EC seeks to bridge digital divide


BRUSSELS -- New measures to help people left behind by new-media technologies have been unveiled by the European Commission in a bid to combat what is seen as a widening "digital divide."

The commission -- the EU's executive authority -- said that accessibility of Web sites, communication terminals, TV sets and other technologies remains problematic, with the lower-educated, poor and elderly at the greatest disadvantage.

It said that despite technological advances, more than one in three Europeans are still unable to enjoy digital media. The EC's research found progress fragmented and slow, with just 10% of people age 64 or over tabbed as Internet users, compared with the European average of 47%. In addition, only 5% of Web sites fully comply with European accessibility standards, creating additional hurdles for the 15% of the EU population with disabilities.

"Progress has been only half as fast as it should be," EU Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding said. "In today's society, access to information by all citizens is a right as well as a condition for prosperity. It is neither morally acceptable nor economically sustainable to leave millions of people behind."

The commission estimated that benefits of €35 billion-€85 billion ($51 billion-$125 billion) could be generated over five years if society would be made more inclusive, Web sites more accessible and broadband made available to all EU citizens.

Its "e-Inclusion" initiative includes accessibility legislation, similar to that of the U.S., and an awareness campaign for 2008.

The commission said it wants to bring the benefits of the Internet and related technology into all segments of the population, including people who are disadvantaged because of education (a specific subset called e-Competences), age (called e-Ageing), disabilities (called e-Accessibility), ethnicity, and those living in remote regions.