Malta, who do not have access to online resources and services

Firstly, you have the question of connectivity. There are still zones within the EU where people living in certain rural or remote areas may not have access to the internet due to lack of basic infrastructure and adequate connectivity. Then there are citizens who, for whatever reason, don’t have the financial means to get online, or even to buy a smartphone.

I will continue to lead the charge towards making internet access a fundamental right in our Union.  Such a change will create stronger obligations for governments and local authorities to ensure adequate access for all their citizens.

It was an honour for me that this concept of internet access as a fundamental right was incorporated as part of the Digital Policy paper of the European Socialists, on which we will be campaigning for during the next European Parliament elections. The internet is an essential tool, as is digitalisation in general, but it is vital to ensure that everyone has access to it.


Q: You mentioned the digital decade. What exactly is this, and what are some of the targets that need to be met?

A: When we talk about the digital decade, it means that by 2030, we need to meet certain targets in the digital field. These targets are crucial, and it is important that as a Union we ensure that the  Member States have common aims and are on the path towards sustainable and just digitalisation.

Much like how we already have common targets on the Green transition with the Green Deal and the subsequent Fit for 55 legislative package, it’s only fitting that we have similar milestones for tech.

I was honoured to be entrusted as the S&D negotiator in the Committee for Industry and Technology, where  we negotiated  a policy programme, which included important targets such as having 80% of the population with basic skills by 2030.

This is immensely important. There are other targets, which relate to the digitalisation of SMEs and their skills, as well as upscaling skills relating to more advanced technologicies such as AI and big data. We also need to ensure that public services have gone entirely online by 2030

Whenever we work on  these digital laws, and policies, I always emphasise, and bring forward amendments that call for maintaining offline services for those who may not know how to use digital services or do not have access to them. It is essential that we encourage senior citizens to strengthen their digital skills, also by providing them with adequate knowledge. Until we make this complete switch, we need to ensure that we do not cut off those who do not have access to digital services and technology.


Q: Why is there such an emphasis on the digital aspect? Is it not already heavily emphasised as a concept, can't we say that it's already well-engrained within the people's minds?

A: As explained earlier, the emphasis is because we have people among us who either cannot afford to have devices such as smartphones or computers, or they may not have access to the internet. There may also be people who do not have the necessary connectivity to reach the service, and you may also have people who do not have the necessary digital skills.

When talking about skills, you have different levels. One of these levels relate to the less digitally skilled , but there is also a level which many of us fall into that lack more advanced digital skills which can make our lives much easier and productive. Whilst in Europe we are still lacking on both fronts, it is important to keep on offering opportunities for improvement if we want to achieve digital sovereignty. Becoming leaders in the digital field, definitely requires more advanced skills on our continent.


Q: When we're talking about digitalisation, is there a negative aspect?

A: These technologies offer many benefits, such as how much time is saved by having online services, and that is why I am so content to be working on  the Interoperable Europe Act as Socialist negotiator, a legislation which will lead to better cooperation and technological systems fluently working with each other, leading to more efficiency and strengthened online public services, accessible cross-border.


With regard to the negative aspect, an example we can use is cyberattacks. It is very important nowadays that we have security in our homes, but it is equally important to ensure that we have security online as well.

To do so, we need the necessary knowledge and skills. I am currently contributing to upcoming legislation on stronger cybersecurity services, skills and resources, after having been appointed by the Socialists as negotiator on the respective files. To address the increasing cybersecurity challenges within the EU, we need to bolster our resources and also have specialised companies certified to help others, such as SMEs and local authorities, in terms of online security.


Q: You mentioned cybersecurity. Recently we've heard a lot about AI and the risks which this type of technology brings along with it. Can you expand on this subject?

A: There is a lot to say about AI and this is a topic, which in the future we can revisit more extensively.

AI is already part of our daily life, and sometimes it is being applied in ways, which we do not necessarily notice. Recently we worked on the landmark AI Act, a piece of comprehensive legislation regulating the sector that is the first of its kind. This is because we acknowledge that this technology has various benefits, but that it also has its risks. Algorithms can be biased and hold certain prejudices over certain groups of people. If we are not careful and attentive, these prejudices and biases can lead to negative impacts such as discrimination. This is just one example of the risks presented by AI.

In the AI Act, we heavily stressed that the use of AI must always remain strictly human-centric, with a level of control being maintained by humans to determine  responsibility and liability in case of accidents, for example.

Additionally, we need to ensure that we have laws and policies, which incentivise sorely needed investment in the sector; we would like to see AI being used in a way that increases efficiency and facilitates the work of professionals, such as recent developments and investments in artificial intelligence robots assisting in surgeries at Mater Dei hospital.


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