September 24, 2018

Finding a frame: our European common networked society.... our European digital commons.

The digitalization of technology has led much of our interaction, communication and economic activity to take place through data or over online intermediaries. What kind of space should this digital sphere be? Seeing this space as a market place only does not do it justice. It is in effect our society – a society that is experiencing a digital transformation. Therefore we cannot accept the digital sphere as a place where only market dynamics rule. Society is more then an interaction between market players, and people are more then entrepreneurs or consumers.

In contrast with much of the dominant thinking of the last neoliberal decades, a society’s wellbeing and social wealth are not represented by GDP or companies’ successes. Rather by criteria such as equity, social cohesion, moral legitimacy, social cohesion and social justice. Thinking about how to achieve this requires a conception of the common good and a collective interest approach, which included but goes beyond a purely individual rights approach. Such a common good approach makes for a comprehensive and systemic approach other then just ensuring peoples basic liberties and fundamental rights in a system that is prone to undermine these.

When we think of digital we should not think of technology as something on itself, as force on itself with predetermined direction. We should think about society. What do we want our society to look like? And what shape should technology take to facilitate that. We shape technology and social objectives can guide the design. Digital technologies should facilitate a society that is equitable, and democratic, where basic liberties and rights are protected and people have a say over how things work. It is in the capacity of Europe to shape such a networked or digital society.

In the digital age we need to be able to ensure both people’s individual (data) sovereignty, the possibility to have control over one’s life or community, as well as Europe’s data sovereignty in organising and shaping its society. This requires a certain perspective and structured action regarding data management and the governance of internet platforms and infrastructures. Current data collection, citizen manipulation and commodification and overall state of surveillance capitalism are huge challenges to citizen sovereignty and therefore to democracy.

The networked digital space we call the Internet empowers people to engage in collaborative practices, knowledge production and sharing which creates vast economic value and social value. Considering knowledge a common good we aim to enable broad access to knowledge and for everyone to enjoy the fruits of science. In contrast with open knowledge, a knowledge commons more explicitly implies participatory management of the knowledge and does not just mean putting data knowledge and facts out there to be available. This requires to be reflected in the design of the knowledge management regimes and technological infrastructures.

Is there such a thing as a European Common Digital Society? Can we think of it as something that has borders in one way or another? More then an actual physical space, it’s a way of doing things. Something we all have in common – it would be democratic, with respect for basic rights, equitable, encrypted, decentralized, community governed, a place where knowledge can be shared, where the public domain is protected, where value is created in the public interest. Just as the idea of Europe is not about the precise borders of Europe, it however represents a way of doing things. With all its faults, Europe has also been a beacon of human rights, democracy and progressive thought. Moreover, Europe has a strong history of provision of public goods, of universal and solidarity health and insurance systems, access to education. We can differentiate from other parts of the world and powers exactly through asserting our values also in the digital sphere. Europe can insist on a desirable social, environmental and economic outcome of the transformation caused by digitization. And help confront the great societal challenges of inequality, global justice, gender equity, universal health and climate change.

Is what we are aspiring to a shared ‘European single space of interaction and communication’? This would mean agreement on certain standard, which could perhaps be achieved by regulation. This relates to the idea of a shared digital public space. Public space is a space that is generally open and accessible to people. Much of the internet fora we interact with such a facebook, google, twitter, feel like public space as it is where we interact with each other, but these spaces are actually privately owned. Just as there are privately owned squares, which are used as public spaces. Clearly legally this has very different implications and the governance is normally not democratic. Digitally, the implications of that ownership and governance are similar but the consequences are much larger then for an actual square due to data collection etc. The concept ‘privately owned public space’ is key in this regard, as through of its use it feels, and perhaps also becomes, as a pubic space and could be claimed as such. This has consequences for how these platforms should be regulated. Digitization however has impact beyond a space of communication, it has an impact on almost every aspect of our life, also when we are offline or seem offline. Therefore public space seems a limited metaphor that does not capture the full scale of the issue at stake, only referring to part of it.

Going back to the idea of a common way of doing things in Europe and what that would mean: When we see digital society as something that belongs to all of us, as a fundamental resource that we all share, like the oceans, the sky, a space belongs to everyone- then we consider it a commons. We consider it our digital commons. (taking a ‘global commons approach’) We have to collectively take care of this sphere in a sustainable way, granting everyone has equal rights and which requires a certain democratic governance model. This commons that we share, can include market, public and community actors. It can include various value systems, is most suitably a hybrid of different ‘sectors’ like our societies are, depending on what is concerned. In the way bridges and roads are considered fundamental infrastructure to managed as a public good, internet infrastructures are as well. We have to steward our digital commons, in order to protect the common good, ensure the production of public goods and a democratic, socially and ecologically sustainable society.

Some discussion points:

  • I realised that public space is actually a very limited metaphor. Digitization has impact on every aspect of our life, internet of things is everywhere. It is not about going online and sending a message, it is about ordering food in your home, taking a cab, turning on the washing machine, calling your friend, getting a job, going for a run, buying medicines in the pharmacy that can shares your data. The distinction between offline and online is blurring.
  • We seem to have forgotten a bit about good old knowledge management in our idea development. (wasn’t the copyright disaster the trigger for this?) Collaborative production and access to knowledge should probably be woven into the narrative more.
  • I don't think we can get around that fact that it comes down to who controls the infrastructure. Under what conditions to people get access? Regarding the question whether we are presenting a vision which includes the need for publicly or commonly owned and controlled infrastructures or instead focus ‘more realistically’ on regulation: It might not be realistic to expect the EU to embrace and implement a vision regarding ownership of infrastructures right away indeed. However,
  • I would say a vision is not necessarily what is realistic now. I am not sure whether it makes sense to already compromise of self-censure our vision. We should agree on what we think would be ideal, where we can strive towards. And then there are steps to make towards that objective, which we might never reach.
  • We would not be arguing for a completely community owned / publicly owned and controlled internet. We are arguing for a hybrid model where private actors and the market still play a significant role.
  • In order to get away from the private ownership and market dynamic default – also in people’s mind- we do have to present an alternative.
  • And then, the actual political approach would be two fold, regulation of space, platform and knowledge management is one of them, the more short term approach and then investing in the expansion of the non market, public / community controlled infrastructure is another one.
  • Whether the former strategy is sufficient to reach democratic digital public space with a sufficient level of self-determination & equity is a question to answer but I would have my doubts. It the end it is all about ownership, is it now? Maybe it is a classic class struggle in the end ! ☺
  • Also, two what extend you can guide regulate these steward the provision of public goods, another.
  • On the complementarity question, whether this framing could complement the DSM, my thoughts would be that it should not be seen as complementary. It has to be a competitive vision, it is another logic that has to replace the ‘old logic’. Putting them side-by-side does not make sense it that regard as they have implications for the same domains. It would as such undermine the strength and of this narrative from the start. That’s just theoretically of course, athe implementation is not so straightforward. Strategically it might be easier to bring in this framing alongside the existing one. .
  • For your information, i came to the title(s) after writing up the narrative, as Paul suggested which was helpful. I think both cover the issue but european digital commnons is more catchy. Let's see though!