MUNICH — It has been a long time since the term digital technology stood for the promise of openness and the empowerment of the public and democracy alike. Nowadays, a handful of providers dominate the market, led by Google, Amazon and Facebook as well as their Chinese co-competitors, who are on the rise. But there is more at stake than dominating the market or utilizing data for advertisement purposes or providing consumerist enticement.
It is not just Europe's digital sovereignty that is at risk but everyone's, as well as our very ability to live together as a society. We find ourselves in a difficult situation, to say the least, if algorithms and analytic technology are controlled solely by technology giants, who determine visibility of content — especially in times in which democracy has been put under severe pressure by populists everywhere.
This has far-reaching consequences for democratic discourse across Europe. There is no transparency as to which criteria are applied to determine what content is deemed fit for dissemination, due to the fact that algorithms and analytic technology are considered trade secrets. But since these algorithms and analytic technologies are designed to increase the time spent on particular webpages and optimize targeted advertising, their content depends on the users' likes and dislikes and their interests, which in turn are calculated through analysis of the user's data. This endangers openness and diversity within the public space. At the moment, there is no possibility of democratically and legally ensuring that a balance is struck and difference of opinion cultivated. Public interests are subjugated and sacrificed to the optimization of business models.
The will to change the status quo is growing.
One of the reasons as to why Europe lacks digital sovereignty is due to the fact that Google, Facebook and Tencent are not just single providers of public products and platforms, but these companies are also — financially as well as intellectually — heavily invested in the basic digital infrastructure that makes up our digital experience. This goes from data centers and cloud systems via interfaces and frameworks to data-analyzing technology.
They did not create one central system but rather designed standards which encouraged companies to remain within their own digital "ecosystems." This behavior led to them establishing themselves, step-by-step, as the go-to infrastructure in varying fields.
Portable fingerprint reader — Photo: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA
Europe's attempts to find a solution were, so far, guided by thoughts of creating overarching regulations. But that in in itself is not enough. It also requires sustainable alternatives that cultivate solidarity and follow European norms and values. And there is no shortage of ideas for projects fostering alternative solutions. There is the potential for open cloud systems, data-protecting processes of machine-led translations and social networks that truly encourage diversity. But these will not come into being if political motivation and will are non-existent to unite these varying forces.
Users need control of their data and social media should foster diversity
It is, therefore, quite encouraging to see that the will to change the status quo is growing. Berlin and Paris, within the Treaty of Aachen, agreed to the creation of a European "digital platform for audiovisual and information content." This agreement, potentially, constitutes the right approach, if it is to be taken as the first step towards building an alternative, open and transparent infrastructure which could foster diversity of content and products. And it is, therefore, justified that researchers within the fields of computer and social science as well as social initiatives and cultural institutions support this endeavor.
The development itself, however, will have to be provided by the markets and societies concerned. But political drive could provide the impetus needed. To achieve this, three decisive steps need to be taken. Firstly, sound development programs supporting new and bundling existing initiatives aiding the development of public welfare technologies will have to be created. This will provide startups with independent financial support beyond the initial setup phase and will aid media and technology cooperation as well as social projects that have dedicated their operations to strengthening digital sovereignty.
Google, Facebook and Tencent are not just single providers of public products and platforms.
Secondly, it will need process-orientated coordination to bundle and amalgamate the dynamics of various projects, thereby creating an organically developed European digital "ecosystem." This could be achieved by a European coordination center, supported by a civil society digital oversight committee, which would function as a democratically legitimized supervisory authority. Ideally, the European coordination center would bundle public initiatives, define sponsoring goals, standards and interfaces by accumulating and providing technological, political and regulatory expertise.
And thirdly it will require pilot projects that will lead by good example. The Franco-German agenda to put the Treaty of Aachen into practice provides a chance to achieve all this. National and private broadcasters, publishers, scientific and cultural institutions as well as civil society activists could become a part of this "digital platform," thereby deciding on how cloud systems, search engines as well as filter and personalization systems should be designed to adhere to European norms and values and to provide users with a maximum of control over their data. The infrastructures created through this process could and would be accessible to other sectors from the very beginning, if they are based on open technologies and standards. This would ensure a step-by-step progression towards a complete, European digital ecosystem.
This process requires stamina, energy and imagination — attributes that are readily available within Europe. It is high time we put them to good use.
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