“Digital rights are human rights”

18 November 2020

The Smart City Live is taking place this week, with Eurocities as a partner. So, what better time to catch up with Laia Bonet, the Deputy Mayor of Barcelona, who is also the new chair of Eurocities’ Knowledge Society forum and will be leading our work in developing digital and smart cities.

You have said that digital rights are human rights. What do you mean by this and how can our evolving digital world maintain a human presence?

Digital rights are human rights because the way we get to enjoy our right to privacy, to education, political participation, work, accessibility and many others is shaped by our access to the internet and our skills to make the most out of it. And, as we transition to the digital age, we need to make sure that this is a just digital transition that leaves no one behind.

This means acting on three main fronts:

First, if our enjoyment of human rights is defined by access to the internet and having the skills to use it, we need to ensure that the digital transition is inclusive – and this involves addressing the digital divide.

Second, cities’ ability to foster urban innovation increasingly depends on identifying emerging technologies, and working to unlock their transformative potential. But we also need to make sure that we build an ethical model of algorithms and data, so as to ensure that digital rights are guaranteed in local public action – data privacy, transparency, accountability, and social justice.

Third, we cannot decouple a just digital transformation from the ecological transition. Data industry, for instance, requires cloud solutions that are intensive energy consumers. Sustaining remote working trends in cities – which allows for changes towards greener mobility models – requires digital infrastructure that will need to be carbon-neutral. Digital innovation will be key to develop consumption and production models that are people- and planet-centred – and we need to foster them if we want to succeed in not turning digitalisation into a new obstacle for the survival of our planet.

Digital inclusion plays a key role in the just digital transition. Why is this important at a city level?

During lockdown, we have witnessed how access to the internet and having the skills to use digital services determines who can benefit from the digital transition. The digital divide has been exposed as a driver of social inequalities. We have seen that communities without access to the internet were most affected by the consequences of lockdown – socially and economically. And these difficulties added on existing challenges for those who were already worse off in our city.

Faced with this, we needed to act swiftly to address the digital divide through an emergency plan for digital inclusion – which we are currently implementing. The plan addresses three needs: diagnosing the digital divide; enhancing connectivity, and digital skills-building.

In the first part, the diagnosis, we will update our 2016 data with a city-wide report that clearly shows the state of the city’s digital divide and where action is most needed. We will be releasing this report in early December.

The second phase, access to digital connection, tools and facilities, includes on the one hand, strengthening the municipal FabLabs network and offering them as a community-based rooted municipal facilities for public access to digital technologies, including internet. On the other hand, the plan also increases available digital devices of the local economic development agency, Barcelona Activa, for its users to be able to follow courses remotely in the event of a second lockdown.

The third point, skills-building, can be achieved through targeted programmes in low-income n eighbourhoods and in the City Council’s offices to train low-skilled audiences. This can focus on how to complete online municipal procedures, and to use basic digital platforms that have proved most useful during lockdown, like setting up a videoconference call, video calls through smartphones and tablets, or even sending emails. We are also working with NGOs in low-income neighbourhoods where they are already developing digital inclusion and capacity-building programmes.

Why is action at the European level relevant for a just digital transition in cities?

Cities are key actors in Europe’s digital transition. As in many other aspects of our lives in cities, digitalisation is not fully within municipal governments’ competence – but it certainly is part of our public responsibility. Digitalisation increasingly shapes our neighbours’ quality of life, access to rights and opportunities.

As I said, the pandemic has exposed the inequalities digitalisation can bring. Across Europe, we are suffering the effects of the digital divide in our cities. We need support to make sure the internet does not amplify existing social inequalities, through digital inclusion policies.

Municipal governments can do a lot – including by setting up digital inclusion plans – but we cannot do it all on our own – especially not while we face increased pressure on our municipal budgets as a result of COVID-19. Multi-level partnerships, between all levels of government, are needed to work towards the shared goal of digital inclusion, and this means pushing national and European administrations to get us all even further.

Just to offer two examples: Back in June, I co-authored an open letter calling on the EU to develop a European digital strategy that regards access to the internet as a right rather than a mere infrastructure.

And we have also called on the European Commission to present a Digital Services Act that gives power back to cities to regulate digital platforms.

In short, in Barcelona we believe Europe needs to make a choice between a technological model that reduces our ability to govern urban life, and one that boosts innovation, rights, and inclusion. As European cities, I am convinced that the latter is the right one: we need to take forward a vision of human-centred digital transition – and we need the EU to get on board.

How will Barcelona work with other cities to boost the role of cities in European decision making?

Indeed, making cities a central actor in the European decision-making on digital policy is a key priority for Barcelona as the new Chair of Eurocities’ Knowledge Society Forum, which groups together European cities interested in working specifically on these topics.

I think that we need to work around three main goals that will be instrumental for our work at the EU level.

First – we need to be more and our voice needs to be heard beyond Eurocities and the EU institutions. Our work does not only need to be relevant for our citizens, but also to be perceived as such in public opinion. And this starts by getting more cities engaged with Eurocities’ work, but also by getting other stakeholders on board – experts, practitioners, civil society… Only by taking them into account in our strategies to the EU and getting their support in building our policy positions, will we achieve a wider audience than the usual suspects.

Second – we need to work bearing in mind that, now more than ever, everything is digital. The platform economy that has such a clear impact on our cities has a digital root; social inclusion cannot be decoupled from digital inclusion. Our digital culture is only expanding and growing new audiences as a result of the current crisis; and digital infrastructure has major consequences in terms of carbon footprint.

We need to ensure that all the work that we do builds on the acknowledgement that we will not succeed in pursuing a just digital transition if we don’t stop working in silos and start developing clearly cross-cutting actions.

And third – if we want to be heard on the European stage, we need to do what we do best – listening to our communities and bringing their voice to the EU table. We need to be more effective in showing EU policy-makers the consequences of their actions – or lack thereof – for people and communities – our neighbours. If we manage to start making policy based on empathy, cities will need to be at the decision-making table from the very beginning.


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer