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Digital Principles by European Commission: too little, too late?

As abstract as they may seem, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of grand narratives in policy making. They help people make the meaning of events that otherwise seem as random as the weather and assess how effectively actions respond to objectives that the narrative sets. It therefore makes a lot of sense that the European Commision comes up with a plan for a Declaration of Digital Principles accompanied by a “Digital Compass”. But why only now? And why such a scope? And is all this enough to give the EU citizens a greater meaning of the role that the EU may have in shaping their online experiences? 

“The failure of imagination”

The European Commission from time to time takes seriously the need to create a grand narrative to help communicate its policy goals – and then underdelivers in practice. It is visible in the notion of “promoting our European way of life”, a framing that made its way into the official list of priorities of the Commission in the current legislative term. Not only is it a disappointing nod to the right-wing rhetoric of “Europe under siege”, but it also hardly means anything as we Europeans are rather beautifully different in how we choose to shape our ways of life. In fact In varietate concordia (Latin for United in diversity), the official motto of the EU fits us much better.

Another example is the Digital Single Market framework (DSM), which seems to make sense as to its core objective – removing online barriers in access to goods and services across the European Union. The problem is that the market does not exist in separation from the people, their needs, aspirations, and structural barriers they encounter in access to public and private services, in creating non-monetary value for themselves and for others, and finally in reaching out one another in a way that nurtures public debate and European cohesion. 

As my colleague from COMMUNIA Association, Paul Keller, once noted, the DSM as the sole way to frame European online space represents a failure of imagination by the supranational structure. It is so because it simplifies all societal relationships to market realities, all market deficiencies included. The outcome of drafting legislation through this lens exclusively is gruesome. People are pushed out of the conversation that gets polarised between the large market powers, as it happened during the copyright reform debates. Or they are denied any meaningful redress either in front of their governments or large online platforms, both of which will decide what is and what isn’t acceptable political speech under the regime of the Terrorist content regulation.

“Policymaking should open up to opportunities of refocusing on human-centeredness, freedom of expression and meaningful inclusion of various communities and voices.”

Looking for a human trace in strategic documents

What would be the new quality that the Declaration of Digital Principles brings? The setting of the narrative sounds enticing. The European way for the digital society, as the objective of the Declaration is dubbed, is grounded in principles of solidarity, democracy, prosperity and sustainability that are anchored in the empowerment of people and business. 

This premise is a fitting attempt to imagine a potential of the EU policies as human-centred and reaching beyond the constraints of the DSM. So far we share the vision: policymaking should open up to opportunities of refocusing on human-centeredness, freedom of expression and meaningful inclusion of various communities and voices. Then we look at the existing and planned legislation and doubts arise. 

The politics of done deeds

How can all this be meaningfully achieved if many legal provisions do not sufficiently promote good governance in content moderation (just to mention Copyright in DSM Directive, Terrorist Content Regulation, or Digital Services Act); or go only halfway to ensure real choice for people (Digital Markets Act lacking interoperability)? How can users be empowered to make choices right for them within existing power disparities between technology providers and users that the legislation is shy to tackle (Artificial Intelligence Act)? 

The European Commission’s roadmap for the Declaration seems to be stuck in the past. The proposed list of objectives includes “protection of intellectual creations of individuals in the online space”, which sounds like the Web 3.0, well, has not happened. How about supporting  creation that originates from the use of copyright exceptions and limitations? They enable, among others, parody, quotations, and educational uses. These exceptions should be universally harmonized across the EU based on the existing Union law and international conventions. 

As the readers of our blog may suspect by now, the digital commons are completely omitted in the Roadmap, as crucial as they are in achieving the Declaration’s objectives. It is the digital commons that Wikipedia is a part of that enable access to trustworthy and transparent information. The commons are also a basis for innovation, exchange, and many trust-enforcing community practices that increase cooperation of citizens, academics, and businesses alike across the EU. 

FKAGEU feedback on the Roadmap for the Declaration of Digital Principles

Getting things done, the EU way

The Commission realises that a set of principles is in itself a weak instrument if there is no way to make them work in practice without a way to make stakeholders act in a certain way. The Digital Decade Compass sets out “a robust governance framework providing structured cooperation between the Commission and the Member States to achieve the EU’s digital targets, foster European digital capacities and monitor progress on digital principles”. Again, the foundations are right, but the existing practices cause doubts. 

Implementing structured cooperation will be especially challenging. Not looking far, the DSA and DMA envision simultaneous creation of various advisory and monitoring structures that will gather representatives of an array of bodies from the Member States (governmental and regulatory alike). Some of these structures will have overlapping roles. This setup may provide a challenging environment to effective and timely coordination. 

One of the problems in the EU is the pace and extent of timely implementation of key regulatory proposals by the Member States. It is doubtful that mere monitoring and reporting envisioned by the roadmap would help improve that; there is a need for a greater effort. Also, the commitment of Member States in that area should be paired with a commitment of the European Commission to provide timely reviews of effectiveness of adopted legislation. 

The EC is not without guilt here – new legislative proposals are sometimes issued in the areas where there is no adequate implementation of the EU legislation already in place and its effectiveness is therefore unknown. It was the case with the Terrorist content regulation proposal (now adopted as 2021/784) that was published a few days after the September 2018 deadline to implement the Directive on Combating Terrorism (2017/541) that had been at that time implemented only by a handful of Member States. 

FKAGEU feedback on the Roadmap for the Digital Decade Compass

Shared Digital Europe

The inclusion of people living and working in Europe in the European grand narrative on digital is already happening, if imperfectly, through all the legislative acts mentioned above (and a few ones not mentioned). A vision emerging from the legislation, overlapping at times, is that humans are the afterthought to considerations of how to settle the power balance on the market. A set of principles may not prevail over the practicalities of compliance with the letter of the law. And any compass will be as good as an instrument spinning around its axis if the map is just an incomplete sketch. 

“A set of principles may not prevail over the practicalities of compliance with the letter of the law. And any compass will be as good as an instrument spinning around its axis if the map is just an incomplete sketch.”

Is it then really too late to set up a good framework for Europe’s Digital Decade? As the Chinese proverb goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago – and now. The point is that the right framework may help shift accents in the implementation of legal provisions and design missing pieces of the law. So far, looking at the documents presented by the EC, the strategy follows current dissatisfactory trends in legislation rather than shaping them. 

In our corner of the internet, somewhere between the collaborative non-profit projects and digital rights activism there actually is a framework that seems fitting in that it provides a wider, human-centered approach at the same time being practical enough to provide guidance on what actually needs to be done. It is called Shared Digital Europe

Shared Digital Europe has been created by activists around the COMMUNIA Association who invited other activists to brainstorm what such a vision could be (full disclaimer: I was a part of that group). The result encompasses four key principles: Enable Self-Determination, Cultivate the Commons, Decentralise Infrastructure and Empower Public Institutions. The individual pursuit of online happiness is combined with the communal and shared fulfilment. These are aided, as explained in the strategy, by online presence of public institutions on one side, and healthy, sustainable private infrastructure on the other. 

If that is not the European dream, then I don’t know what is. Hopefully the European Commission will get inspired by the framework while drafting its dream for the European Digital Decade