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Digital Principles: The Digital Public Space is still a largely empty promise

Alek Tarkowski (Open Future) on the Declaration on EU Digital Rights and Principles proposed by the Commission.
Digital Principles: The Digital Public Space is still a largely empty promise
Photo by Kimson Doan / Unsplash

Alek Tarkowski (Open Future) on the Declaration on EU Digital Rights and Principles proposed by the Commission.

The European Commission published a proposal for the Declaration on European Digital Rights and Principles. This is a long-awaited element of Europe's Digital Decade strategy, which with this addition will be complete with a framework.

We have previously argued that the declaration can make the strategy more focused on societal objectives, instead of just the attainment of quantitative measures. The declaration, in the proposed form, will not serve to fix this issue. The principles proposed by the Commission mainly confirm a general commitment to protecting fundamental rights and regulating digital markets.

The declaration does include a significant new concept–“Participation in the digital public space” is one of the core six principles. This is a principle that we have been endorsing, together with the SDEPS coalition. This is potentially the first step towards developing a stronger policy vision for shaping the European online ecosystem as a digital public space, and not just a market. As such, this is the most promising principle being added to the policy frame underpinning Europe’s Digital Decade strategy.

Until now, the Digital Decade strategy lacked elements that would fulfill Europe's ambition of true digital transformation, understood as more than just growth in the reach of technology, and market growth (which was the focus of the Digital Single Market strategy of the 2010s). The draft digital principles, published this week, ultimately do too little to improve Europe's Digital Decade strategy in this regard.

Europe's Digital Decade misses a society-centric vision

Together with other civic organizations, we have been arguing that the other parts of this program do not meet the Commission's ambition for a transformative digital strategy, centered on European values and the needs of citizens. The quantitative objectives of the Digital Compass are based on a mechanistic vision, in which more technology, and larger digital markets are meant to provide beneficial societal outcomes. And the governance structure, while it introduces important cooperation mechanisms needed to effectively spend budgets allocated to the twin transformation, is weak on civil participation.

Our initial analysis of the Digital Compass program showed a discrepancy between ambitious policy objectives, related to the twin (digital and green) transition, and to building a more just and equal digital society, and the quantitative targets on which the program is focused. The list of objectives is "stuck in the basic vision that more technology means better society, defined several decades ago. Europe needs a vision that connects technological development to broader societal goals". This has not changed with the publication of the Path to the Digital Decade policy program, which is mainly a coordination mechanism for public funding (our analysis on the Path to the Digital Decade).

In our response to the initial consultation on the declaration, we argued that it needs to be used to put bold societal objectives into the Digital Compass framework so that they complement the quantitative targets.  Without such reorientation, statements about "human-centric digital transition" sound like empty policy buzzwords or–in the worst case–even like a digital equivalent of greenwashing.

The value framework of the Declaration

The draft digital principles, published this week, ultimately do little to improve Europe's Digital Decade strategy in this regard.

  • The principles framework, when the most generic buzzwords like "human centric" are put aside, consists of three core elements: principles that confirm connectivity and access as a matter of social justice and equality; principles focused on confirming Europe's attachment to the protection of basic rights, also in face of challenges related to emergent technologies; principles that aim to curb the power of commercial platforms and define their social responsibility.
  • As such, the declaration largely confirms–without any significant additions–the policy frame behind European Commission's current digital strategy, including the ambitious policy package. Proposed principles align well with core goals of the Digital Markets Act, Digital Services Act or the AI Act, confirming the "digital constitutionalist" approach, focused on regulating markets, reducing harms and securing basic rights [https://openfuture.eu/publication/digital-public-space/].
  • The declaration misses a fourth set of core principles, one that would frame digital transformation in terms of collective rights, for example by referring to the provision of digital public goods or digital infrastructures. The digital commons, as a principle, could also have been introduced. Tellingly, there is no mention of principles related to data governance in the public interest.
  • The term "digital public space" is introduced as a high-level principle, but understood only as regulating commercial platforms. There is no reference to a positive vision, built around the idea of strengthening the role of public and civic actors in the digital environment, and in particular public digital infrastructures.
  • Overall, the European Commission sees itself as a defender of rights and regulator of markets, and not as a builder and maintainer of digital ecosystems.
  • In addition, the governance mechanism reads as very conservative: focused solely on coordinating the European Commission and the Member States, with no meaningful civic or multi-stakeholder participation.

Digital Principles: a missed opportunity for true value-driven strategy

The press release for the Declaration quotes Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who in a speech in 2021 stated “We embrace new technologies. But we stand by our values”. As a general principle, this encapsulates very well an approach that we have been advocating for: a society-centric digital transformation, based on a strong adherence to principles and a focus on societal objectives.

The declaration does not provide a strong and holistic values framework that gives a sense of direction and purpose to Europe's digital transformation. And it includes a few new ideas or perspectives that could shape European policy. Instead, it seems to rehash obvious commitments (for example to the protection of basic rights) and connect them with largely existing initiatives or policy directions.

What were we expecting from this declaration on rights and principles? Most importantly, a strong, value-based vision that would frame the digital strategy in different terms than economic growth or technological expansion. As the world changes and new technologies emerge, we direly need new frameworks for "embracing new technologies".

We also need to go beyond the "digital constitutionalist" approach, which focuses on the protection of basic rights, market regulation and reduction of harms. These are all necessary goals for Europe's digital policies. But a protective stance, on its own, will not suffice to meet Europe's ambition of creating societies that are sovereign and able to shape technologies to their needs. (We made the argument for the need to go beyond the digital constitutionalist phase, and to develop a new policy frame based on the idea of the digital public space in our paper on the Digital Public Space as a missing policy frame in Europe)

An in-depth look at the Declaration

The declaration consists of six chapters, each one framing one of the of six key principles that Europe will adopt: 1. Putting people at the center of the digital transformation, 2. Solidarity and inclusion, 3. Freedom of choice, 4. Participation in the digital public space, 5. Safety, security and empowerment, 6. Sustainability.

The contents of most chapters are relatively predictable, and the first chapter provides a high-level commitment to democracy, respect of individual rights, or duties of digital actions. Reading the declaration, it often seems that it largely connects existing digital policy initiatives with high-level principles. For example, a section on "Connectivity" states that everyone should have access to affordable, high-speed connectivity. But this principle adds little to a direction that Europe has been taking for at least 20 years. Calling it a principle will do little to change the pace of development in this regard. And the connections made sometimes seem haphazard, for example when issues related to algorithmic power are framed as "freedom of choice".

Chapter two focuses on inclusion, connectivity and accessibility–on "a digital transformation that leaves nobody behind"–as well as respect for people's rights. An interesting passage mentions "developing adequate frameworks so that all market actors benefiting from the digital transformation assume their social responsibilities and make a fair and proportionate contribution to the costs of public goods, services and infrastructures"–signaling possible redistributive policies, such as digital taxes. Another section, on "working conditions" includes an interesting passage on the right to disconnect (from work) and benefit from a work-life balance. This is an interesting principle which, if developed, could lead to much stronger "right to disconnect" safeguards for social life, as it becomes increasingly digitized. And the section on digital public services online is disappointing–instead of a bold vision of public infrastructure, we see goals defined around existing initiatives: trusted digital identity, reuse of public sector information and interoperable health data.

Chapter three, on freedom of choice, is a surprising mixture of issues. One part of it concerns algorithmic and AI systems and introduces principles of transparency, reduction of algorithmic bias and systems that pre-determine people's choices, and safeguarding fundamental rights and safety in face of AI and digital systems. And the second part of the chapter seems to focus on competition and consumer choice–albeit framed as social values. The Commission commits to a "safe, secure and fair online environment where fundamental rights are protected, and responsibilities of platforms, especially large players and gatekeepers, are well defined".

This last passage signals the next chapter, which frames participation in the digital public space in terms of the diversity of content, pluralistic debate, participation in democracy and freedom of expression. The list of measures begins with a statement on the duty of very large online platforms to "support free democratic debate online". And overall the chapter sees the digital public space largely as a matter of market regulation–the framing is "competitive", not "generative". The Digital Public Space is implicitly defined as that of commercial platforms, only properly regulated ones. This concept should instead frame a new generative policy, where Europe sees its role to build and sustain an ecosystem, in which alternatives can also function–including decentralized and federated networks, open source infrastructures, or new types of public and civic platforms.

Chapter five offers a necessary but by now well-established framing of the commitment to ensuring safety and security. A key part of the chapter addresses privacy and individual control over data–yet with a frame that largely covers the data protection perspective of the GDPR. This could be seen as a potential win of advocates of data minimization, as the chapter pays little attention to other aspects of data governance, that are relevant for the new European Strategy for Data, as it aims to build some balance between data protection and minimization, and data access and use. Tellingly, a commitment is made to data portability (enshrined in the GDPR), with no reference to current interoperability proposals.

The last chapter, a much-needed one, frames the ambitions of the twin transition, as sustainability is the principle that connects digital transformation with care for the environment. A commitment to a circular economy is an important one, and should translate into specific measures like the right to repair. Similarly, an obligation to make environmental data accessible will translate to a strong push for open data.

Coordinating with Member States does not mean governance

While the core chapters of the Declaration delineate specific principles and rights, the proposed governance mechanism is just as important. It is through governance that abstract principles gain their strength, as they are used as levers to push policies in new directions, defined by these principles.

The "Path to the Digital Decade" includes a governance mechanism that is solely tailored at coordinating the efforts of the Commission and the Member States. In our consultation response [link] we argued that the Commission should follow the Quadruple Helix model, in which government, industry, academia and civil participants are treated as equal stakeholders. We proposed that an Expert Group should be established in particular to monitor adherence to the digital principles.

Unfortunately, the new Communication does not fix or expand the governance model proposed for the "Path to the Digital Decade" policy program. It seems strange that a framework of principles and values described as "human centric" will be overseen by the Commission and the Member States. A new report on "The State of the Digital Decade" will assess "the state of measures following up on the principles enshrined in the Declaration"–as seen solely through the eyes of Commission officials. And a dedicated Eurobarometer survey is planned as the only opportunity to hear "the voice of the people".  As such, the declaration is a missed opportunity for more participatory governance.

How could this governance be shaped differently? Europe has been prototyping a mission-driven approach which sees public institutions not as core actors of any strategy, but conductors of a process that is much more peer-to-peer in nature, in which societal actors from different sectors and all sizes can contribute [link to our previous analysis that highlight this further]. The blueprints for such an approach are readily available and the digital transition, with its complexity but also crucial social significance, seems the right space to deploy them.

The Digital Decade could resemble much more the Sustainable Development Goals [link] - a framework that creates space for meaningful participation for everyone. The list of initiatives connected with particular principles, presented in the draft, feels at times random. What if a platform managed by the Commission would allow all actors to peg their activities onto this framework of principles, declaring not just overall support, but specific commitment?

The European Parliament as the positive force in European policymaking

The Commission acknowledges that it was the European Parliament that called on it to ensure that the EU's approach to digital transformation is fully compliant with fundamental rights and that it secures important societal objectives like fostering a strong digital education ecosystem, ensuring media freedom or combatting disinformation. The declaration is one of the steps taken to meet this request.

The European Parliament should increasingly be seen as a positive force that pushes European digital policies in a direction that pays greater attention to society's needs, and not just the market. We have seen this recently in the policy debate on the Digital Services Act, where important amendments were tabled by members of the Parliament (and some of them therefore making it into the trilogue).

As the draft Declaration is now reviewed by the Parliament, improvements to the framework can still be made. The "Digital Public Space" principle should be expanded upon, to secure a stronger focus on societal objectives and collective rights.