1The first structured reflections around the transition of economies and societies towards a new model where information (knowledge) should be the basic value can be traced back to the start of last century’s seventies (refer to Crawford, 1983). At the end of that decade, Japan and the United States started considering information technologies as a possible response to a specific set of policy concerns : how to progress beyond the leadership in consumption electronics and how to face a possible energy crisis in the case of Japan, as well as what solution could stop the fall in the American productivity growth (Garnham, 1997). During the following years, the European Union and other developed countries designed sectorial policies that took the same path.
2However, these policies did not take a central role in the public discourse until the early nineties, especially following the release in 1993 of the agenda for the construction of a “global information infrastructure” driven by Bill Clinton and his Vice President, Al Gore. A new faith in the ability of an information society to generate economic and social growth had generated after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the drastic reduction of the prices of computing and telecommunications equipment and the growing globalisation of world economy (Alabau, 2002).
3Immediately, the remaining richest countries answered the American plan with their own proposals for adapting their economies to the new paradigm. Naturally, this was the case of the European Union. From that moment, almost all countries, including most of the less developed ones, have entered the group of those having a programme intended for facilitating the development of the information society. The two phases of the World Summit on the Information Society, held on December 2003 in Geneva and November 2005 in Tunisia, have provided a global nature to the discussions on how the processes facilitating the transition towards the information society should be managed.
4More than twenty years after the release of the first Community documents which can honestly be considered reflections on the progress of the information society, this article intends to describe the evolution of the European policy (that of the European Commission) although without forgetting the introduction of a reflexive analysis on the path followed and the one opening ahead for the future. It is true that the specific situation in each member state is in the end the result of their national policy, which allocates resources and carries out specific actions. However, it is not less true that, despite the principle of subsidiarity, all national programmes find their origin in the Community design, a design towards which the first praises should be addressed or on which the first criticism should fall.
5In order to meet the proposed objectives, the article is structured into three major blocks. The first one shows the three stages into which we have understood the European policy should be divided (the stage prior to eEurope, eEurope itself and the one launched with the start of 2006, i2010). Next, we review the assessments made of past policies. For the end we reserve the revision of the context in which eEurope ends and the new stage starts, the review of how the information society policies fit into the global European strategy and the opinion on the specific programmes.
- 1 A document prepared by the Information Technologies Task Force (ITTF) created within the Commission (...)
6Despite precedents can be tracked and some actions or policies can be related to an incipient concern about the development of the information society1, the truth is that the starting signal of the European reflection on this subject can be considered the (so-called) Delors White Paper [EU-2]. The Commission’s White Paper stressed the importance and urgency of developing a Pan-European information infrastructure to help revive European economic growth and competitiveness as well as to create new markets and jobs in an increasingly internationalising world economy.
7The release of the White Paper was almost immediately followed by the appearance of the Bangemann Report [EU-3] and the subsequent plan of action launched by the Commission [EU-4] as an answer to the proposals suggested in the report.
8Despite their contemporariness, the White Paper and Bangemann Report established two very different models for the progress of the information society. As opposed to a rather neo-Keynesian White Paper, the Bangemann report starts from a clearly neo-liberal position, stressing the liberalisation of the telecommunications and the role of the private sector in the process.
9The influence of these two documents was felt for the rest of the decade and even beyond it. This explains why information society policies in Europe took off as a mixture of a Marshall plan-type of “grand works” (the Delors imprint) with an unconditional belief in the market as the driving force (the Bangemann influence) (Servaes and Burgelmann, 2000). However, in practice, the Bangemann vision won, to the extent that, with the benefit of hindsight, one can question whether information society policies did not just function as the sugar around a policy of telecommunication liberalisation (Servaes and Burgelmann, 2000).
- 2 The Forum was an independent advisory body (although not a policy making steering group). It was co (...)
10The three years following the release of the Bangemann Report were of activity. In February 1995, the European Commission decided to set up the Information Society Forum in order to create a new and authoritative source of reflection, debate and advice on the challenges of the information society2. In May 1995, another reflection group, the high-level expert group, was formed with a similar mission : to analyse the social aspects of the information society.
11However, the policies actually carried out were in another plane. Almost simultaneously to the creation of the Forum and expert group, the 25th and 26th of February, G7-country Ministers and Members of the European Commission had met in Brussels in the G7 Ministerial Conference on the Information Society. The message launched in this conference by European Union Competition Commissioner Karel van Miert carried the significant title of “liberalising core sectors of the information society in Europe”.
12In 1996, the Commission published simultaneously a Communication which announced an updated and revised Action Plan [EU-7], which was published a few months later [EU-8], as well as a Green Paper [EU-6] on the key social challenges raised by the transition to the information society. In February 1997, a communication was dedicated to the possible disparities in the progress of the information society [EU-9], although, and in line with the emphasis placed on the telecommunications sector opening-up procedures, it focused almost exclusively on the differences in the access to the infrastructures.
- 3 Only three months after the presentation of the high-level experts’ report, the Commission continue (...)
13In April 1997, the report of the group of experts created in 1995 was presented [EU-10]. Especially noticeable is that one of the main conclusions of the group was that “the debate on the emerging information society had been dominated by issues relating to the technological and infrastructure challenges and the regulatory economic environment”. This acusation was made on the specific actions (“Nor are we asserting that the Commission has not addressed many of these [social] points. Rather, we are suggesting that these issues have not been at the centre of the policy debate”), which were distant from an official discourse, that continued to include much broader perspectives on the information society3.
14In July of that same year, 1997, at a Ministerial Conference taking place in Bonn (“Global Information Networks”, 6-8 July 1997), Ministers of 29 European countries agreed on a number of key principles that would pave the way for a rapid growth in Europe of the use of Global information networks.
- 4 However, PROMISE was not cancelled. In the first half of the year 2000, the Commission re-focused t (...)
15In spring 1998, the Council adopted a Decision on a multiannual programme (1998- 2002) to stimulate the establishment of the information society in Europe (PROMISE) [EU-13]. Almost no-one remembers today the existence of PROMISE because the new Commission presided by Romano Prodi was to change the course4.
16On 8 December 1999, Romano Prodi’s European Commission launched an initiative entitled “eEurope – An Information Society for All” [EU-14] which proposed ambitious targets to bring the benefits of the information society within reach of all Europeans. eEurope was set out as a basic piece of the so-called Lisbon strategy, targeted at turning the European Union into the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010. The objectives established in the first eEurope presentation document were truly ambitious : “bringing every citizen, home and school, every business and administration, into the digital age and online” while guaranteeing that “the whole process is socially inclusive, builds consumer trust and strengthens social cohesion”.
17The Plan of Action was prepared by the Council and the European Commission for the Feira European Council of 19-20 June 2000 [EU-16]. It was then called eEurope 2002 since that was the year the objectives were to be accomplished. It had three main lines of action : a cheaper, faster and more secure Internet, investment in people and skills, and a greater use of the Internet. The intermediate measurements of the indicators were gathered in the Progress Report addressed to the Stockholm Spring Council [EU-17] as well as in a Benchmarking Report [EU-19]. The document of final results [EU-21] was released on February 2003.
18In May 2002, the Commission had published the new eEurope 2005 Plan of Action [EU-20]. In June, the Seville European Council gave a broad political endorsement to the Action Plan which was finally adopted by the Council in December 2002. The two main objectives of the plan were that in 2005 Europe should have modern online public services (e.g. eGovernment, eLearning, eHealth) and a dynamic eBusiness environment ; as an enabler for these, both a widespread availability of broadband access at competitive prices and a secure information infrastructure were necessary.
19The mid-term review of eEurope was adopted in February 2004 [EU-22] and endorsed by the spring 2004 Telecom Council. Another communication followed up the mid- term review by proposing a set of revisions [EU-23]. The new actions proposed did not substantially change the balance or structure of the Action Plan.
20In parallel, the countries that would enter the Union had their own plan. At the Göteborg European Council in June 2001, the then 13 Candidate Countries launched the eEurope+ Action Plan [EU-18], which mirrored that of eEurope. Naturally, eEurope+ was limited in time by the moment of full incorporation : May 1, 2004.
21One year in advance, the Commission started designing a strategy for the new stage which was to start at the end of 2005, moment of conclusion of eEurope [EU-27]. The invitation of the Council to continue the line of work undertaken was materialised one month later [EU-28].
22Following a period of public consultation, the strategy was published on June 1, 2005 [EU-32]. Three political priorities have been marked : first, promoting a borderless European information space with the aim of establishing an internal market for electronic communications and digital services ; second, stimulating innovation through investment in research, the development and deployment in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and by encouraging the industrial application of ICT ; last, achieving a strategy of sustainable development that prioritises better public services and quality of life.
23According to the words of the Commissioner Viviane Reding, “i is for an internal market in information services (…), for investment in ICT research and innovation (…) and for inclusion and a better quality of life” [EU-31].
- 5 We must insist on the fact that this is the snapshot obtained from analysing the actions carried ou (...)
24The concept of information society is extraordinarily rich and, thus, complex. Its analysis can be approached from a technological, economic, occupational, spatial and cultural point of view. However, the first European vision of the information society was technological, a vision that insisted on the progress and spreading of new generation communications networks : these networks would be the arteries through which the information required to transform the industry and improve or create new services would flow5.
25It is true, nevertheless, that the path chosen by Europe in that period did not differ much from the one taken by other countries. As a matter of fact, with few exceptions, the vision ruling over the first plans for the development of the information society was the technological one. The combination of this vision with the predominant neo-liberal orientation led to a situation during the whole last ten years of the previous century where public policies, despite being frequently “wrapped” with social considerations, were based on (almost limited to) liberalisation and the introduction of competition in the telecommunications market (Feijóo and Gómez-Barroso, 2005).
26Generally speaking, this is what occurred in practice in the European case. Consequently, as regards the period prior to the launch of eEurope, the basic criticism refers to the narrowness with which the political strategies were conceived and oriented. Concerning the conception of these first European plans, Schneider (1997) highlighted that, instead of maintaining contact with public interest groups, the programmes were mainly shaped by bureaucrats and industrial corporate interests. Maybe as a consequence, the term information society was used, as stated by Jordana (2002), “more as a handy catch-all when considering the broad consequences of the spread of computing and electronic communications than as part of a well-structured discourse on social change”. A similar opinion is that of Sarikakis and Terzis (2000) when they say that the policy initiatives concentrated on the economic potential of the new technology, whereas provisions for the safeguarding of the protection of citizens and consumers were in an embryonic stage.
27With the start of the new century, in part due to the conviction of the agents responsible for taking decisions, and in part because competition in the telecommunications markets had reached a certain level considered satisfactory, a broader outlook on what the information society represents imposed itself globally (Feijóo and Gómez-Barroso, 2005). Other objectives, tainted with a more social or human perspective, have joined the rank of priorities.
28As a consequence, in order to try to achieve said objectives, the plans have extended their contents, increasing the catalogue of actions (and particularly, the type of actions). While emphasising the role of private initiative severs the role of the citizens, reducing them to consumers or potential workers in information-intensive organizations, this new approach sees people as participants in the information society (Moore, 1998). This in turn implies that education moves towards the spotlight and that, generally, any action helping people to yield the maximum benefit from the tools made available to them is acceptable. From the market perspective, this means, in short, that the importance granted to intervention in the demand side rises to levels close to those of the offer.
- 6 Of the forgotten PROMISE programme, first independent and then “incorporated” into eEurope, there e (...)
29This is the change of direction that marks eEurope, particularly since the renewal of the programme (eEurope 2005). Has this greater open-mindedness had a positive impact ? As opposed to what occurrs during the first phase of the European strategy, the greater degree of formalisation introduced by eEurope includes result monitoring, and thus official assessments exist6 ; on the other hand, and maybe due to a simple question of proximity in time since its conclusion, there are still no independent opinions or any generated by the academic world.
30As regards eEurope 2002, the assessment of the results was made public in February 2003 [EU-21]. This report states that “In terms of realising the targets endorsed at the Feira European Council, eEurope has been a major success. Most of the 64 targets have been achieved. Its success is due to the contributions of many actors in the European Institutions, Member States, industry and social partners (…). The goal of a competitive knowledge-based economy is still some distance away, but eEurope has laid solid foundations”.
31A public assessment of the final eEurope results appeared during the last days of 2005 with no defined format (it is neither a communication nor is it labelled as a working document) [EU-34]. Despite this not being the definitive report, we suppose that it will not present many changes as regards this preview. The triumphalist tone has dissappeared, giving way to a much more ambiguous vision. The main issues underlined in the report are as follows :
Broadband roll-out has been a success : Europe has gone from a limited availability of broadband connections at the end of 2002 to a situation where access is available to most citizens. This statement is qualified, however, by adding that there are important exceptions in the new Member States and sparsely populated regions. Driven by increased competition and lower prices, take-up has increased rapidly with growth rates exceeding those of other developed countries although this mostly represents an “intermediate” broadband : few broadband connections in Europe offered more than 3 Mbps.
Almost no alternative networks to DSL and cable modem have been deployed.
The PC remained the dominant access device although “the beginnings of the use of digital television and mobile and multi-platform access could be seen”.
Connectivity of enterprises is high throughout EU25 and there has been some catch-up by SMEs. However, use of ICT by business has grown only slowly and the use of advanced e-business applications is particularly low.
Use of online public services has grown as availability has increased. Many services are now available with full interactivity in many Member States. A large majority of users report benefits in terms of time saving and more flexible access to administrations.
Disparities between Member States have not fallen since the start of eEurope. The new Member States joining in 2004 were generally behind but some are catching up and there is evidence that their intensity of use is as high as that of EU15.
On the other hand, internal digital divides are less acute in countries which are more advanced in the adoption of ICT and in some new Member States. However, there is no sign of their reduction over time and an inclusive information society will not be achieved without policy support.
32The objective of making the information society progress originates from different motives. In the less developed and newly industrialized countries, the information society is seen as a path towards future prosperity through accelerated economic growth ; for the dominant economies in the global economic system, which are seeing their positions eroded, it is a path leading towards the return to economic prosperity, which will secure the country’s standing in the world pecking order while tackling deep-seated social problems at home (Moore, 1998).
33This is why the programmes for the progress of the information society should not be considered a part of a sectorial policy but should be incardinated in the heart of the national strategies for future development instead. The European Union seemed to understand this when raising eEurope to the category of a basic foundation on which to base the satisfaction of the objectives of the (initial) Lisbon strategy.
34As a consequence, any critical analysis regarding the public policies adopted and any recommendation as regards what their future orientation should be cannot (and should not) be restricted to the results of the specific programmes but adopt a much broader approach instead. This approach should be adjusted in order to observe the overall outlook first and then focus on greater levels of detail : without an adequate prior fitting-in of information society progress policies in the global design of what is desired for the future of the Union, any penetration or technology usage datum loses virtually all its sense.
35In a period where the “great narratives” are said to be vanishing, information society visions have clearly become such a new narrative (Servaes, 2003). Which part of the objective launched in March 2000 of transforming Europe into the “most dynamic knowledge-based economy” was a new slogan and which announced a solid project ?
36Four and a half years later, at the end of October 2004, the Economic and Social Committee [EU-25] gave a serious warning: “The Lisbon Strategy is best known, in a reductive manner, as a commitment to make Europe into the world’s most dynamic competitive, knowledge-based, economy. This abbreviated description of the Lisbon Strategy has been repeated frequently but not always with an understanding of the scope and the full implications”. Only a few days later, the High Level Group chaired by Wim Kok, was a lot more forceful when concluding in their report [EU-26] that Europe was not on the path towards being the most dynamic knowledge-based economy.
- 7 “The activities proposed (…) include increased research and innovation in Information and Communica (...)
37It seemed that the time had come for reflection and amendment of possible errors. Reflection, indeed, occurred and led to a “new start” for the Lisbon strategy. The Dutch Government, chairing the Presidency of the moment during the second semester of 2004, provided the guidelines of what could, and especially, of what should not, be done : “There is no time to loose. If the EU is serious about reaching the Lisbon goals set for 2010 it needs structural changes. With middle of the road policies nobody, including Europe, will be able to take a leading position” (Dutch Government – PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2004). But the path taken was, precisely, the one the dangers of which had been announced. The precision of this “new start” took its definitive shape in a summer 2005 communication called “Common actions for growth and employment” [EU-33] where the i2010 initiative is only mentioned once, and by chance7.
38In other words, the Commission’s response to the verification that the objectives were not being met has not been to change the course but to give up the objectives. Essential social and environmental aspects of the Lisbon Agenda are no longer a priority and have been sacrificed to short-term economic demands. The vision of a Europe revitalised by its incorporation to the information society is removed from the foreground. One must not forget that the Lisbon Agenda was developed in a period of high expectations and was ratified at the height of the high-tech Internet boom. Is the conclusion then that the first Lisbon statement was infected by the “technological bubble” and was more of a hollow and opportunistic slogan than a firm and mature plan ?
- 8 “While the prime responsibility remains with business and public administrations when making their (...)
39As stated above, the document formalising the “new” strategy of the Union has turned its focus away from the information society. For more proof, in the prior and preparatory communication [EU-29], also focused on growth and employment, in 33 pages only one paragraph is dedicated to the ICTs (and to the stimulus for their adoption implied by the launch of i2010)8.
- 9 “The EU’s productivity problems are driven by the combined effect of an excessive focus on low and (...)
40However, paradoxically, low usage of ICT services is one of the reasons (maybe even the main one) of low growth rates in comparison with a number of other (non-EU) countries. In fact, only a few months before the “new start”, the Commission itself had mentioned the ICTs twice among the three main problems hindering the increase in productivity9. Thus, even considering only the short and mid-term, an important place should be reserved to the ICT promotion policies or, from a broader perspective, to those promoting the information society.
41However, this does not seem to be the best moment. Obviously, the shift in the Lisbon Strategy cannot be isolated from the problems of lack of cohesion and leadership as well as of a future revision shared by all member states. This is proven by the difficulties marking the consecutive summits of the European Council until an agreement has been reached on the next budgetary period 2007–2013. The budget restrictions and attempts to anchor in the status quo do not seem to be the best way to design policies emphasizing the role of knowledge, education, R&D and innovation.
42The truth is that the current agenda is really without a defined goal. Growth and employment are only objectives that are taken for granted anytime and anywhere. But, what path towards growth and what type of employments do we want for Europe ? One would think that identifying the reasons of failures instead of consequences, lock stepping all actors, finding a long-term balance between social policy and growth, and motivating and including every EU citizen in the unified go-ahead is an urgent requirement.
43The theoretical consistency in the conception of the latest programmes can be seen by observing the progressive evolution marked in the objectives : eEurope 2002’s main focus was on connectivity ; eEurope 2005 was aimed towards modernising public services and ensuring everyone had the opportunity and skills to use services ; i2010 should ensure that Europe’s businesses, governments and citizens make the best use of ICT in order to improve industrial competitiveness, support growth and the creation of jobs, as well as aim to address key societal challenges.
44However, consistency is not enough as a value per se. In practice, the requirement for the intended progress to have occurred is that each programme should have established solid foundations on which to base their successor. As per the preview of the eEurope results, this does not seem to have been the case. Under these conditions, persevering in the definition of increasingly ambitious goals when the previous ones have not been achieved shall only move the plans adopted further away from the environment where they should be executed, a circumstance which will probably lead them to failure.
45Considering the assessment carried out by the Commission, two are the main problems that should be urgently dealt with : promoting the effective usage of broadband connections which do increase in number and, additionally, reduce the digital divide between and within the member states.
46First, general availability does not mean general usage. This fact seems quite obvious when analysing the situation of businesses presented in the report that released the results of eEurope. And this fact is indeed quite worrying since the “new emblem” has become the increase in productivity.
47We find a similar problem when analysing the situation of households. How to promote adoption is a complex issue : the type of content and language used, the degree of literacy or education, communal and institutional structures, are all factors that must be taken into consideration should the purpose be to provide a really useful access to technologies (Warschauer, 2002). One thing is clear, in any case, and it is that waving the Internet “banderole” alone will not mobilise citizens : the key is to adapt the applications and services to the professional priorities of people or to their most basic needs (Ricci, 2000).
48Therefore, it is obvious that it would be necessary to insist on specific actions helping to obtain the specific skills required to effectively use, and benefit from, ICT in work and everyday life. Alongside this measure, we must not forget that other critical issues for usage promotion are far from being resolved : strengthening confidence (particularly by improving network and data flow security), developing more public services for businesses and citizens, a favourable normative environment for the progress of e-transactions… Only a well-balanced support of all factors will lead to real results.
- 10 “ICT was initially trumpeted as a means which by itself would overcome the disadvantages faced by r (...)
49Access should not be forgotten either. The affordability of the price continues undoubtedly to be, in many cases, the first barrier. Considering alternative networks are not quite present in the market yet, prices continue to be at levels above those that would result from competition between the different access platforms. In certain regions, the situation is even more serious : they simply do not have any broadband connections yet10.
50Thus, it is clear that geographical and socioeconomic differences affect access possibilities. These factors, added to other ones (education, age, gender) establish obstacles to effective adoption. All of the above leads us to the second of the major problems : the unbalanced expansion in the Union of the opportunities to adapt to the new paradigm.
51Given the scenario, is there a single “recipe” that will manage to provide an answer to all these problems ? Moreover, is there a shared path that will lead to the progress of the information society in Europe ?
- 11 Pan-European Conference in preparation of the World Summit on the Information Society. The Buchares (...)
52As a preparation for the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, a Pan-European Regional Conference was held in November 2002 where the Union took on an important prominence. An adequate synthesis of the European vision on the information society can be extracted from the summary of the final declaration of said regional conference11 : it is a knowledge-based growth process that develops a new, better-organized type of society ; it is a sustainable development that is conducted by evolving knowledge management, where society evolves as a community of highly educated individuals and where the knowledge economy promotes a growing life standard of the society and every individual.
53Should this path be preferred, people should be the focal point of the Union’s policies. This clause really can be evaluated as a golden thesis : the pledge for a knowledge-based development process is not possible if the skills of each of the members of the community is not stressed. This is not new : it fully coincides with the slogan of the Green paper of 1996, People First, and the recommendations that, more or less at the same time, were issued by the prematurely dissolved European Information Society Forum, a reflection group which maybe the Union would require in this phase of a certain loss of direction.
54Thus, the direction is known, leaving aside the eventual circumstantial drift. But, what is the exact route that should be followed ? Or, more specifically, is there a single route ? Are the guidelines included in the European programmes enough to achieve a harmonic progress of the information society throughout the Union ?
55It seems obvious that, beyond any grandiloquent statement, the efficiency of any policy lies clearly in specific actions. The plans of action need to act on solid grounds to be really efficient. And when we move down to this level, the differences between countries are deciding factors : the initial conditions and means available are not comparable, and so, neither can be the corrective policies. Additionally, the situation within each country is not uniform. The knowledge of how to benefit from ICTs results from the experiences and opportunities presented in the past and offered at present, and, again in this case, it is obvious that the possibilities are not the same for everyone. The local idiosyncrasy must also be taken into account. It is important not to forget that the information society is information but also, and before that, is society.
56As a consequence, the final responsibility of the progress of the information society in each territory falls upon the authorities in charge of adapting the Community trends to the local reality and of designing specific actions (Government, and occassionally, regional and even local authorities). Naturally, these “second level” policies (or the resulting combination of actions in descending levels) can improve, or ruin, the European design, but never radically change the direction set. The contributions made to this monographic issue will help us understand how the different countries or territories have taken on, and resolved, this challenge.