July 31, 2018

Initial thoughts (Paul)

"For 25 years the market has dominated the discussion about technology, there is a real chance to change this now" (Marleen Stikker, 17-7-2018)

For me the objective of this exercise it to develop an alternative frame that can guide the political and policy interventions of European civil society in the online public space and that allows us to develop a political vision of a European Digital Society that has its own European Identity and that regards society as something more than the outcome of the interactions between market players. Such a frame needs to address a number of issues:

  • A stronger focus on the creation of public knowledge goods as desired output
  • A stronger focus on commonly held and governed data, knowledge and infrastructures.
  • Autonomy of individuals and promotion of community intitiatives within the digital space.
  • Fair and Equal access to knowledge and culture
  • A strengthening of the position of non market actors in the digital space
  • A greater limit on the dominant positions of big technology companies and their ability to commodify and manipulate personal data.
  • Creating the conditions for the emergence of EU based platforms (both public and commercial)
  • Institutional support for decentralized community controlled digital platforms and internet infrastructures[1].
  • Independently assess and regulate emergent digital technologies with broad transparency, citizen participation
    European Data sovereignty, data protection and freedom of expression.
  • A European digital strategy for environmental sustainability of digital technologies.
  • Defining a European vision for rational, socially responsible and precautionary use of digital technologies.

The ambition is to create a European vision of the digital society. A vision that can compete with the visions projected by the US/Silicon valley model (winner takes it all, the market will ensure maximum individual freedom) and the Chinese model (winner takes it all, market needs to contribute to societal objectives). None of the constituent elements ("digital", "single" or "market") can serve as differentiators for a European perspective on the digital society.

In my view the key element that distinguishes Europe from other global players here is a strong tradition of relatively independent public institutions such as universities, public schools, libraries, museums, public service broadcasters and other civil society institutions in the context of great cultural, linguistic and social diversity. These institutions largely operate outside of market dominance (although over the past decades we have seen increasing pressure to force them to adopt a pure market logic) but play a relatively marginal role in discussions about shaping the digital society. The frame that we are proposing should therefore leverage this tradition of public institutions embedded in local communities and the delivery of public goods as a primary policy objective.

Creating a new frame is in essence a political project that will require us to the depict a desirable future scenario that can guide policy interventions. Instead of focussing on the adoption of technology for the sake of technology (as expressed in the current obsession of policy makers with 5G networks, which will almost certainly be followed by an obsession with 6G networks in due time) we need to be to describe a desirable social, environmental and economic outcomes of the transformation caused by digitization. European digital policies should be designed to help confront the great societal challenges of inequality, global justice, gender equity, universal health and climate change. “The digital single market” does not seem to be the best title for a digital policy that integrates these concerns.

A dualistic or a bifocal approach?

Under the current political conditions it seems overly ambitious, in the short term, to strive to replace the term Digital Single Market. Instead we should try to complement the term with an additions policy objective that can place checks and balances on the dynamics unleashed by the Digital Single Market. We should argue that the Digital Single Market can only evolve in tandem with a European Digital Public Space or a European Digital Commons[2]. In such a dualistic approach the the Digital Public Space/Commons could be positioned as a corrective on the Digital Market. By establishing such a double frame, concrete policy interventions could then be assessed in how far they contribute to both objectives [an alternative could be a digital public space/commons impact assessment].

In this context it is important that we position the Digital Public Space/Commons objective as integral in welfare creation. The legitimacy of the DSM frame is largely based on the fact that it is being positioned as a driver of economic growth. We will need to avoid a perception in which the Digital Public Space/Commons objective is perceived as a "soft", "nice to have" objective that exists alongside a "hard" Digital Single Market objective.

One way to achieve this could be to prominently focus on the education and research communities [a "European Research, Education and Culture Commons"?] and to position our effort as an effort to strengthen Europe as a producer of education, research and culture in the digital realm that will ultimately contribute to economic development and ensure a more just access to these key economic resources.

While the above will likely need a lot of additional discussion (and theoretical underpinnings) It also makes sense to think about the structure of what we can / want to deliver with this phase of the project. I am thinking along the following lines:

  1. An overarching frame that consists of a name, a narrative and some theoretical/economic underpinning of the narrative. The name needs to be derived from the narrative (and not the other way around)
  2. A number of pillars that support the frame. These should probably be geared towards different constituencies. Ideally organisations can commit themselves to using the frame if they are in alignment with one of these pillars. Based on the above list of of issues that we want to adress i seen at least the following two pillars (although there are certainly more)
    • Autonomy, democracy and community governance in the digital space/limiting the influence of big tech
    • Strengthening non-market actors and commonly held resources in platforms, internet infrastructures, data repositories and spectrum bandwidth.
  3. Glossary or dictionary of terms that enables a broad coalition of groups and individuals to express these ideas in a coordinated way.
  4. Strong defence of access to knowledge, freedom of information and commodification of personal data against the enclosure represented by stronger copyright laws.

It is is essential that all of these operate on a high level of abstraction so that we we have a realistic chance to obtain commitments [what do we mean by this?] from a broad range of entities working on a widely diverging range of topics. What we are trying to propose needs to provide a perspective for people with very different primary objectives.

  1. See UK Labour’s Digital Manifesto, in which support for national level platform cooperativism is one of key policy promises. ↩︎

  2. I have s strong personal preference for the use of Public Space here which is in part driven by our long term failure to establish Creative Commons as a serious alternative in within the field of cultural production, but at this stage this should not be about semantics. ↩︎