Fundamental rights of older people: ensuring access to public services in digital societies

Europe’s ageing population is ever-increasing, and our societies are becoming more digitalised. Many public services are now available online, with many more services in the process of being digitalised. But the digitalisation of public services poses a risk of exclusion for older persons. In this new report, FRA explores the impact of digitalisation on the fundamental rights of older persons. The report maps the current legislation, policies and practices fostering digital inclusion. It provides an overview of the laws at the national level that provide for equal access to public services, both online and offline. The findings show how Member States safeguard older person’s rights to access services undergoing digitalisation. It outlines how Member States can support digital skills and ensure older people can fully participate in public life.

The European population is continuously ageing, and society is growing increasingly digitalised. Public services are undergoing digitalisation (see  Annex 1: Glossary), creating a risk of exclusion for older persons. Yet there are legal protections against discrimination based on age. Together, these facts invite an examination of how the digitalisation of public services is affecting older persons’ enjoyment of their fundamental rights.

The 2020 Council of the European Union conclusions Human rights, participation and well-being of older persons in the era of digitalisation underlined the need to maintain some non-digital public services. The Council called for respect for older persons’ rights and needs, regardless of disabilities. It “invite[d] the Fundamental Rights Agency to explore the impact of digitalisation on the fundamental rights, active participation and well-being of older persons”.

In response, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) collected information on Member States’ legislation and policies. FRA examined how older persons’ rights of access to and use of public services are protected, given digitalisation’s impact. Statistical evidence from Eurostat data and FRA’s Fundamental Rights Survey corroborated this analysis.

The European Union (EU) issued the European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles in 2023. This commits the EU to a digital transformation that benefits everyone and to ensuring that the design, development, deployment and use of technological solutions respect fundamental rights. The EU makes a further commitment to a digital transformation that leaves no one behind. The transformation must benefit older persons; people living in rural areas; persons with disabilities; and marginalised, vulnerable or disenfranchised people, and those who act on their behalf.

The EU’s founding treaty protects the rights of the growing group of older persons (Article 2 and Article 6, paragraph 3, of the Treaty on European Union). So does the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (the Charter), Article 21 (non-discrimination), Article 25 (the rights of the elderly) and Article 26 (integration of persons with disabilities).

The EU and its Member States are required to respect fundamental rights whenever they implement EU law (Article 51 of the Charter). The Charter does not explicitly mention the right of access to public services. However, Article 34 (social security and social assistance), Article 35 (healthcare), Article 41 (right to good administration) and Article 42 (right of access to documents) cover certain aspects of that right.

Moreover, Protocol No. 26 to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union recognises the importance and diversity of services of general interest. Member States can choose how services are delivered. However, they must ensure a high level of quality, safety and affordability; equal treatment; the promotion of universal access; and the protection of user rights. From a fundamental rights perspective, this means that those who cannot or do not wish to access public services digitally should still have offline access, to ensure that no one is left behind.

The 2020 Council conclusions invite Member States and the Commission to adopt “a rights-based and a life-cycle perspective to ageing”. The conclusions acknowledge that the digital gap between generations is significant and increases with age. They stress the need to maintain non-digital access channels to public services. The Council calls for respect for older persons’ rights and needs, explicitly referring to older persons with and without disabilities.

The 2023 EU Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles confirms the EU’s commitment to respect fundamental rights, inclusion, accessibility, equality, availability of services and everyone’s rights and aspirations equally.

This report examines Member States’ laws and policies relating to digitalised services provided by public administrations. This is in line with the Digital Decade policy programme.

The programme focuses on the fundamental rights of older persons and obligations relating to non-discrimination. The Digital Decade requires that all key public services are available online by 2030. This offers many advantages and opportunities, such as cost and time savings and efficiency. However, it also presents risks and challenges to groups susceptible to digital exclusion, such as older persons, persons with disabilities and those with low education and income levels.

The report findings show the following.

  • All Member States and candidate countries provide access to public services in digital societies through generic or specific legal provisions. Some provisions refer broadly to the principle of good public administration.
  • National legislation and policies do not always acknowledge the risk of exclusion from digitalised public services. They do not adequately address barriers to using digital services, such as insufficient coverage, costs of internet and devices, lack of skills and external support.
  • The laws of four Member States include provisions aimed specifically at protecting older persons’ rights to equal access to digitalised public services.
  • Nine Member States’ policy documents recognise the importance of maintaining offline alternatives or granting freedom of choice of access channel.
  • There is little evidence of national initiatives to provide digital skills training for older persons or to offer financial support for reliable internet access or up-to-date devices and software. This is despite national authorities’ efforts.
  • Digital skills and up-to-date technological tools are essential to participate in public life. Only one in four people aged 65 to 74 in the 27 EU Member States have at least basic digital skills. Public consultations and policy discussions are increasingly carried out online. Therefore, older persons face not being able to exercise their civil and political rights.
  • Information and disaggregated data for persons aged 75 and older are missing. This makes it impossible to evaluate and monitor the impact and efficiency of the Digital Decade policy programme and national laws and policies on this group. Nor can their equal access to public services undergoing a digital transition be evaluated/monitored.