September 30, 2018

Digital Policy and Civil Society

We want to get a better understanding of which digital issues are important to civil society organisations and how they frame these issues. This would help us find a new overlapping framework that would replace the imposed Digital Single Market narrative within which civil societies are now forced to fit their agenda. Our assumption is that an alternative frame would allow civil society to discuss digital issue in a way that aligns with their (public) mission and goals.

In order to understand the current issues that are put forward by civil society organisations, we have mapped the key digital policy issues, the key policy positions and the key policy documents on these issues. While the mapping of organisations, issues and documents has not been completely finished yet, I want to share our methodology, the preliminary results and my reflection on the data we have gathered so far.

We used the following methodology to map organisations, issues and key policy documents. We limited our mapping exercise to civil society organisations that work on the European level such as European organisations, think tanks and corporations. By an organisation working at EU level we mean organisations that have actively participated in any form in EU policy making related to the Digital Single Market strategy, for example: published a policy paper, took part in consultation or took part in an event related to the DSM. We have selected all entities that fulfilled these criteria from the participants list of RightsCon 2017 which was the largest conference on digital issues held in Brussels.

In addition we have limited our research by only looking at policy documents that were available in English. Our objective was not to have a full analysis of all relevant policy positions on every digital issue - this should be a next step in a follow-up research. Here, we aimed to map key organisations, issues and identify key documents so that we would be able to categorize the needs and perspective of organisations.

Preliminary results
The first results give an overview of the key organisations, issues and documents. This data shows the wide range of issues organisations are working on. After looking at the key documents of these organisations I was able split the organisations into four categories. These categories will help understand the main approaches that exist within the area of digital policy. Per category, i will briefly describe what issues organisations are working on, what influences their strategy and the motivations behind working on digital policy.

The four categories are; (1) cultural organisations that work on behalf of a specific sector; (2) organisations that are part of the open movement; (3) organisations that work on (3a) specific technological topics or are (3b) technology companies or (3c) organisations representing industry interest; and (4) organisations that work on (the impact of technology on individual) human rights.

Firstly, you have organisations that work on behalf of a specific sector, mostly sectors relating to culture, cultural heritage, museums, libraries, music or science. Examples are organisations such as EBLIDA and NEMO. The organisations are usually representatives of members and have a mandate to argue on behalf of them.

These organisations’ strategy and vision is tied to the interests of their sector. They take any measures that come from the EU into account including the Digital Agenda for Europe and the Digital Single Market Sector and often have made the Digital Single Market a specific part of their work plan. For instance, EBLIDA, like others, explicitly names the DSM in their strategy document for 2016-2019.

Cultural organisations that fall within this category reflect on the impact of digitalisation and technology on their sector. NEMO states in their policy statement that ‘NEMO believes that the digital shift has had a significant impact on society, and museums have a role to play in this process.’

Cultural organisation also emphasize the non-commercial aspect of their sector and the value of their sector to society, in particular in contributing to agendas on health, social justice, poverty, education, tolerance and understanding. Underlying principles of the cultural organisations are promoting creativity and enabling access to information and culture. Most of their policy positions relating to digital issues ask to rethink current local, national and regional (digital) policies to facilitate access to information. It is important for cultural organisations to be recognized as ‘Europe’s knowledge, culture and learning institutions’. Therefore, they are not economically motivated in digital policy, but consider working on digital policy as a means to reach a greater public objective.

Secondly, you have organisations that are part of the open movement such as Creative Commons and the Wikimedia Foundation. Common themes within this group are access to, reuse, Open Education, Open Access, Open Science, Copyright reform and the Commons. These organisations promote sharing of creativity and knowledge and a healthy internet.

While some of these organisations clearly focus on opening data, information online or the internet in general, such as Open Knowledge International and Open Media, others also apply the principles of collaboration and sharing to wider issues. For instance Open Forum Europe seeks to open culture, not only online, but by building collaborative communities and measures. The Commons Network takes it a step further and ‘beg’s’ for a ‘ “commons” approach [that] holds the potential for a unified vision towards an alternative economy, a Europe from the bottom-up, and an ecological economy and way of life’. By organisations like the latter, digital issues are made an integral part of a larger ideology and policy position.

Thirdly, there are organisations that work on specific technological topics such as AlgorithmWatch or are technology companies such as Google and Mozilla or organisations representing an industry. While these organisations are clearly not part of civil society, we have included them in this exercise as they are such important players within digital policy. Organisations within this category usually focus on competition, innovation and (de)regulation of technologies. Unfortunately, the big technology companies are not very open about their vision and strategy when it come to digital policy within Europe. Further research would need to be done to get a better understanding of their interests, positions and strategy.

Organisations representing industry generally focus on issues that are very close to the framing of the Digital Single Market. They focus on supporting competition and enabling a climate for innovation, especially for startups. Their policy positions are intended to improve the economic situation of the organisations they represent. They believe that ‘vigorous competition, freedom of expression, and openness is a natural product of the understanding of what has helped our industry thrive, and what it needs to continue to do so.’ (See CCIA's mission statement)

Last but not least, there are organisations that work on the impact of technology on individual human rights such as Amnesty International, UNICEF and Article 19. Most human rights organisation focus on fundamental individual rights. Digital issues can be part of these focusses. Regarding digital rights, they mostly focus on freedom of expression, privacy and security, because the implications of not having these rights is the most severe for individuals. They mainly focus on civil and political rights, and less on cultural rights or third-generation human rights such as group and collective rights in relation to digital issues. While they focus on individual rights, they connect these rights to principles such as democracy, freedom, transparency and the rule of law. The narrative human rights organisation put forward is strongly tied to formal structures such as international law treaties and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Is there a common framework? - initial thoughts
While the organisations from all categories work on related issues, their perspective, background and approach differs greatly. Open movement organisations and cultural organisations are connected in the sense that most of them try to encompass digital policy issues in a narrative that explains how they fit in a larger narrative on in what society we (should) want to live in. They look at the interaction of online and offline spheres and sometimes don’t even make the distinction between online and offline at all.

Human rights organisations understandingly look at digital issues as an integral part of human rights work. However, they differ strongly from cultural and open movement organisations in that they look at it from an individual rights perspective, why the other organisations try to find communal solutions for society instead of focussing on the individual. It is not surprising that human rights organisations built on formal structures such as international treaties to forward their argument as these structures are familiar to policy makers in Europe. Cultural organisations and open movement organisations lack such an all encompassing frame in which they can place themselves in.

While organisations of the first, second and fourth often work together on overlapping issues, a common framework or perspective on digital issues seems to be lacking across the categories I have distinguished. At the same time I believe that when looking at the interests of these organisations an alternative frame that emphasise the importance of non-commercial societal values can benefit all organisations mentioned except for the industry focussed organisations and technology companies. While it remains unclear what the most important issues and strategy are of the latter, on the surface the current market framework already seems to be aligned with their general interests such as competition and innovation (although the issues discussed within the market frame have not always benefited the industry looking at for instance the outcomes of the DSM Directive).

Civil society organisation would benefit from a wider narrative on digital policy in which they can all position themselves. It is in the interest of these organisations to be able to talk about digital issues without being confined to a market or economic narrative. Public values, individual rights and the integration of digital policy into wider policy are important objective to them, that could be more easily fulfilled with an framework that would connect digital policy with society and not just the market.