Shaping Europe’s digital sovereignty

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High-caliber project group proposes "European Public Sphere"

Shaping Europe’s digital sovereignty

A digital ecosystem committed to European values, relying on democratic control and facilitating digital sovereignty: A project group with a strong presence from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has presented a concept for such a "European Public Sphere" in a discussion paper issued by the German National Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech). For its setup, the group recommends the establishment of a cooperative alliance involving the private sector, knowledge institutions and civil society. This alliance would develop alternative technologies, based on openness, diversity and participation, for innovative digital products and platforms.

The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated the usefulness of digital platforms. They enable us to remain in virtual contact while physically distancing, whether in digital classrooms, the working world or private life. However, the crisis has also shone a bright light on Europe’s dependencies in the digital world. The dominant digital platforms are provided by non-European companies. The same applies to the most powerful data infrastructures. Europe and its citizens have little input on the nature and structure of the digital public sphere and thus few opportunities to shape an infrastructure that plays a central role in social life, shaping political consensus, individual freedom and the private sphere, and economic competitiveness.

The project group, which includes TUM President Thomas F. Hofmann and Jan-Hendrik Passoth of the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS) at TUM, advocates the creation of a digital ecosystem committed to European values such as privacy, openness and diversity. The group’s discussion paper "European Public Sphere - Shaping Europe’s Digital Sovereignty", published today, describes the path to such a digital space, where a diverse range of products and platforms can emerge, offering fair and transparent conditions for access and use.

In contrast to healthcare, education or transportation, the digital infrastructure has not yet been treated as part of public services. For an open digital space, however, a basic infrastructure is needed - in a sense, a system of digital roads and pathways that is freely accessible and dedicated to the public good. To build such an open digital ecosystem, it will require state funding flanked by European regulation.

Along with a public-sector coordinating unit such as a European digital agency or a network of agencies, the project group proposes an independent "European Public Sphere Alliance" organized on a cooperative basis. It will be open to participants from the private sector, civil society, media, knowledge institutions and other public-sector bodies. Their members will jointly develop technology components as the basis for creating and marketing both non-commercial and private-sector products and services.

Technology is never neutral, and is always influenced by the environment in which it takes shape. Europe is committed to such values as human dignity, self-determination, plurality, openness, privacy, security, democracy, justice, solidarity and sustainability. The role of the "European Public Sphere" will be to implement these values in the form of guiding principles for the design of technologies - through open technologies, built-in accountability and a participatory design.

The technology of the European Public Sphere must be characterized by modularity, interoperability and openness: In contrast to today’s closed and monolithic platforms, the EPS alliance will develop technologies which, due to open standards, can be easily reused, developed and adapted locally, and optimally combined with other technologies. Such basic technologies and application modules will permit a diverse range of business models, platforms and products in all industries and fields such as digital education, e-government and Europe-wide media. The new products are not intended to replace existing ones, but rather to offer functional and trustworthy alternatives.

"The current crisis, which has made all of our working lives more dependent on digital technology than ever before, is holding up a mirror to Europe’s failings over the past ten years," says TUM President Hofmann. "Civil society, knowledge institutions and the private sector must stop surrendering sovereignty over their data and allowing themselves to become dependent on closed systems lacking in transparency. I am firmly convinced that providers and users alike are crying out for trustworthy and participatory alternatives. If Europe undertakes joint efforts to develop such basic technologies, we can build a creative ecosystem with enormous potential to generate value."

Jan-Hendrik Passoth of the Munich Center for Technology in Society adds: "Civil society initiatives, creative start-ups and projects that combine open technologies with a commitment to the common good are present in large numbers, especially in Europe. They play a crucial role in establishing an open digital ecosystem."

The discussion paper from the German National Academy of Science and Engineering was published by Henning Kagermann (Chair of the acatech Board of Trustees) and Ulrich Wilhelm (Director of Bayerischer Rundfunk and member of the acatech Board of Trustees). "If Europe takes decisive action now and launches an ambitious initiative, a public digital sphere can be created that offers fair conditions for access and use, strengthens public discourse, and ensures the plurality that fosters European identity" says BR director Ulrich Wilhelm. Henning Kagermann adds: "We want to strengthen digital sovereignty - in other words, the autonomy of Europe, as a community based on rights and values, and that of each individual user. It is important to note that we are securing digital sovereignty through openness and freedom of choice. Anyone who respects European values can be involved in creating the European digital public sphere."

Members of the project group:

The project has received input and support from many other individuals and experts, including Klaus Diepold , Center for Digital Technology and Management, Jens Förderer , TUM School of Management, and Dirk Heckmann , TUM Center for Digital Public Services.

The project group’s paper is intended to provide impetus to politicians to take up the initiative to design a European public sphere while Germany still holds the presidency of the EU Council.

Henning Kagermann, Ulrich Wilhelm (Hrsg.): European Public Sphere. Gestaltung der Digitalen Souveränität Europas, 2020


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