The European Union has stepped up its commitment to erasing the 'digital divides' in European society. Oracle welcomes the new EU Initiative on e-Inclusion and makes some recommendations to promote e-accessibility technologies.
One of the key routes to improving social and economic conditions in Europe is to make more and better use of information and communications technologies (ICT). But for the Information Society to be truly productive and truly beneficial for all Europeans, everyone needs to be able to participate in it. Currently, this is not happening: in 2006 the European Commission identified a number of 'digital divides' excluding important social and economic groups from accessing or using ICT.
Among the e-excluded were people over the age of 65; the economically inactive; and people with lower levels of education. Another affected group is people who have physical disabilities that mean they cannot use the technologies that many Europeans take for granted. At a ministerial conference on e-inclusion in December 2007, it was estimated that together, the groups at risk of exclusion make up 30-40 percent of the European population.
EU sets aggressive e-inclusion targets
In an attempt to heal the rifts between Europe's technology 'haves' and 'have-nots', in June 2006 the EU Commissioner for the Information Society, Viviane Reding, set out a number of clear e-inclusion targets to be achieved by 2010. The targets included a reduction by half in the number of people who do not use the internet regularly; broadband penetration to reach 90 percent of the European population; a reduction by half in the number of people who do not possess basic digital literacy skills; and 100 percent of public (i.e. government) websites to comply with international accessibility guidelines.
The targets were aggressive, and perhaps unsurprisingly, by mid-2007, progress towards them was found to be falling far short. The EU responded by stepping up its commitment: a new European Initiative on e-Inclusion was announced in November and will be rolled out during 2008. The initiative will seek to raise awareness of the social and economic issues arising from e-exclusion, and to provide a framework to co-ordinate, accelerate and publicise the success of a wide range of e- inclusion efforts.
Oracle welcomes this renewed commitment to ensuring e-inclusion, and actively participated in the public consultation that informed the new strategy. We believe that e-inclusion is vitally important to improving the economic and social prospects of individual citizens, as well as to increasing the productivity and competitiveness of Europe as a whole.
e-Accessibility is key, but multiplicity of standards must be avoided
Oracle has a particular interest in fostering e-accessibility for the elderly and people with disabilities; a group that on its own accounts for some 15 percent of the European population. With the help of assistive devices and accessible technologies, many people in this group who are currently excluded could lead more active and fulfilling lives and participate more fully in society, the workplace, and the economy.
It's not just Oracle: commitment to accessibility is widespread throughout the ICT industry. There is a strong willingness on the part of software and hardware vendors to create accessible products. Vendors' ability to develop and rapidly deploy accessible products can be held back by the need to comply with multiple standards. Oracle believes that there needs to be greater convergence between the accessibility standards in force in different areas – such as Europe and the U.S. – for it to be economically viable for vendors to develop products that can be marketed and sold worldwide.
Rather than implement new standards for e-accessibility, with the time delay that would entail, Oracle would like to see the EU adopt an existing design standard, such as WCAG 2.0. Further, Oracle recommends that the EU, United States and other governments adopt globally recognised design standards such as WCAG 2.0. Vendors should also be able to self-certify their products against the chosen standard, rather than risk delaying the launch of vital new products to market through mandatory third party certification schemes.
E-accessibility is one of the technology areas that have been accorded 'high priority' status by the Transatlantic Economic Council, a transatlantic government initiative dedicated to enabling and simplifying trade between the U.S. and Europe. We hope that the inclusion of e-accessibility in the TEC will assist in the convergence of standards and certification measures on both sides of the Atlantic.