The Challenges to the European Public Sphere
The challenges to the European public sphere that we perceive are manyfold, and they are escalating under the current conditions of the pandemic. Over the last fifteen years, the focus of the public sphere has shifted from traditional journalistic-editorial mass media to social media on the Internet. These services are primarily owned and operated by US-American technology companies claiming not to be media companies. Europeans rely on US-American and increasingly Chinese and Russian services not only for news and communications but also for most other activities routinely conducted online (shopping, entertainment, banking, navigation, cloud, health etc.).
With the exception of those of the Free Knowledge movement, these services are provided by for-profit companies whose main source of revenue is advertising. The entire sector of highly useful free-to-the-end-user services are fuelled by extensive tracking of user behaviour used to create detailed personal profiles that are auctioned off in real-time to advertisers. This innovation driven by the ad-tech industry has three effects:
1. The extensive and invasive surveillance of every Internet user in order to create personal profiles to be marketed to commercial, political and other customers – typically in violation of the privacy standards established in the EU (as the recent ruling of the CJEU in Schrems II has again shown).
2. A shift of advertising money away from journalistic-editorial mass media to targeted advertising online, that allows to pin-point pre-selected potential customers with every Euro spent with an accuracy that non-personalized media find hard to compete with.
3. A profit-driven incentive to create algorithms that maximise a user’s attention to and engagement with a given service.
Particularly the third effect has shown to be highly problematic to the public sphere. Optimizing services for “stickiness” or even “addictiveness” has been shown to favour sensationalism, click baiting, disinformation, conspiracy narratives, filter bubbles, polarisation and radicalisation.
At the same time, the means and ability of journalistic-editorial media to counter-balance these problematic developments are diminished. Media concentration increases. In particular, Public Service Media (PSM), those mandated, paid for and controlled by the public are under peril, not only in Poland and Hungary. Also in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Spain and other member states both political forces and right-wing parties and popular movements make it a rallying point to abolish PSM. And even the mother of all PSM, the BBC, is under threat.
In times of Covid-19, these tendencies have become even more pronounced, as social distancing has driven even more interactions online. At the same time, the trust in public institutions and in journalistic-editorial media is deteriorating and anti-democratic voices are gaining ground. The digital sovereignty of Europe and the social cohesion in the European societies and in the Union are in danger. The experience of the pandemic has also shown the utter lack of a master plan for an infrastructure that could support a pan-European information, debate and opinion forming.
What has been achieved
The awareness of the need for a European public sphere that complements the political project of the Union is if not as old as the Union itself then certainly as old as the first elections to the EU Parliament in 1979 and the new media-technological possibility of the time to address the entire continent through satellite TV. While the hope for a European CNN has not materialized, the need for a European public sphere has gained new urgency in the digital age.
A “European Super Media Platform” was the central project of his term of office, when Ulrich Wilhelm, director of the Bavarian PSM Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR), became head of the ARD in January 2018. The idea of a single platform for all of Europe trying to match the likes of Youtube, Facebook and Netflix evolved into an infrastructure for platforms in Europe. At the same time, the Internet community started to address the increasing concentration of power with a movement to re-decentralize the Internet (IETF, W3C, Tim Berners-Lee, Brewster Kahle, Harry Halpin etc.).
These in turn inspired initiatives across Europe to conceptualize a public sphere that is grounded both in the fundamental values of the EU (human dignity and human rights, including freedom of expression and of the press, privacy, openness, inclusiveness, transparency, accountability, freedom, democracy, equality, diversity, (data-) sovereignty and the rule of law) and in the fundamental values of the Internet (distributedness, interoperability, open standards, cooperatively developed free software, open access to knowledge and open data). That the Internet community can develop and sustain a public sphere in its own right has impressively been shown by the blogosphere (2000-2015) – a highly distributed, yet interconnected Internet-wide ecosystem for news, information, debate, entertainment, advertising and analytics. The blogosphere was superseded by monolithic social media platforms, where competition led to a winner-takes-all and to the problematic online environment we are faced with today.
Five of these initiatives – PublicSpaces, European Public Open Spaces (EPOS), Public Open Space, the Beyond Platforms Initiative (BPI) and the Cultural Broadcasting Archive (CBA) – at an online summit in October 2020 formed the coalition Shared Digital European Public Spaces (SDEPS). Each of these initiatives is itself a network of representatives of PSM, community media, Wikimedia, libraries, archives, education, festivals and academia. E.g. PublicSpaces in the Netherlands brings some twenty such parties together that jointly reach about 75% of the Dutch population of 17 million. And each of them is in conversation with others pursuing the same vision, such as Europeana, Wikimedia and initiatives in BBC R&D, eg. developing a Public Service Internet, and in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).
The focus of these initiatives is on the functional building blocks required for online platforms and services (storage and delivery, metadata, identity management, recommendations, transcription, language translation, analytics etc.). For many of these functions, there are already software modules available and in use in the free software community. These can be combined, e.g. by using WikiData for cross-referencing cultural heritage archives or building a speech-to-text pipeline for automated transcription of the largest and interlinked Austrian and German audio-visual community media archives which makes the entire corpus accessible to text search. The goal is to embed the fundamental values of EU and Internet by design into each of the components, and thereby into each of the platforms and services and into the common architecture of the entire interoperable ecosystem.
On top of such an infrastructure, any number of platforms and services can be build and existing platforms can easily integrate modules from the shared infrastructure: public service, community and commercial media, public cultural heritage sites, universities and festivals, Open Access (OA) in the sciences, civic free knowledge institutions like Wikipedia and Open Educational Resources (OER), social movements etc.
In July 2020, a working group at the German National Academy of Science and Engineering, Acatech, that was co-headed by Wilhelm, published an updated model: European Public Sphere. Towards Digital Sovereignty for Europe. The technological vision of the European Public Sphere (EPS) as a public service is still characterised by “modularity, interoperability, openness and transparency that enables continuous development and a diverse range of business models”. In addition, the authors propose a two-pillar EPS governance model: a European public service Digital Agency with a primarily coordinating remit and an EPS Alliance of European actors including content, service and infrastructure component providers, civil society initiatives and research institutions, organised on cooperative and meritocratic principles. They suggest that this dual structure could initially be created in pioneering member states and later be connected at the European level or it could be European from the outset.
While the Acatech authors are optimistic that such a digital ecosystem can be achieved, they criticize that the EU Digital Single Market strategy remains extremely abstract, providing support for basic research and following a technology-neutral approach, but lacking in ambitious joint European digital initiatives for advancing the digital public sphere.
What the EU is doing
We acknowledge the ongoing activities of EU institutions to address various issues pertinent to the state of the European public sphere.
Many policies concern platform regulation. Most of them are reactive and defensive, including legislation and other measures against child abuse material, terror propaganda, hate crimes, disinformation and copyright violations and updating the horizontal platform regulations in the Digital Services Act. Often this involves legally mandating private ordering, i.e. that service providers put into their terms and services and enforce rules in the public interest.
Other policies, in fact, are constructive and forward-looking, such as Shaping Europe’s Digital Future (Commission Communication COM(2020) 67 final, 19.02.2020). It envisions a digital Europe that “should reflect the best of Europe – open, fair, diverse, democratic, and confident.” It promises broadband for homes, schools and hospitals throughout the EU and improving digital literacy and skills of its citizens and at the same time advancing the green transition. Alas, at closer look it seems entirely focussed on the business side, on the Digital Single Market, on strengthening its capacities in global competition, on promoting research, innovation and start-ups, on a European data strategy for commercial use of personal data, on issues of fair competition and taxation and rather heavy on Silicon Valley futurity jargon: “Building and deploying cutting-edge joint digital capacities in the areas of AI, cyber, super-and quantum computing, quantum communication and blockchain.” Alas, in the entire plan for Shaping Europe’s Digital Future, there is no mention of a vibrant, innovative and diverse European public sphere.
We welcome that the scope of EU policies is broadening, including recent measures like the
Action Plan to Support Recovery and Transformation of the Media and Audiovisual Sectors (COM(2020) 784 final, 03.12.2020). Again the priority is on funding, investment and loans for media companies, but with a focus on the news sector it is arguably driven by concern for citizens’ access to pluralistic and independent sources of information. Yet even the actions for critical media literacy seem to be intended to empower citizens only as consumers to make informed choices “from the richness of information and entertainment provided by the media sector”.
Particularly welcome from the viewpoint of SDEPS is the announced support by the Commission for “research and innovation for advanced methods of search, discovery and aggregation, in order to facilitate the creation of independent alternative news aggregation services capable of offering a diverse set of accessible information sources” which is “for: European citizens, in particular younger people; video-sharing platforms” as well as the actions to establish a shared European media data space intended to benefit a wide range of “European publishers, broadcasters, radios, advertising companies, media SMEs, technology providers, content and tech start-ups, content creators, producers, distributors”.
The other recent measure we welcome is the European Democracy Action Plan (COM(2020) 790 final, 03.12.2020). It is intended to protect the democratic opinion forming process from undue interference by establishing transparency rules for political advertising and revising the rules on the financing of political parties, by protecting the safety of journalists, by checking concentration of market power through the new Media Ownership Monitor and improving the toolbox for countering disinformation. Where in the economic context it is all about informed choices of consumers, in the political context it is about citizens’ electoral choices:
“For participation to be meaningful, citizens must also be able to form their own judgements – they should be able to make electoral choices in a public space where a plurality of views can be expressed freely and where free media, academia and civil society can play their role in stimulating open debate, free from malign interference … allowing everyone to express their views, regardless how critical they are towards the governments and those in power.” (Democracy Action Plan)
Again, while these largely defensive measures are urgently needed and highly welcome, they fall short of positively and qualitatively improving and nurturing this public space for a diversity of views and open debate. In short, what is lacking is an Action Plan on the European digital public sphere – an overarching vision of a shared digital ecosystem that can support a pan-European information, debate and opinion forming. Unity in diversity is the core element of Europe’s identity. This should also inform the shape of the European public sphere and not be limited to ensuring only economic media pluralism.
We are aware that media and culture are the prerogative of the EU member states and that there is only a narrow corridor for EU interventions in these areas that have to be justified by the purpose they serve the Single Market. We do not ask the EU institutions to deviate from these principles. Yet we do ask you to do what you can in this limited space of action to advance the debate on the European public sphere.
In 2005, the Google Books project led six European Heads of State to request the EU to establish a European digital library. Out of this initiative grew Europeana, which in 2011 had become “the central reference point for Europe’s online cultural heritage” and in 2015 became one of the European Commission’s Digital Service Infrastructures (DSI), which deliver networked cross-border services for citizens, businesses and public administrations. Europeana is already one of the building blocks and conversation partners for a wider shared public sphere. It is also a model for what the EU, given the political will, is able to achieve.
The challenges for the public sphere and European democracy sketched above are at least as severe as the challenges for Europe’s access to its own cultural heritage in libraries and archives were back in 2005. And again, they should be understood as a call for action.
What is needed next
The debate on a distributed, shared digital European public sphere has already started. The time is ripe to open it up to a wider range of stakeholders and to the European citizens at large. What is needed is a suitable forum for an open, inclusive cooperative process of technologists, media practitioners, researchers, civil society etc. to review the existing proposals on the technology stack, on values-by-design in developing algorithms, particularly AI, on the democratic governance structure, funding etc. and identify national, cultural, legal, language etc. barriers. In short, a forum for a truly European debate on the digital public sphere.