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inDICEs at the European Policy Forum: An Initiative for European Public Space

Democracies can only function properly if they are underpinned by a public sphere. But online spaces are controlled by private interests and traditional media are mostly providing national perspectives. The inhabitants of Europe lack the space to debate a shared interest for the public, based on solid facts and a culture of care. We need a media landscape in Europe which re-constitutes the citizen at the centre of public debate. And we need a European digital infrastructure that is based on values of collaboration, sharing and safeguarding the privacy and freedom of people.

From 16th until 18th of November the European Cultural Foundation hosted a policy forum in Brussels in partnership with NESTA and the SDEPS coalition on how Europe can provide alternatives for both the profit-driven big tech companies, as well as for media reporting through national lenses. The debate involved media, journalists, civil society and policymakers, debating pathways to a more open, inclusive and democratic European public sphere. The debate was part of the projects MediActivism and Next Generation Internet – Forward.

From the perspective of the inDICEs project, digital public space is a focus area in the process of formulating policy recommendations. Being involved in the SDEPS coalition from the very beginning and addressing the importance of public space for the cultural heritage sector is key for the quality of next year’s recommendation outcomes.

The Event

In a series of roundtable sessions, a public programme and co-creation sessions, participants all over Europe explored how EU policy can foster digital European public spaces, by addressing issues such as how Europe can provide alternatives for both the profit-driven big tech companies, as well as for media reporting through national lenses, and how a European blueprint for media collaboration and digital infrastructure can be used in other contexts.

Throughout the three sessions, participants had the opportunity to join and contribute to conversations and to the production of tangible outputs related to media collaboration tools, digital infrastructures, inclusive storytelling, media policymaking and advocacy, among others. The Co-creation Labs were a space for open networking and getting to know each other’s practices; to identify specific collective needs and how participants can feed into and support others’ practices; and to collectively develop tangible outputs designed to explore possible sustainable relations in the movement towards a value-based European public space from different areas.

After the working sessions, the results were shared and debated in an assembly setting, exploring the ties created during the Labs and wondering about how the European movement for media and digital space might move forward with concrete next steps in the future.

SDEPS Coalition

During the first SDEPS roundtable, all participants introduced themselves and addressed their interest in focussing on the involvement in the SDEPS coalition during a three-minute pitch. After the introductions, two external guests, Olga Perez (EFA Advisor on Culture and Education, Greens, European Parliament) and Philippe Gerard (advisor at European Commission’s Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology) discussed insights and gave feedback on the participants’ pitches.

From the perspective of the cultural heritage sector, we have agreed upon a common focus together with Europeana’s Eleanor Kenny that is based on the shared contribution to the public consultation on European Digital Principles:

Cultural heritage is a basis to European public identity, making it one of the key assets to the public, now and in the future.
The main idea behind the value of the public sphere for digital cultural heritage, is that the resources coming from cultural and knowledge institutions are reliable sources of information in the time of disruptive consequences of misinformation to our democracies.
From the point of view of the inDICEs consortium I would like to focus on the specific topic, addressed during the public consultation on European Digital Principles:

Universal access to internet services

The inDICEs consortium believes that a fundamental principle is missing in the European Digital Principles discourse – that of universal access to cultural heritage online.
The role of digital technologies in enabling access to culture as a means of promoting inclusivity, creativity, critical engagement, education and knowledge-sharing, is essential in empowering citizens and creating fairer societies. Ensuring the principle of universal and continuing access to culture online will be fundamental to achieving that goal.
The inDICEs consortium pleads for the universal right to open, public alternatives and for access to an open, decentralised, trusted European digital public space, built on democratic values and public digital infrastructure that ensures a rights-based, people-centred alternative to commercial platforms.

Aside from technical tools to foster interoperability, we would need to work on standardisation of governance and legislation in favour of the public mission of cultural heritage institutions.

Public programme

On the 17th of December, the public part of the forum was focused on the central question: How can EU policy foster digital European public Space? Trying to respond to this question, researchers, media professionals, civil society, and policymakers explored how EU policy can foster digital European public spaces. The dialogue was based on two case studies – MediActivism and SDEPS – and the outcomes of the roundtable sessions of the 16th of November.

André Wilkens, the director of the European Cultural Foundation opened the programme by making an observation that the public lobby needs to get more organised by building consortia and cooperations, quote:  “We are being colonised. We focused on telling stories while we should have focused on developing infrastructures’’.

Charlie Tims and Ivana Pejić presented MediActivism – a case for citizen-centric media, Next Generation Internet / Forward – a case for an internet of humans – was presented by Katja Bego, who stated: ‘’We need to imagine something different. Just having a European stamp on it doesn’t make it better or less extractive than current practices’’. 

After came a panel discussion with Nicola Frank (European Broadcasting Union), Ismail Einashe (Journalist, Lost in Media), Latifa Oulkhouir (Le Bondy Blog), Paul Keller (Open Future), Christophe Leclercq (Euractiv). The discussion was followed by a response from funders and policymakers who worked on concrete initiatives and a conversation with the panelists and audience featuring Marijn Duijvestein (DG Connect), Kim van Sparrentak (EP, Greens) Saskia van den Dool (Adessium Foundation) and Mieke van Heesewijk (SIDN Fund).

SDEPS to action

After a few intense days discussing the need for the European public sphere and how we are going to get there, some short term plans were made. The event was very insightful and fruitful as, thanks to the cooperation with the Europe Cultural Foundation, we were among many journalists, public broadcasters, news organisations, newspapers and media coops. They are also very clearly seeing the reality of the big tech takeover of the public space, the lack of public infrastructure and the loss of democracy.

The urgency of our cooperation has become even clearer during these days and the general message, also coming from the members of the European Parliament, was that this is the right moment for change. The need for a coordinated message of civil society, hackers and public institutions on the discussed issues towards policymakers and others is huge. There is a need not only to see this as a grassroots change but also as a top-down one, where European politics must play a part. There is too little, well-organised lobby from culture and media –  more collaboration is essential to get the politician’s attention. Big tech is omnipresent and public interest is nearly absent, while politicians are very open to hearing about alternatives to a public digital environment without big tech and company domination. Yet how and what the alternatives are is still unclear. And here is where there’s an important role for us to play. 

With the SDEPS coalition, we came to an agreement to organise the work better and spread it more among partners. What is needed now is a commitment and work to put in. Organisations have to decide how they want to engage.

With the SDEPS group, we discussed strategies, targets, grand schemes, prototypes, existential questions and broader alliances. 

In the coming months, inDICEs will work on the policy recommendations where the role and place of the cultural sector in this process of developing a European public sphere will be presented. Why is it important, how do we see this future and what does it take to get there? 

In the past three weeks, the coalition had three meetings to agree on the basics of our cooperation, namely membership and decision making, communication channels, and website and newsletter editorials. The outcomes of the meetings will be collected in initiative statutes, and the work can get started!

SDEPS coalition members, from left to right: Paul Keller (Open Future), Sander van der Waal (Waag), Katja Bego (NESTA, NGI), Sophie Bloemen (Commons Network), Max Kortlander (Waag), Volker Grassmuck (EPOS & SDEPS), Kristina Petrasova (NISV, inDICEs), Matthias Pfeffer (PfefferMedia), Leonieke Verhoog (PublicSpaces), Franz Heinzmann (arso), Alexander Baritsits (Cultural Broadcasting Archive), online: Eleanor Kenny (Europeana).
Shared Digital European Public Sphere