OPINION

Stop putting commerce before human rights

The priorities of Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes have recently centered almost exclusively on the telecoms package, a huge piece of commercial legislation. This has overshadowed another important file concerning the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites, an extremely important issue for citizens with disabilities and our increasing aging population.

As the European Parliament’s rapporteur on this directive, I have worked closely and diligently with my colleagues and all stakeholders concerned to produce a report acceptable by all. As it stands, this directive covers all EU public sector bodies’ websites and websites providing public services. Approving this piece of legislation would reflect the binding obligations set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the commitments made in the Digital Agenda for Europe. In addition, with the implementation of a harmonized European approach, making these websites accessible also has the potential to be a highly profitable business – the financial benefits are currently estimated at 2 billion euros.

Why do accessible online services matter so much? The rapid pace of technology has enabled greater access to information to a greater number of people than ever before; yet, there is a large segment of society that finds itself excluded. In Europe, 80 million citizens with disabilities and another 87 million aged over 65 are at a particular disadvantage when trying to navigate their way online.

Although the technology already exists to create websites with online content that is accessible to all users (in particular those with disabilities), European web standards are, on the whole, embarrassingly lacking. Less than one-third of Europe’s 761,000 public sector and government websites and even less than 10 percent of Europe’s websites in general are fully accessible. Making websites and their content usable for all should have already become a priority on an EU level, alongside the anti-discrimination policies and similar web legislation of other countries such as the USA, Australia and Canada. Within Europe, such progress would be in line with one of the main objectives of the European Disability Forum’s “Freedom of Movement” campaign, which is to promote the adoption of legally binding legislation covering the accessibility of websites and e-services. Although several member states are already improving their policies, there has been no joint approach or harmonization on a European level. In short, EU legislation on web accessibility for all is long overdue.

Throughout the web accessibility directive’s progress in the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) Committee, there has been consensus and cooperation across all parliamentary groups; as a result, the IMCO Committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of the file two weeks ago. However, the Lithuanian presidency has failed to recognize the importance and potential of this piece of legislation.

The ball now lies in the court of the Greek presidency and the European Commission; the legislative process must get under way at the very beginning of the Greek presidency. This dossier represents an opportunity for Greece to show leadership and record an important success. If, however, this is not made a clear priority by both the European Commission and the European Council, the momentum will be lost and the new European Parliament will have to start the whole process all over again.

It’s up to the Greek presidency to show leadership and reap the benefits of this low-hanging fruit, which will be a tangible result for both consumers and the wider market. But above all, accessibility is a human right. All people are entitled to use the Internet in order to exercise their fundamental rights. I therefore urge Commissioner Kroes and the Greek presidency to make this file a priority in the coming months.

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* Jorgo Chatzimarkakis is a member of the European Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee.