We are a coalition of organisations and initiatives united in our desire to build a Shared Digital European Public Sphere (SDEPS). We share a belief that there is a need for public digital infrastructures that are based on democratic values and can be used and shaped by public institutions and civic initiatives. Ones that provide alternatives to the existing commercially-driven Internet.
This coalition brings together different types of organisations (institutions, civic initiatives, CSOs, technology projects) from different sectors (public service media, civil society media, academia, education, libraries and other cultural heritage institutions, commons projects, civic initiatives) with different ways of working (media production, technology development, advocacy). The coalition recognises this diversity in approaches and organisational backgrounds and will seek to amplify these varied voices in European policy debates.
The coalition is based in communities of practice that are local, national and regional. Its success will be founded in a bottom-up approach that supports its roots – not duplicating but interlinking and thereby strengthening existing efforts. The coalition will provide a European coordination layer and a common voice vis-à-vis EU policy makers. The coalition strives towards developing a common framework of:
- technology stack
- governance of this shared technology
What is the challenge we are trying to address?
Access to, and the use of, digital platforms is no longer an innovation – it is an essential resource for organisations both public and commercial. The European digital public arena is largely dominated by a small number of for-profit media platforms. Public service & community media, educational and academic institutions, cultural organisations and producers as well as civic initiatives have increasingly become dependent on their services in the absence of viable public alternatives. The result has been an enormous transfer of wealth from the public sector to these private actors’ platforms, which in turn has allowed them to wield enormous power over the media landscape and public discourse, with little or no accountability. This imbalance and lack of a viable alternative is detrimental to the Internet, to our democratic values, and to the health of our European societies.
Policy makers across Europe and the society at large have started to realize that this status quo must be changed and that they can positively shape this landscape. Over the past few years we have seen an increasing willingness to regulate in the digital space with the express aim of upholding democratic values and individual rights, accompanied by a clear recognition of the central role that digital plays across society and in Europe’s future. The European Union’s ambition for a ‘Digital Decade’ is reflected for example in the priority given to digital under the Recovery and Resilience Funds, while the vision for the New European Bauhaus initiative seeks new approaches to technology that put inclusivity, accessibility and affordability at the heart of how we live and work.
These efforts to regulate and improve the digital space are very much welcome, however we can do more, indeed we must do more, to ensure the digital values and sovereignty that Europe aspires to. Europe’s digital vision must include an ambition for a European digital public space, which offers and supports alternative digital public infrastructures built on democratic principles.
What do we want?
Europe’s digital ambition must reach beyond the role of global regulator to that of global leader if it is to realise its goal of digital sovereignty. It is not enough to aspire to an alternative to Big Tech, we must actively build it. A European digital public space, built on democratic values and public digital infrastructures, can be the cornerstone of that alternative.
Public digital infrastructures will promote more sovereign societies and individuals through the democratisation of access, transparency and accountability, while shared standards and interoperability will allow knowledge and culture to flow, helping people to connect. Europe’s technological and civic communities already lead the way in developing the building blocks that will make this a reality. However, that must be accompanied by ambition, investment and a strategic approach at the political and European level.
Our pan-European coalition of civil society initiatives, public service and community media organisations, and cultural (heritage) institutions is committed to creating digital public spaces that are aligned with our shared values as Europeans. As part of our ambition to deliver real and enduring value to society and our communities we aim to put the Shared Digital European Public Sphere on the EU policy agenda. Our goal is to secure the commitment and investment necessary to build the public digital infrastructure we need, and to support an interoperable ecosystem of public institutions and civic initiatives that can drive and spark it.
The time for Europe to invest into digital public infrastructure is now. The networks are in place, the ambition is clear. Now we only need the political will to create digital public spaces that offer a credible vision beyond narrow commercial interests to make this Europe’s Digital Decade.
How do we work together
In its current state SDEPS is a coalition of organisations, initiatives and individual practitioners that work together without a formal legal entity (and currently do not plan to establish one). We see SDEPS as a platform to exchange information, as well as to coordinate, and develop joint projects, activities and initiatives to support the development of digital public infrastructures. These activities will often run alongside respective and existing participant activities. The coalition will not make statements on behalf of the organisations or initiatives that contribute to or support our work. However participants can refer to the principles of the coalition, including the support expressed by other participants and supporters for those principles, when making public statements, engaging in discussions, or reaching out to policy makers.
Working groups and coordination
At this stage the work is structured around two working groups: one on infrastructure and one on advocacy. Each of these working groups meet regularly (once every 4 weeks, with an alternating working group meeting every 2nd week) and participation is open to all in the coalition.
The work of each working group is steered by a team of volunteer coordinators. At the current time these steering groups are:
- Technology & Infrastructure: Leonieke Verhoog (PublicSpaces), Ian Forrester (BBC), Alexander Baratsits (cba) and Sander van der Waal (Waag)
- Advocacy: Katja Bego (Nesta), Eleanor Kenny (Europeana) and Paul Keller (OpenFuture)
These working groups are open to all participants in the coalition and work in a transparent fashion. The coordinators are responsible for preparing agendas for meetings and ensuring that the outcomes of meetings and other activities carried out in the context of the coalition are communicated to the wider coalition.
Together, the members of both steering groups are also responsible for preparing the agendas of the coalition-wide meetings (which can be scheduled in addition to the regular working group meetings).
To ensure transparency, all decisions made within the coalition are based on documents that are circulated ahead of the relevant meetings where they will be discussed. If consensus on a document is achieved during a meeting, the relevant document will be circulated via the coalition mailing list for adoption by “lazy consensus”: All coalition participants must be given the possibility to provide comments or object for a period of at least one week. At the end of the specified period, if no objections have been raised, it is assumed that there is a positive consensus.
The mailing list email@example.com is the default channel for announcements and discussion on matters of relevance for the full coalition. This mailing list is open to all participants in the coalition. The members of the steering groups will ensure that a weekly update mail is sent to the list that summarises activities from the previous week and announces upcoming activities.
We also maintain a Matrix channel (SDEPS General) that is open to all participants in the coalition and can be used for discussion and exchange of links and other relevant information (there is no expectation that all participants are active on the Matrix channel and announcements that are relevant for the full coalition should be made on the mailing list). It is up to the working groups to set up additional, working group specific channels (which should be open for all coalition members to join, and communicated accordingly).
What does it mean to be a participant in the SDEPS Coalition?
The current participants in the coalition recognise the need to grow the coalition (in terms of size and geographical representation) and there have been expressions of interest from others to join. In principle, the coalition is open to all organisations and initiatives who support the principles expressed in this document, in particular the “What is the challenge we are trying to address?” and the “What do we want?” sections above, and who are willing to express their support for these principles.
At this stage we are not looking to establish a formal membership structure. However, a prerequisite for becoming a participant is a public expression of support for these general principles.
In addition to this public statement of support, organisations and initiatives interested in supporting our work can do so by joining as active participants (participating in the working groups and or online discussions).