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Digital Public Space – A missing policy frame for shaping Europe’s digital future

This is a preprint of a book chapter, to be published in: Alexander Baratsits (ed.), European Public Spheres, Digitisation and Public Welfare Orientation.

Published onSep 29, 2021
Digital Public Space – A missing policy frame for shaping Europe’s digital future

1. Introduction

The 2030 Digital Compass, a key European Union strategic document that defines a digital policy for this decade, opens with a sketch of the current context: the COVID-19 pandemic. It mentions that technologies are now imperative in all fields of social life, a truth well established by the idea of digitization yet only confirmed this year. It also notes the vulnerabilities and risks of using the digital space, highlighting disinformation and dependency on non-European technologies, in line with a regulatory approach mitigating harm, which has become visible over the last five years. Finally, it praises disruptive innovation, using the example of COVID-19 vaccines but frames development within market-based growth and innovation as core digital policy goals; however, this paragraph tellingly fails to mention the EU’s huge public investment in supporting vaccine development. Similarly, it doesn’t mention the even-more-urgent challenge of building a true digital society, which is at once resilient and just, democratic and diverse (Tarkowski 2021).

In this article, we use the concept of policy frames to analyse the core goals and approaches of current and previous European digital policies. We track a shift from the Digital Single Market frame, championed by the previous Commission, to a new approach established by Ursula von der Leyen and her Commission through the Shaping Europe’s Digital Future strategy. We define the shift as a digital constitutionalist turn characterized by a bold policy reform program that aims to fix digital markets. We point to the lack of a clear policy frame and argue that Europe’s digital strategy would be strengthened by policies based on a digital public sphere. Introducing this policy imaginary, accompanied by a mission-driven approach at the core of policymaking, would strengthen European digital policies and allow them to attain the current twin-transition ambition of the European Commission: a digital and green transformation. Finally, we present entry points and initial principles for introducing this policy frame, highlighting existing policy initiatives that are already aligned with a digital public sphere perspective.

2. Policy frame: A concept for analysing digital policies

Successful strategies and policies need to be built on robust policy frames, uniting concepts and visions that connect different elements and provide means for comprehending often complex interventions. These visions are sometimes expressed directly, as with the Digital Single Market, a policy vision that for a decade provided a clear focus (which we acknowledge despite being critical of the direction these policies took).

These visions can be conceptualized as policy frames, by which we mean underlying conceptual frameworks. These are sometimes named but other times remain implicit, providing key, underlying narratives, principles and assumptions for policymaking. Policy frame is “a set of narratives, principles and values that define a policy space, and as a result determines which policy interventions are valid and which ones are not (or less) valid” (Bloemen/Keller/Tarkowski 2018). Different theoretical frameworks can be employed to explain these frames; we treat them as non-exclusive. Altogether, these varied elements of a policy frame provide policies with a strategic direction.

Firstly, policy frames can include values and sets of values (Bonnamy 2021). As visions, they also consist of cultural representations, moral and normative connotations, and even emotional charges. They are the world vision (Weltanschauung) that gives a strategy its direction and force. Bonnamy uses the concept of a set of values that “gathers compatible values referring to the same general idea, a symbolic repertoire playing as value politics.” Sets of values structure positions and commitments, and define possible justifications for specific policy approaches.

Secondly, policy frames can be understood as social imaginaries. A specific kind known as constitutional imaginaries “fundamentally shape the ways in which we go about making and re-making our societies, whether they are expressed in constitutional texts or not” (Bartl 2021). The emergence of new imaginaries can be tied to ongoing social, political and technological transformations. The concept of imaginaries suggests that policies are shaped by more than rational, explicit ideas: structures of feeling – ways in which emotions are organized at a given time within a cultural system – also count.

Finally, the concept of mission-oriented policies provides a model in which overarching policy ideas are most explicit, and presented with a clear sense of strategic direction. Missions are ways of framing policies that define a solution, an opportunity and an approach to addressing the challenge. The Horizon Europe research framework is currently developing pilot mission-based programs.

The concept of a mission is especially suited for challenges that are complex and addressed by complexly arranged groups of actors. Mariana Mazzucato (2018) defines mission-oriented policies in research and innovation as “systemic public policies that draw on frontier knowledge to attain specific goals” or “big science deployed to meet big problems”. Missions, if well defined and managed, clearly signal societal relevance of a policy, enable varied granular interventions to contribute to the overall goal while retaining clear strategic focus, and support a culture of experimentation.

A mission-oriented approach also assumes the fundamental uncertainty of policy outcomes, as these apply today, and aims to influence complex systems. For this reason, “an analytical framework to support mission-oriented policy making should place a low priority on the ability to confidently quantify precise future outcomes,” write Kattel et al. (2018). Instead, the policy framework should demonstrate that actions are consistent with chosen strategic direction. Applying this idea to the Digital Compass framework would create policy targets for beneficial societal outcomes (Keller 2021) that deliver public value (Kattel et al. 2018) rather than defining quantitative indicators for the uptake of technology or economic growth.

Related to the complexity of the challenge and uncertainty of the outcomes, Mazzucato also highlights that public missions need to be open to bottom-up, grassroots contributions for solving the challenge, and enable public participation, both in setting the missions strategy and its implementation.

These conceptual frameworks, which when taken together describe a policy frame, are useful for clarifying strategies underlying digital policies, as they provide tools for analysing how policies frame key challenges, guiding policy approaches and sets of coherent actions designed to carry out the policy (Rumelt 2011). Furthermore, these conceptual frameworks suggest that better policies benefit from robust policy frames, included at the stage of policy design; strategies will be weak if they lack a clear policy frame. The mission-driven approach to policies prescribes a specific method and set of policy tools which, according to the creators of this approach, provide policies with direction and a design that allow states to tackle complex challenges.

3. Digital strategy of the current European Commission

In late 2019 the European Parliament approved the new European Commission headed by President Ursula von der Leyen. It soon became clear that the new Commission sees the digital transformation as one of its key priorities. In the Political Guidelines for the Next European Commission 2019–2024, von der Leyen signaled an approach that was ultimately framed as the “twin transition”: a combined green and digital transformation. “Europe must lead the transition to a healthy planet and a new digital world,” wrote von der Leyen (2019). Her political vision of the digital transformation, of a “Europe fit for the digital age”, mentions safe and ethical boundaries for digital growth in its first sentence. And the Digital Single Market, the flagship digital policy idea of the previous decade, is mentioned in the document only in passing.

Building on these political guidelines, the digital strategy of the Commission was fleshed out in the Shaping Europe’s Digital Future strategy in February 2020. It further develops a vision that balances the power and benefits of digital technologies with a strong societal focus, usually expressed as attention to common European values, care for human rights or consideration of ethics. The strategy proposes a digital policy vision directed first and foremost at Europe’s technological sovereignty: not only developing own key technological and economic capacities but also defining own rules and values.

Three key objectives of the strategy are: the uptake of technology and competitive economy that meet people’s needs and respect European values (technology that works for the people); a frictionless single market that is globally competitive and allows companies to compete on equal terms and scale up (a fair and competitive economy); and a trustworthy digital environment that empowers citizens, enhances democratic values, respects fundamental rights and supports a sustainable economy (an open, democratic and sustainable society). These three pillars of the strategy set a balance that is emblematic of the EU’s current digital strategies: between competitive economy and market development, value-driven and humancentric digital growth, and care for trust and digital democracy. In this approach, the digital transformation does not mean simply change through the introduction of digital technologies and capacities – it means change through technology but shaped by societal norms and values.

This approach is presented as uniquely European: “Europe needs to have a choice and pursue the digital transformation in its own way” (European Commission 2020a). European digital transformation is meant to reinforce the European social model and build an approach that is rules and standards based. It is an approach that in principle is open to anyone who respects these rules, allowing the “Brussels effect” to potentially work on a global scale – exporting, in a sense, the European approach to digital regulation beyond Europe’s borders. The European digital way is meant to not only work here, in Europe, but also become a competitive and viable worldwide option – one that can especially compete with the digital strategies of China and the United States. In developing this approach, the European block has no competition. It is alone among global actors as the one attempting this normative, values-based approach to the digital realm (Floridi 2021).

The strategy also has a firm regulatory focus and defines a policy reform program that has been under development since the current Commission went into office: the legislative framework for trustworthy AI that led to the recently announced Artificial Intelligence Act (AIA), platform regulation and new competition rules introduced through the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, and the Data Strategy together with the Data Governance Act and the Data Act. In this context, the Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive, which was adopted under the previous Commission, is also significant, but important work – notably on guidelines for content filtering rules – is being continued by the current Commission. Furthermore, additional regulatory measures under development concern interoperability rules for public services, or the European Democracy Action plan, including the review of the Code of Practice on Disinformation. All in all, this comprehensive policy reform program includes eight major legislative proposals that should be adopted in 2021.

This strong regulatory push is unprecedented in Europe’s twenty-first-century digital policymaking, with policies building on existing legislation (most notably the E-Commerce and Information Society) and expanding their scope. These policies not only update existing laws (e.g., copyright law or rules on content moderation and intermediary liability) but they also introduce new regulatory frameworks that respond to recent technological development (as is the case with regulation of AI technologies or new data governance frameworks). This strong regulatory aspect of Europe’s current digital policies is based on the ideology of digital constitutionalism, which aims to establish normative frameworks that protect fundamental rights and ensure a balance of powers in the digital environment (Celeste 2018; Floridi 2021). They are an effort to either update or establish a framework that can address challenges of the latest wave of digital impact, usually framed in terms of platformization (Poell et al. 2019) or datafication (van Dijck 2014).

3.1 European digital policies during the COVID-19 pandemic

Analysis of the further development of EU digital policies should also take the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020 into account. The shift to remote forms of sociality, education, work and many other aspects of life was made possible by further embracing digital technologies that allow for remote, online socializing to flourish. After over a year since the pandemic started, this event, while overall extremely disruptive, has strengthened existing trends in the digital environment.

The pre-pandemic European digital strategy already targeted key challenges of the digital environment by planning policy initiatives that aimed to regulate platforms, AI and data governance. It thus addressed growing imbalances and shifts of power that lead to the disproportionate power of private actors, invasive new technologies that threaten basic rights, and technological systems and environments that are harmful if left unregulated. In the State of the Union Address, made in September 2020, President von der Leyen acknowledged that six months of the pandemic had accelerated the conditions to which Europe is responding with its twin transition strategy. “We saw years’ worth of digital innovation and transformation in the space of a few weeks,” said von der Leyen (European Commission 2020b) and added that the acceleration of digital trends is only just beginning.

In October 2020 members of the European Council agreed that digitalization should be an essential component of Europe’s response both to the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic crisis. Furthermore, the pandemic itself was recognized as a factor that strengthens the digital transition defined in the Shaping Europe’s Digital Future communication: “With further impetus from the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU is working to accelerate the technological transition” (European Council 2020).

The interconnection between digital transition and measures that mitigate effects of the pandemic is the most visible in the decision to allocate at least 20% of funds under the Recovery and Resilience Facility to digital transition. The digital transition pillar of the Recovery and Resilience Facility is based on a framework very similar to that of the Digital Compass. Flagship areas include: digitalization of public administration, connectivity and infrastructure investments; scaling up data cloud and semiconductor capacity; and digital skills development. Both documents refer to the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) as an evaluation and monitoring frame. This allocation provides significant funds for investing in the digital transition and, at the same time, leads to a complex coordination model that requires cooperation between the European Commission and Member States. This is being addressed by the Digital Compass policy program – currently under development – which will provide a coordination framework between the Commission and Member States.

3.2 The Digital Compass initiative

The State of the Union Address outlines a vision that is further developed in the communication 2030 Digital Compass: The European way for the digital decade from March 2021 (European Commission 2021). The document references two previous policy frameworks: the strategy for Shaping Europe’s Digital Future, with its policy reform program; and the Digital Single Market, which is still not considered fully achievable in Europe. The three areas of focus are: data (both personal and industrial); emergent technologies (particularly AI); and connectivity infrastructure. Key initiatives include: the European cloud; European e-identity; and supercomputing capacity. This is a priority list that reads a lot more like an economic, infrastructural and industrial strategy than that of the Shaping Europe’s Digital Future strategy, as it lacks the balance of goals described above. It can also be read as complimentary to the previous strategy and its core policy reform program.

The core of the Digital Compass framework is a set of concrete targets combined with quantitative indicators, complimented by a monitoring system that will be used throughout the decade. The four “cardinal points” of the Digital Compass are targets for digital skills, digital infrastructures, the digital transformation of businesses and the digitization of public services. While some of these targets address real challenges that the EU faces, others seem primarily inspired by the belief that technological progress will provide solutions for the societal challenges that Europe faces. It’s as if the narrative of digital transformation had reverted to the much simpler rhetoric of digitization, with its belief in value of digital growth.

The eight quantitative targets proposed by the Commission are difficult to reconcile with the overall objectives expressed both in this document and in the Shaping Europe’s Digital Future strategy. Some of the indicators seem to follow the simplistic logic of the digital revolution, according to which more technology means a better society, with the end goal defined by ubiquitous deployment, universal access and intensive use. Instead of showing a clear pathway towards climate neutrality and a more equitable distribution of economic prosperity, these targets only measure the updated uptake of specific technologies or encourage economic concentration for the sake of economic concentration. Probably the most jarring in this regard is the target of doubling the number of European “unicorns” (i.e., digital companies valued at 1 billion dollars or more). Furthermore, changes expected from the implementation of the ambitious policy reform package established in the Shaping Europe’s Digital Future strategy cannot be mapped onto the indicators of the Digital Compass. Reading the indicators, it is hard to believe that a strategy focused on attaining these measures will lead to the twin transition promised by the Commission and re-shape the digital environment in a “European way”.

The Digital Compass framework does include one additional element relevant for a progressive vision of digital development: a key principles framework, which is being developed (at the time of writing). The communication states that progress on the four objectives needs to be combined with ensuring access for citizens – both to infrastructure and higher-level services – and the realization of key principles. These are intended to build on a legal framework that ensures respect for human rights and compliance with European values. The communication includes several examples of possible principles such as universal access to Internet services, accessible and humancentric digital public services, and ethical principles for humancentric algorithms. Yet it is telling that while the growth objectives and quantitative targets are already defined, the principles are still being consulted (at the time of writing). Although such a principles framework is in line with the current Commissions approach to digital strategy, there is little clarity as to how these principles will be operationalized. A principles-based regulation could be more agile than traditional rules-based policies if focused on substantive objectives that set general standards in a constantly shifting environment (Nooren et al. 2018).

4. Policy shift: From market building to digital constitutionalism

The Digital Single Market has been a dominant policy frame since at least 2010, when the concept of the Digital Single Market was defined in the European Commission’s Digital Agenda as one of the key action areas (van Dongen/Keller 2018). In her study of the legislative process that led to the adoption of the Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive, Céleste Bonnamy (2021) identifies a dominant “market set of values” that underpins positions on one side of the policy debate. This analysis can be extended to how a market set of values has been dominant in European digital strategies for the last decade.

The Digital Single Market has been framed as an economic action plan that encompasses ancillary issues such as consumer and economic rights. Many of the social issues related to digitization have therefore been increasingly framed solely in terms of the market; as a result, a market-based set of values has dominated debates on policy that would have been better framed, for example, as societal challenges. Tellingly, the term Digital Single Market has replaced other narratives, especially the concept of information society, which played a crucial role in earlier policymaking. Over time, the Digital Single Market narrative has turned into a standalone concept, culminating in the 2015 communication A Digital Single Market for Europe.

We provided a critique of this policy frame and the effects of its use in the report A Vision for a Shared Digital Europe, which we co-authored: “Seeing the digital space only as a marketplace is short sighted and unrepresentative of its effect on our lives. The digital space is in effect our society – a society that is experiencing a digital transformation. Therefore, we cannot accept to define the digital sphere as a place where only market dynamics rule” (Bloemen/Keller/Tarkowski 2019).

In the middle of the previous Commission’s term, digital policy started shifting away from market-focused narratives typical of this frame. Andrea Renda describes this shift away from the vision of a digital single market as the “taming of cyberspace”, aimed at protecting fundamental rights, meeting requirements of the Green Deal, ensuring technological sovereignty and open strategic autonomy (Renda 2021). Most significantly, the importance of human rights and European values has been increasingly highlighted in strategic documents, introducing an imaginary that often conflicts with market values. One of the moments symbolic of this shift was the publication of “Artificial Intelligence for Europe” in 2018 (European Commission 2018). The document presents the challenge of harnessing a new general-purpose technology through a “solid European framework”, together with a good argument in favor of a value-driven development that will ultimately lead to a “European approach to artificial intelligence”. The focus on markets is there as well but plays a secondary role. This is in stark contrast to the DSM Directive from three years earlier, which is framed in terms of economic growth at the level of 250 billion euros. Since then, European policy frames and strategies have increasingly deployed narratives that highlight ethical, humancentric and value-based perspectives.

The latest strategy, envisioned in the Digital Compass communication, treats the Digital Single Market not as a policy goal but as a point of reference. The new strategy is described as “building on progress towards a fully functioning Digital Single Market” and framing the past decade’s strategies also in terms of digital transformation (European Commission 2021). The existence of a Digital Single Market can be seen as a prerequisite for a competitive, sovereign Europe, as it ensures the necessary scale at which European digital actors can operate (Suder/Fernandez 2021).

Giovanni De Gregorio (2021) describes this shift in European policies as one from a liberal economic perspective to that of digital constitutionalism. This new approach focuses on the protection of individual fundamental rights and on securing democratic control against the emergence of powers beyond such control. The concept of digital constitutionalism is increasingly used to explain a shift in digital policies around the world. De Gregorio summarizes the approach as “articulating the limits to the exercise of power in a networked society”. It is a reaction to threats to fundamental rights and the rise of private powers over the last twenty years, a challenge that emerged partially to the previously predominant policy paradigm, termed “digital liberalism”. Theorists of digital constitutionalism describe the shift of policy paradigm as a response to a “constitutional moment” (Celeste 2018): a period in which new normative approaches are needed to secure constitutional norms due to the challenges caused by the development of digital technologies. In this case, the constitutional moment was caused by the growing power of online platforms.

De Gregorio (2021), in his study of Europe’s paradigm shift in digital policy, shows the longue durée of the digital liberal approach that culminated in the DSM paradigm. Europe’s approach was purely economic until the Nice Charter of 2000 and the recognition of its binding effects in 2009. Tellingly, the 1995 Data Protection Directive was oriented towards free movement of data, based on a purely economic approach. A liberal set of values underpinned digital policies to ensure the development of a digital internal market. De Gregorio marks the beginning of this shift with the implementation of the DSM strategy that included the GDPR regulation, the Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive and the Terreg regulation on deleting terrorist content. All of these legal acts had the protection of fundamental rights combined with limiting the power of online platforms in common among their stated goals. The policy reform program defined by the Shaping Europe’s Digital Future strategy can be understood as a further development of the digital constitutionalism approach. Floridi (2021) believes that the current “legislative pentagon” of the DSA, DMA, GDPR, AIA and DGA (with potential additions such as the Data Act or legislation on the European Health Data Space), once brought into force, will make the digital constitutionalism approach complete.

5. Beyond digital constitutionalism, towards a generative policy

The digital strategies of the current European Commission no longer have the singular market focus of previous strategies. Core elements of the new policies can be conceptualized as a digital constitutionalist moment. And yet, a clear, new policy frame is not yet visible. Instead, different perspectives are competing; there is even pressure to return to the previous market-driven frame. Although the Digital Single Market acronym is referred to less and less, the underlying frameworks and value sets of many policy documents are still market focused.

A case in point is the Europe’s Media in the Digital Decade action plan, published in 2020, which frames the policy challenge as strengthening a “free, diverse and dynamic media environment” (European Commission 2020c). However, the framing quickly shifts to a Digital Single Market narrative of “harnessing the potential of the European Single Market”, and the actions that are described in the plan concern solely “the recovery, transformation and resilience of the media industry”. What could be framed as a societal issue becomes ultimately a market-focused intervention.

In addition, intense lobbying frames European digital policies in this way. For example, a recent study by the Center for Data Innovation analyses the potential impact of the proposed Artificial Intelligence Act only in economic terms, arguing that the regulation could cost the European Union 31 billion dollars over five years and cause investments in the AI sector to drop by 20% – without highlighting any other outcomes of the regulation (Bertuzzi 2021). From this perspective, a digital constitutionalist perspective, and other possible framings that are society-centric, are framed largely as impediments to economic growth.

This continuing attachment to a market-based set of values is characterized by recurring elements of policies that pay excessive attention to creating national digital industry champions and startup unicorns, or divert funds to support the most hyped technologies, without defining clear societal goals that justify such investments (Bego 2020). As an example, the Europe’s Media in the Digital Decade action plan devotes an entire action to the development of the European AR/VR industry, justified with economic growth and the potential to trigger innovation in other industry sectors (European Commission 2020c).

While the shift away from a market-focused towards a digital constitutionalist-focused framework, over the last five years, is an important one, it isn’t sufficient. It provides measures that aim to correct negative effects of the latest developmental phase of digital technologies and business models based on their deployment. A digital constitutionalist policy program – such as the policy reform package included in the Shaping Europe’s Digital Future strategy – could create an important regulatory model that will constitute an alternative to the two that are globally dominant today: Chinese and American approaches. It could further establish Europe as an agent for global change through its value-driven regulatory perspective. But a regulatory initiative focused on curbing the power of dominant commercial platforms and fixing the current platform ecosystem’s harmful aspects still lacks a positive vision of a European digital society. It could be argued that this approach treats the current platform ecosystem, with its dominant, non-European commercial actors that exert their power in Europe, as inevitable. In doing so, it therefore focuses on regulating this existing ecosystem instead of designing and building a different, alternative model. In some cases, regulatory measures cannot meet their defined purpose in isolation: for example, interoperability measures proposed in current regulation will not be meaningful if there is no viable competition operating under alternative business models than those of dominant platforms (Zuckerman 2020).

De Gregorio (2021) believes that there are further stages of European digital policymaking beyond the current digital constitutionalist phase to come. In this new emergent phase, constitutional values would be extended beyond the EU and a humancentric technological model articulated. De Gregorio gives examples of the first aspect of this new phase: the Digital Services Act proposal and further development of the GDPR data protection model. On the second aspect, he is much less clear, mentioning only a “digital humanist” perspective as a paradigm for regulating automated systems and preserving human dignity and autonomy in face of automatization. In this section, we will articulate how this next phase in digital policymaking could be conceptualized as an extension of the current approach.

Salome Viljoen, in her relational theory for data governance, argues for a new policy focus, which can be understood as going beyond the “market fixing” goals of current strategies. Viljoen distinguishes between propertarian and dignitarian reforms. Propertarian approaches see data as an object with economic rights tied in, whereas a dignitarian position “grants fundamental rights protections to data as an extension of personal selfhood” (Viljoen 2020). This distinction helps to describe the ongoing policy shift as increasingly based on a dignitarian approach. Viljoen describes the limitations of this approach, due to an overly narrow focus on the protection of individuals. An alternative approach, which Viljoen calls “democratic data governance”, focuses instead on collective interests related to data production and how such interests ought to be governed. Ultimately, it shifts the focus from dealing only with harmful data production to addressing that which is socially worthwhile and beneficial.

Mariana Mazzucato, in her articulation of challenge or mission-driven innovation policies, argues that traditional policy frameworks are based on a self-limiting design. The role of the state and its policies is limited to fixing market failures or at best facilitating value creation (Mazzucato et al. 2020) Dominant economic theories warn of “government failure” and put their faith in private-sector innovation. Thinking in broad terms, digital constitutionalism is also a frame that focuses on fixing market deficiencies – although it is not an industrial or innovation policy, and the frame is defined from a legal and not macroeconomic perspective.

A policy framework focused solely on fixing problems, reducing harmful effects or risk avoidance “does not embody any explicit justification for the kind of market creation and mission-oriented routes of directionality that was required for innovations such as the Internet and nanotechnology and is required today to address societal challenges” (Mazzucato et al. 2020). An alternative approach assumes that states can create and shape markets through policies that include regulatory frameworks, investment of public funds, creation of demand through procurement and the supply of skills. We would like to extend this concept beyond markets and argue that digital policies can similarly shape digital ecosystems.

The next phase of European digital policy design could be conceptualized as a shift towards a generative policy frame. It is an approach that aims to produce societal value instead of focusing on economic growth, or the protection of individuals through the reduction of harmful effects and market failures. The concept of generativity was proposed by Jonathan Zittrain to define technological systems that “produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences”, by providing leverage, being adaptable, being easy to access and master, and transferring changes to others (Zittrain 2008). This concept can be extended to describe policies that shape technological systems to attain such effects. However, how to conceptualize this generative approach within the scope of Europe’s current digital policies remains a question.

Two core concepts within the EU’s current digital policies hint at the emergence of this new policy frame. Firstly, digital transformation is an oft-mentioned term, suggestive of the capacity of newly introduced digital technologies to change society. This transformation can furthermore be understood as value-driven, shaped by societal norms and not just by affordances established by creators of technologies – who, today, are often beyond Europe’s sovereign control. Yet the policies, as analysed previously, lack elements that can translate the ambition of orchestrating such a transformation into real outcomes. The Digital Compass framework often reads like a digitization plan based on a simple linear growth model. Even the introduction of values into a policy framework only provides “guardrails” for development. The process of transformation lacks direction.

Digital sovereignty is another key goal employed by European digital strategies. It defines strategies that aim to secure the control of different key aspects of digital stacks, including infrastructure, services or data from foreign powers and technological companies alike (Floridi 2020). Focus on sovereignty aims to secure the means for Europe to shape its own future (Timmers 2021) and is, as such, necessary. Only a digitally sovereign EU will be able to define which technological projects, with their underlying imaginaries, are brought into the world, and on what terms (Bartl 2021). But, on its own, the concept provides little guidance on what a digitally sovereign Europe could look like. Just like dignitarian approaches to individual data, its focus on protection – albeit on a civilizational and not individual scale – still means that a positive vision is lacking. Still, the two concepts of digital transformation and digital sovereignty provide a solid foundation to develop a positive vision. A focus on sovereignty or autonomy points to the need to develop own productive capacities, which need to be framed by policies in a positive and strategic way (Timmers 2021).

6. Digital public space as a policy framework

Current strategic challenges visible in European digital policies could be solved by introducing the policy frame of a Digital Public Space as an overarching policy imaginary. By doing this, European policymakers would solve several problems with current digital policies: the lack of a generative perspective on Europe’s technological development; the lack of a clear mission orientation that could help solve Europe’s complex problems with technology; and the re-emerging perspective that frames Europe’s digital growth purely in market terms. On a more basic level, a strong policy frame – especially if coupled with a mission-driven mechanism – would help solve a fundamental challenge faced by EU institutions: achieving greater coherence and convergence of policy initiatives (van Dijck 2020; Renda 2021).

The public sphere can be defined simply as a realm in which citizens communicate. It can also be understood as an imaginary community or a symbolic space where the public is shaped. The value of the term lies in the fact that it is clearly the opposite of the market, another symbolic space that organizes people and institutions in society. In modern times various technologies have mediated this sphere, which today is an increasingly online-media-dominated digital public sphere. “Digital Public Space” is a related term, often used interchangeably with digital public sphere. The Waag report on Digital European Public Spaces defines them as “places in which we can exercise our rights as citizens” and sees the public sphere as a specific type of space “in which ideas society and democracy are debated and shared, and from which community and shared understanding may emerge” (van der Waal et al. 2021).

The European Public Sphere report by acatech, the German National Academy of Science and Engineering, is one of the most direct attempts to describe this policy frame, building on the foundations of digital sovereignty. A digital public sphere “offers fair terms of access and use, strengthens the public debate and safeguards the plurality that forms a key part of Europe’s identity” (Kagermann/Wilhelm 2020). Even more simply, it can be understood as a space where people “live together as a society” (Kagermann/Wilhelm 2020). José van Dijck (2020) elegantly frames the goal as “prioritizing the common good by empowering citizens and civil society organizations to help governments design an open and diverse ecosystem”.

The proposed European development project shifts attention from individual services or pieces of infrastructure to the need of creating a digital ecosystem. Commercial platforms today also function within ecosystems, and are increasingly good at acknowledging this fact, shaping ecosystems and taking advantage of them (van Dijck 2020). A shift is occurring from closed platforms to ones that deploy data-based infrastructures to control larger ecosystems.

Without such an ecosystem, any individual service would have to rely on the existing platform ecosystem, with all its deficiencies. Therefore, only a full public ecosystem, enabling exchange of data and services, would have generative capacity, enabling further services and platforms. For individual platforms and products to be viable, the strategy needs to conceive of initial infrastructural products as “conceived as the foundation and as an integral part of a digital ecosystem right from the outset” (acatech 2020). An ecosystem approach is significant, as it shares insights with a mission-driven approach. Both aim at policies that support collaboration by varied actors in the development of technological capacity.

José van Dijck (2020) proposes a tree metaphor to describe the platform ecosystem, which consists of digital infrastructures (roots), intermediary platforms (trunks), and different societal and industrial sectors undergoing platformization (branches). The metaphor can also be used to describe how the digital public sphere should be structured. In contrast, other proposals for a digital public sphere project frame the core goal of such a program differently. Both the acatech and Waag reports focus on digital infrastructures at infrastructural, intermediary and sectoral levels. There is also a tradition of framing a public sphere in terms of media – this is currently the dominant approach used in EU’s policies. The term “public sphere” can be found in the Europe’s Media in the Digital Decade action plan (also called the Media and Audiovisual Action Plan) (European Commission 2020e). While both media and infrastructures are core components of the digital public sphere, it shouldn’t be reduced to either of these. Above all, the digital public sphere shouldn’t be seen as a sectoral project – as is the case with the Media and Audiovisual Action Plan, which frames the European digital public sphere in terms of a robust online media sector. Alternative technological components should be understood as supporting varied sectoral services and a diversity of social needs, which together will constitute a digital aspect, or a “digital twin” of society.

The digital public sphere frame is also based on “faith in the positive power of public institutions” (Mazzucato 2016), which are key actors in building the ecosystem and especially the digital infrastructures that make it viable. The goal to create alternatives to commercial offerings should be seen as a positive, generative goal, instead of just a measure to reduce harmful effects. Both proponents of the mission-driven policy model and the acatech report underline the need for solid, dedicated public institutions able to shape and sustain the digital ecosystem, once it is developed.

The underlying technological stack for the digital public sphere needs to be a “public stack: a shared digital infrastructure to develop and connect technology, which puts public values at the center of the design process” (van der Waal et al. 2021). The Shared Digital European Public Sphere (SDEPS) coalition’s recent manifesto also highlights the infrastructural aspect of a digital public space strategy, which advances a vision of “public digital infrastructures that are based on democratic values and can be used and shaped by public institutions and civic initiatives” (SDEPS 2021).

An ecosystem perspective also stresses the importance of interconnecting these different elements through proper standards and governance. This will only be possible if the underlying technology infrastructure is conceived as a public service, enabling democratic governance and respect for basic values. It assumes that value-driven regulation of commercial actors will not be enough, largely due to the limited power of regulation as a method to shape technological reality. Furthermore, Andrea Renda (2021) argues that “policy by design” approaches, which secure policy choices in publicly built alternative technologies, services and ecosystems, could prove more effective than traditional regulation.

At the same time, a state-driven digital public sphere could encompass markets and the strategy for such a European digital public sphere could include a market-shaping component. Competition and innovation, which are traditionally seen as the two core goals of a market-driven digital strategy, could be reframed as an aspect of a broader public interest strategy (Nooren et al. 2018).

6.1 Value-driven Digital Public Space

Authors of the acatech report highlight how an alternative technology ecosystem needs to pay attention to translating values into concrete implementations. As a foundation of this process, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union should be treated as an “indispensable benchmark for action”. The design and implementation of technologies based on the charter should be the subject of ongoing, democratic and public debate. In this respect, the Digital Public Space frame also secures the goals of dignitarian policies.

The collaboratively designed Shared Digital Europe policy frame proposes a set of four interconnected principles for a digital public sphere: empowering public institutions; decentralizing infrastructure; cultivating the commons; and enabling self-determination (Bloemen/Keller/Tarkowski 2019). The NGI report A Vision for a Future Internet proposes a similar set of foundational values, which set the ambition for Europe to create a “more democratic, resilient, sustainable, trustworthy and inclusive internet” (Bego 2020). The acatech report proposes complimentary design principles for the implementation of a digital sphere infrastructure: diversity and openness; transparency and accountability; balance between competition and public interest; and balance between individual rights and collective goals (Kagermann/Wilhelm 2020). In turn, the Waag report Digital European Public Spaces defines openness, democracy and sustainability as three core values (van der Waal et al. 2021).

Openness is often mentioned as one of the key values that should underpin many aspects of the European digital project. On the one hand, Europe’s approach to digital sovereignty should be based on “open strategic autonomy” (Renda 2021), so that it does not become an isolationist project. On the other, the ecosystem should remain open in the sense of enabling democratic participation in its governance. Openness should also be a design principle that allows distributed, bottom-up participation in building and maintaining elements of the ecosystem in line with the original end-to-end principle of the Internet. As a design principle, openness also determines the success of any societal mission by signaling everyone’s ability to participate in its fulfillment.

A positive policy vision, based around the digital public space frame, would also make value-driven approaches more resilient. Ultimately, varied values could emerge from public debate as key elements in any given moment and context. Values could also be abstracted and synthesized, or made more specific and granular, so that they are applicable. “What is needed, then, are not new sets of values, but rather something more reflective of a social contract: a new foundation to instill values in technology throughout the design and development processes,” write the authors of the Waag report (van der Waal et al. 2021). Katja Bego (2020) notes that a value-driven policy vision must be focused on value-led innovation with mechanisms designed to translate abstract values into concrete outcomes. The digital public sphere ecosystem would be such a foundation with appropriate institutions and mechanisms to enact norms and values. Attempts to define new rights would also be more successful if they were framed within a positive societal vision rather than as fixes for market failures.

7. Next steps towards a European Digital Public Sphere

The foundations for launching a European Digital Public Sphere mission have already been established through public interventions defined by current and previous digital strategies. An approach focused on building such a public sphere can be seen as the next phase after a decade of market-focused policies, and the corrective approach of a digital constitutionalism phase. A Digital Public Space frame, if implemented through a mission-driven policy model, would also provide better means for tackling challenges that are identified not only by European policymakers but also globally. Authors of the Waag report on digital public spaces agree that “the European Commission’s explicit stance on technology tends to be in line with principles such as openness, fairness, and inclusivity” (van der Waal et al. 2021). A range of current policy interventions, if successful, would establish the first elements of a European digital public sphere. These include:

  • interoperability rules, present in all major legislative proposals, which can facilitate the development of alternative services using interoperable data and, therefore, establish a decentralized ecosystem connected through shared data and elements of services;

  • other interventions aimed at weakening or distributing the power of dominant platforms, and at introducing market competition, which create space for developing an ecosystem that includes alternative platforms;

  • data governance proposals that advance a commons-based, public-interest approach to data, including rules for data intermediaries, data cooperatives, or public interest sharing of private data;

  • policies aimed at combatting disinformation, necessary to secure a healthy communications space;

  • European cloud federation initiative and associated efforts that can provide important elements of a sovereign digital infrastructure with a “policy by design” approach (e.g., GAIA-X or the SDIA initiative);

  • European media data space, planned as one of the actions in the Europe’s Media in the Digital Decade Action Plan;

  • a trusted digital education ecosystem, defined as a strategic priority program in the Digital Education Action Plan 2021–2027;

  • measures to support the European media sphere and counter disinformation, included in the European Democracy Action Plan;

  • pilot mission-driven research and innovation programs within the scope of the Horizon Europe framework program;

  • Conference on the Future of Europe, which prototypes a “deliberative democracy infrastructure” on a European scale;

  • experiences with ecosystem building gained during the implementation of the PSD2 regulation, which enabled new financial services.

As a next step to consolidate these efforts, a digital public sphere strategy should be explicitly defined that provides convergence of current policy efforts and direction for further interventions. The strategy should be built around a digital public sphere policy frame that would provide the necessary shared imaginary. In addition, a mission-driven program should be established which frames the creation of a European digital public sphere as an open, shared challenge that creates opportunities beyond the boundaries of government intervention, for market, public and civic actors. The program needs to include a robust values and principles framework, grounded in respect for and enforcement of fundamental rights. Its principles shouldn’t be set out by merely general guidelines but specific design requirements that can be implemented as the ecosystem is built. As part of this framework, open standards need to be defined and governed through democratic and participatory processes and institutions. These standards should cover, for example, interoperability and transparency rules for data governance on platforms, or requirements for the deployment of algorithms. At a more operational level, the program requires an innovation agenda and development plan that provide strategic direction to a public funding component driving the development of the core parts of the public ecosystem. Similarly, dedicated public institutions need to be designed and deployed to support this ecosystem, with expertise at all three levels: infrastructural, intermediary and sectoral (e.g., in the field of education). Finally, new metrics are needed that allow progress to be measured – without them, the initiative would tend to be reframed in previous frameworks and associated metrics. The Digital Economy and Society currently lacks metrics that provide measurement on achievement of complex societal goals through digital transformation.

These steps will only be successful if they are part of a holistic digital policy – one that is based on a clear, shared imaginary translated into an overarching policy frame and a mission-driven policy deployment model. Furthermore, such holistic policy needs to combine market regulation measures that are part of the EU’s digital constitutionalist moment with market and society-building policies. This needs to include a shift from a regulatory patchwork approach to holistic governance of the digital ecosystem.


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