Doc. 9932

27 September 2003

The digital divide and education
Recommendation 1586 (2002)

Reply from the Committee of Ministers

adopted at the 853rd meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies (24 September 2003)

1.       The Committee of Ministers has carefully considered Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1586 (2002) on the digital divide and education. It is aware of the concern voiced by the Assembly that digitalisation introduces a new risk of dividing people into those who can afford access to new technologies and those who cannot1, and it shares these concerns.

2.       In this respect, the Committee of Ministers recalls the political message that it adopted at its 844th meeting (19 June 2003) in the perspective of the World Summit on the Information Society that will take place in Geneva on 10-12 December 2003. This message underlines that “equitable access to information is an essential factor in sustainable development” and insists on “the grave risks of a digital divide both between and within nations, widening existing disadvantages”.

3.       It is in response to this concern that in its recommendation2 to the governments of member states on “Measures to promote the democratic and social contribution of digital broadcasting”, adopted on
28 May 2003, the Committee of Ministers has underlined that: “Media literacy is a key factor in reducing the risk of a “digital divide”. Hence, the public should be provided with wide-ranging information on the media. Suitable training courses in the use of digital equipment and new services are another appropriate measure […]. In particular, steps should be taken to enable […] the less advantaged sectors of the population to understand and use digital technology. All these measures should be taken by the member states, broadcasters, regulatory authorities or other public or private institutions that are concerned with the transition to digital broadcasting”.

As regards the specific issues raised in paragraph 7 of its recommendation, the Committee of Ministers would like to provide the Assembly with the following information:

(i) Join forces with other international bodies that are currently considering access to digital material on the Internet in order to establish the public service principle in the digital environment and in particular to develop norms for the use of such material for educational and other socially necessary purposes

4.       In the Action Plan appended to the aforementioned political message to the World Summit on the Information Society, the Committee of Ministers has already expressed its readiness “to contribute to a global information society based on the principles set out in the message” and has indicated that it will “examine the outcomes of the Summit to identify further practical steps where we can join in wider efforts”. In the light of the content of the Declaration and the Action Plan which will be adopted during the Summit, the Committee of Ministers will subsequently consider in which areas and how the Council of Europe could best contribute to this cooperative effort.

(ii) Give particular consideration in drawing up such norms to:

a. providing citizens with a certain amount of basic information as a public service

5.       The Council of Europe’s Group of Specialists on on-line services and democracy (MM-S-OD) is currently carrying out work concerning Internet literacy (a practical handbook mainly intended for teachers is under preparation and should be published before the end of the year). Furthermore, on the question of the democratic potential of new communication services, work has been launched within the framework of the Integrated Project “making democratic institutions work” with a view to the drawing up of guidelines to member states on e-governance.

6.       As the result of the background work of the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee on the Mass Media, the Committee of Ministers has recommended to the governments of member states, in the already mentioned Recommendation Rec(2003)9, to: (i) create adequate legal conditions for the development of digital broadcasting that guarantee public access to an enlarged choice and variety of quality programmes;

(ii) prepare the public for the new digital environment, notably by encouraging the setting-up of a scheme for adequate information on and training in the use of digital equipment and new services; (iii) guarantee that public service broadcasting […] is maintained in the new digital environment by ensuring universal access by individuals to the programmes of public service broadcasters.

7.       Moreover, the Committee of Ministers Declaration on “Freedom of communication on the Internet” adopted on 28 May 2003, contains the following Principle (N 4): “member states should foster and encourage access for all to Internet communication and information services on a non-discriminatory basis at an affordable price. Furthermore, the active participation of the public, for example by setting up and running individual websites, should not be subject to any licensing or other requirements having a similar effect”.

8.       Speaking of the local public service aspect in relation to new information technologies, the Committee of Ministers would like to mention its Recommendation to member states on “The participation of citizens in local public life” adopted on 6 December 2001, which invites governments, in order to encourage direct public participation in local decision-making and the management of local affairs, to “make full use of new information and communication technologies, and take steps to ensure that local authorities and other public bodies use […] the full range of communications facilities available (interactive websites, multi-channel broadcast media, etc)”.

b. limiting access only for reasons of privacy, confidentiality, security and law-enforcement

9.       The above-mentioned Declaration is also aimed at counteracting attempts to limit public access to communication on the Internet for political reasons or other motives contrary to democratic principles. Principle 3 of the Declaration provides that “public authorities should not, through general blocking or filtering measures, deny access by the public to information and other communication on the Internet, regardless of frontiers” while acknowledging that “this does not prevent the installation of filters for the protection of minors, in particular in places accessible to them, such as schools or libraries”.

c. providing public access points staffed by trained personnel

10.       In order to promote the setting-up of such public access points, the Committee of Ministers has already adopted Recommendation No. R(99)14 to governments of its member states on “Universal community service concerning new communication and information services”.

d. developing special tools to help access for the disabled in concrete terms

11.       New information and communication technologies open up endless possibilities potentially leading to a better quality of life. However, many people with disabilities are at risk of being excluded due to newly created obstacles and barriers caused by inappropriate technology design or provision. Committee of Ministers’ Resolution ResAP(2001)3 “Towards full citizenship of people with disabilities through inclusive new technologies” - stemming from the Committee on the Rehabilitation and Integration of People with disabilities (CD-P-RR) - recommends drawing up national strategies to ensure that persons with disabilities benefit from the manifold opportunities offered by new technologies, particularly in key policy areas such as

education, training and employment. All products and services for people with disabilities should meet the following quality criteria: availability, accessibility, affordability, adaptability, usability, compatibility appropriateness, attractiveness, and awareness. To that end, a co-ordinated set of measures should be developed, promoting the concept of design for all (universal design) (for the latter concept, cf Committee of Ministers’ Resolution ResAP(2001)1).

12.       The Report “The impact of new technologies on the quality of life of persons with disabilities” (Council of Europe Publishing, Strasbourg, August 2002, ISBN 92-871-5007-9), which complements the resolution, includes examples of good practice and concrete proposals to achieve access to the information society for all.

e. harmonising, clarifying and making user-friendly national and international copyright legislation applying to digital material

13.       The Committee of Ministers already adopted on 5 September 2001 Recommendation Rec(2001)7 to governments of its member states on Measures to protect copyright and neighbouring rights and combat piracy, especially in the digital environment. Since, as indicated above, copyright questions are mainly addressed within the framework of WIPO and the European Union, the Committee of Ministers considers it appropriate to wait for the outcome of the work carried out within these fora before considering whether any additional initiative might be appropriate at the level of the Council of Europe.

f. encouraging the production of culturally and pedagogically suitable digital material

14.       Recommendation Rec(2003)9 in its Chapter on Principles applicable to public service broadcasting states the following: “Faced with the challenges linked to the arrival of digital technologies, public services broadcasting should preserve its special social remit, including a basic general service that offers news, educational, cultural and entertainment programmes aimed at different categories of the public. […] In this respect, the means to fulfil the public service remit may include the provision of new specialised channels, for example in the field of information, education and culture, and of new interactive services […].” (para 19).

g. facilitating quality appreciation of digital information

15.       The Committee of Ministers already adopted on 5 September 2001 Recommendation Rec(2001)8 to governments of its member states on “Self-regulation concerning cyber content (self-regulation and user protection against illegal or harmful content on new communications and information services)”.

(iii) Ensure that these norms are properly and equally applied in member states

16.       The Committee of Ministers keeps under review its role in supporting member states in implementing the norms it has adopted. However, there is no systematic monitoring by the Committee of Ministers of the way in which all the texts it has adopted are implemented by member states.

17.       Furthermore, it is difficult to expect all member states to ensure the norms and develop new digital services “equally”, given the differences in their economic situation. But of course, in the long run, this is the aim to attain.

Supplementary information

Given that the Assembly recommendation mentions several times in its explanatory part education and research in relation to Internet, the Committee of Ministers would like to inform the Assembly that equal opportunities for access to higher education and research constitute one of the key concerns of the Council of Europe’s higher education programme for many years3.

The Council of Europe, through its steering committees4, is currently engaged in a project on “Learning and Teaching in Communication Society”. This project aims at examining how new developments in communication technologies influence the ways people learn. The project comprises all levels of education, including lifelong learning. It is a follow-up to the recommendations adopted by the Committee of Ministers concerning the European policy on new information technologies.

Several studies have been conducted to identify new institutional measures for all member states. These measures concern the organisation of schools in Europe, initial and further teacher training and research into the educational implications of the information and communication technologies. A draft resolution promoting the introduction of information and communication technologies into European education systems will be submitted for adoption by the European Ministers of Education at their Standing Conference in Athens from 10-12 November.

The Council of Europe is also carrying out activities on the preparation of an on-line educational tool-kit on internet literacy. The tool-kit will deal, in a balanced and interactive manner, with the ethics of communication, the safe use of Internet and optimising the search for information, as well as copyright issues.

In its future work in the field of education the Council of Europe will be paying particular attention to the ethical and social nature of the basic skills required for the information and communication technologies.”

Appendix I

OPINION OF THE CD-ESR BUREAU ON PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY RECOMMENDATION 1586 (2002) ON THE DIGITAL DIVIDE AND EDUCATION.

1.       The CD-ESR Bureau welcomes Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1586 (2002) on the digital divide and education. The recommendation gives voice to concerns that are fully shared by the CD-ESR Bureau. The CD-ESR Bureau therefore supports the recommendation of the Parliamentary Assembly and in particular items 7.i and 7.ii f.

2.       Equal opportunities for access to higher education has been one of the key concerns of the Council of Europe’s higher education programme for many years, as exemplified by the long standing activity on the recognition of qualifications – leading to the Council of Europe/UNESCO Recognition Convention (ETS 165) – as well as the project on access to higher education in Europe, leading to Recommendation R(98)3. These issues were also addressed in Recommendation (2002) 6 on higher education policies in lifelong learning.

3.       Developments with regard to communication technologies do, however, as pointed out in the Assembly Recommendation, imply a new set of challenges that will have to be met if equal opportunities to quality higher education are to be a reality. The training of digitally literate citizens will depend on the implementation of coherent and co-ordinated ICT-based education policies. Such policies should focus both on providing universal access to digital communication, and re-conceptualising the delivery of educational content and the learning processes. The CD-ESR Bureau would like to point to two areas in which it is currently working to meet these challenges.

4.       On the one hand, the CD-ESR is, in cooperation with the CD-ED, engaged in a project on Learning and Teaching in the Communication Society. This project aims to examine the ways in which new developments in communication technologies influence the ways in which we learn, and is aimed at all levels of education, including lifelong learning. It is a follow-up to the Committee of Ministers’ recommendations concerning European policy on new information technologies and matters related to the acquisition of competencies in using new information technologies, in particular through appropriate information and training.

5.       Secondly, the CD-ESR is deeply involved in the discussing of the social dimension of higher education that is now being launched within the Bologna Process aiming to establish a European Higher Education Area by 2010, in which the definition and implementation of the principles of higher education as a public good and a public responsibility play an important role.

6.       Linked to this, the CD-ESR is also a contributor to the debate on trade in higher education, in particular in the context of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), and proposes to launch this as a major activity in the 2004 work programme. While the CD-ESR notes that trade in higher education is an established fact and that it increases in volume, it is concerned that all such trade be conducted according to transparent quality standards established by public authorities responsible for higher education and by higher education institutions. Two such standards have already been elaborated by the Council of Europe and UNESCO: the Recognition Convention referred to in paragraph 2 of this opinion as well as the Code of Good Practice in the Provision of Transnational Education, adopted by the Convention Committee in 2001.

7.       These standards emphasize equality of access as well as the right of students and others to fair and complete information on education offers. This is particularly important in view of the increasing number of commercial offers delivering or claiming to deliver higher education largely or entirely through communication technologies. Fair and complete information and improved quality assurance is necessary to allow potential students as well as employers, public authorities and other interested persons to identify serious higher education provision, and access to serious higher education provision should be based on merit.

8.       The Higher Education and Research Committee is also involved in the work currently being carried out by the Council of Europe on the preparation of an on-line educational toolkit on internet literacy. The toolkit will deal in a balanced and interactive manner with, inter alia, the ethics of communication, the safe use of the Internet and optimising the search for information, and copyright issues. It will not only point to the dangers of the Internet but also stress that using the new services should be a positive and enriching experience.

Appendix II

Comments by the Chair of the CD-ED on Recommendation 1586 (2002) of the Parliamentary Assembly on the digital divide and education

1.       The Chair and Secretariat of the CD-ED welcome and fully subscribe to Recommendation 1586 (2002) of the Parliamentary Assembly on the digital divide and education.

2.       They consider that the use of the new communication and information services will facilitate and increase the opportunities for all European citizens to participate in the circulation of information, to further their own education and to take part in communication without frontiers, with a view to strengthening international understanding and promoting the mutual enrichment of the different cultures. In this connection, the role of education is vital for acquiring new skills in the use of information and communication technologies.

3.       Mitigation of the multi-level differences throughout the continent as regards the development and use of such technologies partly depends on the level of acquisition of such skills. The new skills in using information technologies as acquired through education must also help reduce the risks of a digital divide. However, these skills cannot be operative on their own, without back-up from suitable material conditions and political support measures.

4.       The Chair and Secretariat particularly approve paragraphs 7.i and 7.ii.f of the Recommendation, and would take this opportunity to draw attention to the current work of the Steering Committee for Education (CD-ED) aimed at taking up the challenges to education in Europe presented by the communication society.

5.       The CD-ED is co-operating with the CD-ESR in a project entitled “Learning and teaching in the communication society”. Several studies have been conducted under the project to identify new institutional measures to be put in place in all the member states. These measures concern the organisation of schools in Europe, initial and further teacher training and research into the educational applications of the information and communication technologies. A draft resolution promoting the introduction of information and communication technologies into European education systems will be submitted for adoption by the European Ministers of Education at their Standing Conference in Athens from 10 to 12 November.

6.       The CD-ED is also taking part in another Council of Europe project involving development of an online information pack aimed at introducing new users to the Internet. This range of utilities will include a balanced, interactive introduction to communication ethics, Internet user safety and optimisation of information searches, as well as copyright issues.

7.       In its future work the CD-ED will be paying particular attention to the ethical and social nature of the basic skills required for the information and communication technologies, as paragraph 7.ii.f of the Recommendation in fact advocates.

Appendix III

Statement of the CDMM on the World Summit on the Information Society adopted at its 58th meeting
(26-29 November 2002) (Extract)

The Steering Committee on the Mass Media (CDMM) is of the firm opinion that the Council of Europe should be actively involved in the preparations for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) based on its commitment to human rights, pluralistic democracy and cultural diversity. The WSIS, which is to achieve the development goals set by the United Nations Millennium Declaration, will be an event of major international importance adopting a Declaration and an Action Plan in areas that have a direct relevance for the work of the Council of Europe.

In the light of its long-standing experience in protecting human rights and its work in the field of new information and communication technologies, the Council of Europe can make a valuable contribution to the preparation and final result of the WSIS. This contribution should highlight the human and democratic dimension of communications and should promote e-inclusion and citizen empowerment in a democratic information society in such a way as to take advantage of opportunities and prevent risks that may result from the new information and communication technologies.

The Council of Europe should make an active contribution to the preparatory process leading up to the WSIS, inter alia through contacts with its Executive Secretariat and participation in the PrepComs. Furthermore, the Council of Europe should liaise with other international organisations and civil society representatives so as to co-ordinate substantive issues…


1 Access to new technologies is not only a question of money, for example, many people with visual or hearing impairments may encounter obstacles in accessing products and services based on new technologies (Internet, voice telephones, etc.) due to inappropriate design.

2 Recommendation Rec(2003)9.

3 As exemplified by the long standing activity on the recognition of qualifications – leading to the Council of Europe/Unesco Recognition Convention (ETS 165)- as well as the project on access to higher education in Europe, leading to the Recommendation. These issues were also addressed in Recommendation (2002) 6 on higher education policies in lifelong learning. Moreover, the Council of Europe pays much attention to the public higher education authorities’ respect for the quality-standards. Two such standards have already been jointly worked out by the Council of Europe and UNESCO: the Recognition Convention (Bologna Convention) and the Code of Good Practice in the Provision of Transnational Education, adopted by the Bologna Convention Committee in 2001. These standards emphasize equality of access to, as well as the right of students and others, to fair and complete information on education offers.

4 CD-ESR and CD-ED.