Digitalizing Europe: The Austrian Perspective

4 Key Takeaways on the Digital Future of the EU 


by Nathalie Depari | Digitalization is changing the global economy, society, and industry faster than ever, and Europe is no exception. The foundation of a strong digital Europe is one that preserves human rights and ethical principles in order to manage digital change responsibly, and it’s become a key issue in the upcoming European Parliament elections. 


Due to the growing discourse on this topic, AustrianStartups, a non-profit and entrepreneurship think tank, organized a discussion on the “Digital Future of the EU” on May 14.  The event was held in Tribe Space, a newly-renovated co-working space in Vienna and was moderated by AustrianStartups board member Maggie Childs. Childs is also the CEO of the only English-language publisher in Austria, Home Town Media. 


Five of Austria’s prominent political parties were represented on stage: Muna Duzdar from Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), Valeria Foglar-Deinhardstein from Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), Klaus Handler from Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), Sabine Jungwirth from the Greens, and Claudia Gamon from The New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS).


The event-opening keynote speech was presented by Pier Luigi dal Pino, Public Affairs Director at Microsoft. Pino discussed the position of the European Union in the current digitalization era, emphasizing the ethical aspects of data privacy and regulation in comparison with the positions of the US and China. He also mentioned the importance of content management and digital education, adding that these topics should receive more consideration.


4 Key Takeaways on the Digital Future of the European Union


Every party representative began with a short statement describing their vision for digitalization in the EU election. Gamon emphasized her party’s vision of establishing the so-called United States of Europe by creating a European passport. This, she believes, will benefit Europe in terms of regulation and digital infrastructure improvement. Duzdar and Foglar-Deinhardstein had similar opinions about the importance of digitalization and the European single-market system. 


Jungwirth focused her statement on the recruitment of foreign talent as crucial in the digital era. She mentioned that startups could do a lot to slow down climate change. Handler, in contrast with earlier statements on the single-market system, believes that the cultural differences across countries make it difficult to apply one Europe-wide digitalization policy.


The discussion then continued with 4 important topics regarding European digitalization: upload filters and anonymity on the internet, European climate goals, Austrian positions in the world’s startup discourse, and digitizing the election.


Upload Filter and Internet Anonymity


While each party representative had made their position clear even before the discussion took place, it was a refreshing experience to share in a straightforward discussion on digitalization. Europe’s controversial Article 13 legislation on copyright law–also referred to as “upload filter” and “link tax”–was among the topics of discussion. 


Foglar-Deinhardstein, who describes ÖVP as a business-supportive party, was questioned about her party’s decision to support this article. While critics believe that this law will limit freedom of expression and creation on the internet, Foglar-Deinhardstein sees it as protection and chance for companies to grow even bigger, as more attention will be paid to copyright acknowledgment and fair payment.


Handler and Duzdar have differing perspectives on internet anonymity. Duzdar believes that the internet should be a safe place for someone to express themselves anonymously but she doesn’t see it as a legal vacuum. Tech companies need more regulation: for example, hate posts should be deleted within 48 hours. Handler believes, on the other hand, that anonymity contributes directly to what he calls “controlled hatred”. He is convinced that without anonymity, people will treat their online interactions with greater care.


2020 European Climate and Energy Package: Where is Austria?


The climate agreement signed by the European Union was another topic discussed in this event, as the 2020 deadline on the agreement approaches. Jungwirth believes that it could be reached if governments are willing to take serious actions: support conversion to renewable energy, improve the transport sector, build the digital economy and food system. She urged people to support digitalization and robotics to save the planet. Foglar-Deinhardstein is also optimistic about the potential of eco-friendly business (dubbed ‘ocologization’ in the region, stemming from the German ökologisierung, meaning conservation), which could help Europe in its goal of slowing climate change.


Austria on World’s Startups


On the topic of unicorns (privately held startup companies valued at over $1 billion), Duzdar sees Austria’s lack thereof as a result of Austrian culture, which views failure negatively. The emphasis on succeeding at all costs, she said, suppresses entrepreneurial spirit. 


For the Greens, international recruitment is also an important topic to support Austrian startups. Jungwirth believes that the complicated regulations around hiring internationally should be somehow simplified with EU-wide regulation. She believes this would benefit individuals as well as companies. 


On the contrary, Handler sees awareness and education as more important than hiring internationally. He believes citizens from developing countries would not be interested in working in Austria, an opinion which was supported by Gamon as she reflected on the complexity of Austrian regulations and the lack of welcoming culture.


Digitizing Election: Options?


The event closed with a discussion on digitizing elections. While the prevailing school of thought centered around digitizing elections to prevent and track election fraud, not all the panelists agreed with this rationale. Specifically, Handler argued that election fraud thus far has been analog, allowing it to be tracked more easily offline. Fraud in digital elections, he believes, can only be traced by computer science experts. 


In the end, each party had its own perspective on this topic. The choice remains in the hands of voters, and whatever they choose will determine the direction of Austria’s–and Europe’s–digitalization process.


Nathalie is Jumpstart’s Journalist-in-Residence. She is a tropical girl made in Indonesia who is currently finishing her master study in applied linguistics in Vienna, Austria. While she has quite wide interests from travel and multilingualism to technology and politics, her wish is only one: to give positive impacts in the society by her writings.”

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