Introducing a new series on a European digital public sphere, some contributors sketch what it is—and explain why we need it.
For many years, the European Union has faced a crisis of legitimacy—being said to have no demos—which the Conference on the Future of Europe in part seeks to address. Yet the EU is of utmost importance for future development opportunities for Europeans, facing such transnational challenges as climate change and the pandemic. Strengthening European opinion-forming is hence more important than ever.
In Europe we however talk mostly about each other rather than with each other. National lenses shape our perspectives. At the same time the current logic of digitalisation and platform-isation gives preference to those who surf the attention-driven economy for their own ends—nationalists and populists—as recently evident in anti-vaccination campaigns.
The public sphere is not something we can or cannot afford. The public sphere and democracy are a nexus. The public sphere is a public space in which democratic societies symbolically (re)constitute themselves and constantly (re)define their values in the sense of a rough consensus.
This also applies to a European public sphere on the internet, which must be based on democracy and thus beyond commercial logic. Yet it is precisely this logic that permeates and even dominates our digital media spaces.
The declining ability of the media to contribute productively to the democratic order is being exacerbated in the European context. While involvement of the citizenry in the process of European integration has become a prerequisite of the expansion of political objectives and the increasing shift of national competences to the European level, the media are less and less able to facilitate this, due to the disruptions caused by the platformisation of the public sphere under the dominance of United States technology giants.
In advertising, the supremacy of the large platforms causes considerable revenue losses for analogue as well as digital media and thus intensifies the media crisis, as advertising is decoupled from publishing and the conventional media business model no longer functions. And this at a time when polarisation or even division is progressing in many European countries and the integrative power of media is in a special sense in demand. This crisis is exacerbated—for example in Poland or Hungary—through endangering the independence and freedom of the media.
Trolls, misinformation and hate speech in the so-called social media—the cacophony that arises in dissonant public spheres—bode ill for democratic discourse. The European public sphere has thus become dysfunctional. A new approach to organising the digital infrastructure of public communication is needed. We live in a time when the call for a European digital public sphere is getting louder—especially from civil society and academia.
European digital model
This is about sovereignty concerning digital media and infrastructure, for Europe as a geopolitical actor—but first and foremost for Europe’s citizens. Currently, the big companies, mainly from the US, define our digital way of living. But Chinese players will assume greater roles in the future, extending their influence in the physical world to anything digital.
So is there a space for a European model—between digital capitalism (making money from observational traces and the data harvested from our interactions) and a form of digital statism (using data traces to influence what behaviour is allowed, desirable or, instead, sanctioned)? Or will a balanced version of these two models be enough to be European?
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This is not however just a discussion about regulating the market dominance of the Big Tech companies amid a competitive race among the US, China, Russia and Europe. Democracy is far too often a blindspot in current policy discourses and there is simply no ‘action plan’ for building the infrastructure of a European digital public sphere.
Political will is needed to promote public spaces on the internet which are primarily oriented towards the common good and take seriously digital sovereignty and the autonomy of the citizen. Media with their social functions of information, opinion-forming, control and social integration are an indispensable component of deliberative democracies. In democracies, the media must first and foremost be cultural rather than economic assets, and this should be reflected in the conception of a European digital public sphere.
Technologies which merge in the most intimate way with our lives should do more. They should assist us, on a personal but also a societal level, to become enlightened human beings in open societies—that would be truly European.
Europe’s values have their roots in the enlightenment. Translated into the digital world, this of course concerns European-data protection standards but also at minimum an architecture of openness and diversity which can be pragmatically implemented through interconnectivity. And it is precisely in this manner that the proposal for a European digital public sphere differs from the idea of a European super-platform.
Thinking of a European digital public sphere in such a way means that it could become an enlightenment engine, assisting European societies in their continuing transformations to become more open societies. More open and just public spaces are not a condition to be reached but a means to realise living together in a desirable way.
Digital technologies should not push us only to buy more stuff or enforce uniform social practices. They should promote European values: diversity and trust in independent institutions, data sovereignty and free access to knowledge, and open and engaged discourse.
Technology can support us in assembling alternative socio-technical configurations. For a European digital public sphere we should start building infrastructural modules, coding for public value and the common good—step-by-step, testing, rejecting and improving an alternative European digital model.
Media shape society and people—and of course vice versa. But the network is (now) the message. The digital network is therefore more than a structure. If there is a digital ecosystem of networked, freely-accessible platforms with public-value content, then the values of an enlightened society are also reflected in its openness and decentralised architecture—a sovereign Europe of mutual contact which so understands itself.
There is enormous potential in the transnational networking of freely-accessible platforms and media libraries. We just need to get out of the silos.
In sum, one of the major challenges facing the EU is to make possible a European public sphere which advances European integration beyond individual member states and works against the disintegration of the great European idea and the media polarisation associated with disinformation and hate speech. For this purpose, a European alternative network of platforms is called for—a European digital public sphere which would create a digitally sovereign Europe, independent of the US and Chinese platform giants.
The foundations—the values, rules, governance structures and steps towards implementation—of a new European digital public sphere, oriented to the public and the citizens of Europe, have been discussed in many places, especially in the academic arena and civil society. The goal of this series is to bring the findings and ideas hitherto into a larger circle and thus to strengthen the political will behind such a scheme.
This is the first article in a series on a European digital public sphere, supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung with an eye to its Digital Capitalism conference from November 15th to 19th. All articles in this series are published under a Creative Commons licence.