Regulatory change in the digital domain, key to Europe’s drive towards becoming a technological superpower

  • Digital Culture

The Digital Society in Spain 2023 Report published by the Telefónica Foundation, tracks technology trends and their development in 2022

Unstoppable digitisation, the Internet at an open crossroads, Europe’s digital sovereignty and a fair contribution to ensure network efficiency and sustainability in the digital economy are the key reflections of this report. Europe has the opportunity to become a technological superpower, but to do so, it must achieve digital sovereignty.


The pandemic, Brexit, the war in Ukraine, inflation, rising inequality and the climate emergency are signs of the great global transformation. An uncertain future coupled by a major technological revolution, spearheaded by digitalisation, has concentrated progress in a much shorter time frame than past technological leaps. Consequently, this speed of innovation means that the undoubted benefits of progress go in tandem with threats such as loss of privacy, disinformation, cybercrime and more.

The world’s digital society continues to advance, albeit at a slower pace than at the height of the pandemic. In 2022, nearly two-thirds (66.3%) of the world’s population were Internet users. This percentage is 3.7 points higher than in 2021 (62.6%). In absolute terms, there were more than 5.28 billion Internet users, 338 million more than in 2021.

The present time, given the highly variable and uncertain environment in which we live, is giving rise to a number of elements for reflection: digitalisation is an unstoppable global phenomenon; the evolution of the Internet is at an open crossroads; Europe’s digital sovereignty; and the fair contribution to ensuring network efficiency and environmental sustainability in the digital economy.

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Europe’s digital sovereignty, crucial to becoming a technological superpower

Europe missed out on the first wave of technology, but it must catch the next one and, in turn, develop its own digital capabilities. The EU has the opportunity to become a technological superpower in its own right, define its strategic autonomy in a new world, and also exercise its regulatory power to shape the international environment on digital issues.

2022 has been a busy year for regulatory activity in the European digital ecosystem. Last year saw the adoption of two key pieces of legislation that pursued a more ethical evolution of digital services and ensured competition in the digital market and the protection of EU consumers’ rights: the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA), which will come into force in 2023 and 2024 respectively.

Today, Internet market conditions have changed around the world and the bargaining power of platforms and large content providers has expanded in recent years. The debate on the fair contribution to network sustainability is not what pits EU carriers against large US content platforms, but it is a global debate that started in Asia and spread to the US and Europe on sustaining network investment and deployment.

It is therefore urgent to implement a regulatory proposal in view of the changes brought about by the acceleration of digitalisation, both at the European and Spanish level. The aim is to create a suitable and adaptable legal framework for the new developments and infrastructures. These new times require new rules of the game.

The strength of Spanish infrastructure

In this context, Spain is making good progress in its digital transformation and is the undisputed leader in terms of connectivity. The European Commission’s annual Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) ranked Spain seventh in the list of member states in 2022, two places higher than in 2021. It is only surpassed in this area by Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland and Malta.

Spain is a country endowed with highly advanced infrastructure, both in relation to European countries and in the OECD framework, thanks to its early commitment to fibre optics in the previous decade and the rapid deployment of standard 5G mobile telephony that it has been carrying out in recent years.

In Europe as a whole, notable strides have been made in fibre, with coverage reaching 70.2%. Spain is in fourth position with 93.8% coverage, surpassed only by Malta, Luxembourg and Denmark. The heavy investment in 5G in our country is evident in the significant increase in coverage experienced in 2022. In the European Union, this has risen from 13.9% of all households in 2021 to 65.8% in 2022. In Spain, Telefónica closed 2022 with a total of 1,719 municipalities with 5G, representing coverage of more than 83% of the population.


Levers for digitalisation

In this rapidly changing global landscape, three factors can be considered the drivers of digitalisation: innovation in education, digital talent in the workforce, and a secure internet free from cyberthreats and content that manipulates public opinion.


Education, from digital skills to computational thinking

Education systems must evolve at the same pace as the economy and society. To this end, schools have made a considerable effort and must continue to do so in order to equip themselves with technology and modernise pedagogical activity, especially in the use of the most advanced network services – those based on the cloud or virtual learning environments – where penetration is relatively low and there is still some way to go.

In addition to the digital skills that students will need to function in the future labour market, experts stress the need to introduce computer programming at all educational levels, a discipline that, using the logic of intelligent machines, teaches how to pose and solve problems, which is essential for future generations who will work side by side with artificial intelligence systems.


Digital talent in business

Indeed, one of the main characteristics of the digital transformation in employment is the spectacular growth in demand for digital job profiles. Eurostat data reveal that the number of ICT specialists in the European Union will grow by 50% between 2020 and 2021, a rate eight times higher than the growth of employment in the area. In Spain, by mid-2022, DigitalES estimated that there were around 124,400 vacancies for digital profiles, mainly in the fields of software development, systems and cybersecurity.

In addition to the need to incorporate new job profiles into the economy, the digital transformation has created a new trend: the demand for new technological skills in non-digital professions. And, in contrast to this, another trend is the growing demand for soft skills in technology professionals, such as organisational skills, communication or positive and critical thinking, among others. In this case, demand has increased by 22% since 2016.

One of the areas for improvement in digital jobs remains the gender gap. The number of female graduates in STEM disciplines per 1,000 individuals is 12 and there are only 1.7% of ICT specialists in total employment are women, compared to 6.2% for men. In addition, there is a gender pay gap of 9%, down from 12% in the previous report. In conclusion, there is an urgent need to implement educational actions that promote the participation of women in STEM disciplines in order to gradually close the digital talent gap in Spain and guarantee a sufficient supply of technology professionals.


Trust and security on the Internet

To guarantee the activity of citizens and businesses on the networks, it is essential to have trust and security on the Internet, two key elements to ensure the harmonious growth of digital life. More than half of Spanish citizens say they trust the Internet quite a lot, but, on the other hand, Spain is one of the countries most concerned about misinformation, 62% of the population, second only to Portugal.

Also of concern is the growth of ransomware-based threats to organisations, and malware affecting personal devices, which is compounded by the lack of cybersecurity specialists. The European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) noted that between July 2021 and July 2022, ransomware and malware have continued to top the list of cyberattacks.


Key technologies for the new digital economy

The leap forward taking place in the field of infrastructure with the confluence of 5G and fibre optics has laid the foundations for the digital world now under construction. Web3, a complement to the immersive internet and the metaverse; new blockchain applications; the popularity of artificial intelligence; Industry 4.0, as the full automation of the traditional factory; and the immense potential of drones are just some of the technologies that making major waves in 2022.

The future web will no longer run on digital service platforms, but on blockchain, which will guarantee direct relations between users without intermediation, and bring about a more democratic Internet. Some of the applications of what Web3 will become are already here, such as NFTs, or non fungible tokens, a unique digital certificate, registered on a blockchain, and DeFi, applications to support financial services on blockchain technology.

On the other hand, broadly speaking, the metaverse is the vision of an immersive internet, where virtual and augmented reality technologies play a key role, and where we will be able to collaborate and interact with other users through applications.

The penetration of blockchain is increasingly evident and will only grow as it provides real solutions to concrete problems and activities beyond cryptocurrencies. For example, at the end of 2022, the European Investment Bank (EIB) launched the first digital euro bond using this technology. It has also led to major advances in intellectual property protection and education.

In the vast universe of blockchain-based applications, cryptoassets have attracted the most attention in recent years. However, in 2022, the cryptocurrency market experienced a very noticeable downturn. According to FUNCAS, 5% of Internet users between 18 and 70 own cryptocurrencies.

Artificial intelligence is also experiencing a spike in popularity, to the extent that the Royal Academy of Language named it “2022 word of the year”. It has continued to permeate Spanish society in 2022 in the form of services and applications. Along with other digital technologies, such as big data, the Internet of Things, the cloud and robotics, it encourages the transition towards more agile and versatile production models, the automation of activities and the acceleration of the responsible exchange of data to solve critical challenges and spur innovation.

In relation to the global trends guiding the development of innovation in the field of artificial intelligence, the consultancy firm Gartner identified four broad categories in 2022: data-centric, model-centric, application-centric and human-centric artificial intelligence. Undoubtedly one of the most talked-about products of 2022 was OpenAI’s GPT-3 chatbot, whose technology features an autoregressive language model that uses deep learning to produce text that simulates human writing.

More and more companies are incorporating digital technologies into their industrial processes in the “Industry 4.0” concept. The fundamental prerequisite for progress in achieving this is having the right connectivity, the adoption of digital technologies, and the digital empowerment of workers. In the opinion of Spanish industrial companies, 43% of the workforce in 2022 had an insufficient level of digital skills to operate the technologies described. The good news is that this percentage has shrunk by 15 points compared to 2021.

Finally, another technology that has made significant progress is the drone sector, both in the global market and in Spain. The growth rate of civilian applications of this technology is expected to rise exponentially in the medium term.


Life in a digital society

For yet another year, entertainment services have become the driving force behind Spaniards’ use of digital technologies. Among these, the consumption of audiovisual content leads the trend. 75.7% of internet users in the last three months have listened to or downloaded music from online services, 7.5 points higher than in 2020. Internet users who watch films or series via streaming platforms also grew notably (10.5 points), reaching 65.6%. The only entertainment service that has seen its share fall is video games. Internet users who play or download games fell from 37% in 2020 to 35.4% in 2022.

E-commerce remained one of the main digital activities of Spaniards in 2022. The percentage of people who shopped online in the last three months stood at 55.3%, one tenth higher than in 2021, but both spending per user and frequency of use have seen a significant decline in 2022. E-commerce users shopped 2.8 times a month in 2022, a similar figure to before the pandemic (in 2019 they shopped 3 times a month).

The return to normality has also been felt on the employment front, with a reduction in the percentage of employed people who telework. If in 2021 this percentage stood at 17.6%, in 2022 it dropped to 14%.

Regarding online banking, in 2022, 73.7% of internet users in the last three months have accessed banking services online, 6.2% more than in 2021. And the relationship between citizens and public administrations through digital media has become much closer since the impetus it received from the pandemic. 79.7% of people aged 16-74 used government websites or mobile applications in 2022.


Tackling disruption from an anthropocentric perspective

In 2022, the European Commission announced a political agreement between the European Parliament and the Council, the programme ‘Europe’s Digital Decade: digital goals for 2030’, which takes aim at skills and infrastructure, the digitisation of business and public services, and also highlights the importance of having a digital rights framework for Europeans. Crises need to be addressed from an anthropocentric perspective, putting people at the centre.

On the other hand, since 2021, Spain has had a Charter of Digital Rights, which does not have a regulatory nature, but which represents a reference framework to guarantee and bolster people’s rights in the digital world. And there are private sector initiatives that place society’s well-being at the heart of digital transformation and that advocate that it should be ethical, fair and inclusive. Telefónica, for its part, has proposed a digital pact between civil society, academia, the public sector and the private sector to leverage a people-centred digital transition. This requires the development of a new governance model that is able to combine social, environmental and economic aspects, while ensuring a sustainable digital transition in the long term.

Download the report here


Regulatory change in the digital domain, key to Europe’s drive towards becoming a technological superpower
Regulatory change in the digital domain, key to Europe’s drive towards becoming a technological superpower