The coronavirus pandemic has amplified the vulnerabilities of a digitally interconnected world. The restrictive measures introduced at the beginning of the crisis have accelerated the digitization of a large part of the European population, which has been forced to reorganize its work, education, and leisure online. This digital shift has manifested itself in ways that range from so-called Zoom diplomacy to hyperconnected home offices, from virtual classrooms to video calls with family and friends.
At the same time, the global positions of tech companies like Amazon or Google have further strengthened. Facebook’s traffic has skyrocketed, with a big surge in video calls and messaging. Microsoft announced in March that the number of people using its software to aid remote working had increased by nearly 40 percent in a week.
As Europe’s digitization has quickened, the information asymmetry—in which, for a long time, large tech corporations have known more and more about us while we have known little about them—has widened. And this is not the only imbalance that has intensified. The asymmetry of what is possible for those with internet access and those without has also increased. This adds to already growing inequalities and turns the physical distancing imposed for health reasons into deeper social distancing.
In Spain, 91.4 percent of households have access to the internet, mostly through smartphones. But among households with net monthly incomes below €900 ($1,011), the minimum wage in the country, the figure is only 58.1 percent. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, about 4 million Britons do not use the internet at all.
Europe is the world region with the highest percentage of people using the internet, at 82.5 percent; but in certain EU countries, such as Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and Romania, almost a quarter of the population never uses internet services. The situation is similar in the United States, where four out of ten households do not have a broadband connection.
In the context of the socioeconomic shocks triggered by the coronavirus, some national and local authorities in the EU have launched initiatives to try to tackle this exacerbated digital exclusion. The city of Milan, on the front line of the Italian emergency response, provided free internet access to vulnerable families. Barcelona’s government distributed thousands of laptops and tablets with internet connectivity to students in vulnerable situations. Across Spain, municipalities of all sizes set up similar initiatives that connect public and private stakeholders to alleviate social segregation at a time of urgent need and extreme vulnerability.
At the same time, technology has been used to mobilize civil society to collaborate on the production of emergency supplies to make up for relief shortages. An open-source platform, Coronavirus Makers, connected a large network of technology experts, researchers, developers, engineers, companies, and institutions across Spain to create products such as ventilators for intensive care units, visors, or masks to help fight the pandemic.
The organizational transformations of recent months will also be decisive in terms of how people relate to technology in the near future. In a context of new types of surveillance, mobility tracking, and information integration, cities around the world have mobilized during the pandemic for more inclusive digitization. In the spirit of building tech trust, the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights—launched in 2018 to secure a people-centered digital reality—has called for better handling of technology during the pandemic. They have mobilized in favor of data privacy, consent, trust, and a limited and responsible use of technology as a tool to contain and resolve the coronavirus crisis.
It is more necessary than ever for the EU, national governments, and city administrations to get their digital democracy strategies right. This is vital not only to address the dominant positions of tech companies but also to protect citizens’ rights and use the pandemic as a prompt for more inclusive participation. Otherwise, the implications for democracy could be dire.
Carme Colomina is a research fellow on the EU, disinformation, and global politics at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB).