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Path to the Digital Decade: do EU policy-makers dream of electric sheep?

European Union is dreaming of becoming a global digital powerhouse. This dream is neither unfounded nor silly. On the contrary, we have everything that’s needed to build a resilient European internet. Unfortunately, as our human dreams tend to, the “Path to the Digital Decade” Policy Programme compiles big words with old solutions and seemingly random actions. Does it mean that we will sleep through the opportunities of the decade that, whether we prepare for it or not, is bound to be digital?

FKAGEU feedback on the Policy Programme “Path to the Digital Decade

A frame, a performance in 3 acts and an umbrella

With its strong balance between freedom of business and interventionism, founded on long traditions of freedom of expression and access to information paired with functioning political instruments to legislate across national jurisdictions, Europe is uniquely positioned to regulate, shape, invest and inspire the emergence of the European internet. So where are we with that?

To recap: we have the existing framework of the Digital Single Market: “the digital Schengen” aimed at legislating to lift barriers of access to products and services. This framework is embodied through the legislation ranging from the new directive on copyright in DSM, geo-blocking regulation, terrorist content regulation (sic!) as well as the three acts that are now going through the legislative process: Digital Markets, Digital Services and Artificial Intelligence Act.

On top of this, the European Commission decided to open up an umbrella of a vision expressed ina Declaration of Digital Principles accompanied by a “Digital Compass”. They provide values and a basic framework of making sure it works, which usually means in the EU that the member states are pressured not take decisions contradictory to those of the Commission.

As we already observed, these documents are missing many important approaches with which the principles of solidarity, democracy, prosperity and sustainability could be meaningfully tackled. We hoped that the “Path to the Digital Decade” provides more in terms of both inspiration and measures adequate to the task.

Tell me you care about the market without telling me you care about the market

True to its predecessors, the proposal for the policy programme stars big and promising, with a vision for 2030 to empower citizens and businesses through the digital transition. The transition should encompass digital sovereignty, inclusion, equality, sustainability, resilience, security, improving quality of life as well as – ta daah – respect of citizens’ rights and aspirations.

“Reading the policy programme is like entering a great looking restaurant, reading a deliciously composed menu and then learning from the waiter that Hawaiian pizza, iceberg lettuce salad and ham&cheese toast are all what is available.”

The policy would empower the Commission to “widen the European policy toolbox … both at the European and national level” and mandate the “use of all available instruments from industrial, trade and competition policy, skills and education, research and innovation policy and long-term funding instruments to facilitate the digital transformation.”

So far, so good: worthy goals and a wide mandate to use any tools to reach them. Then, unfortunately, the idea gets more and more narrow. The “clear direction for the digital transformation” points to a small handful of areas: cooperation between EU institutions and member states and to ensure consistency, comparability and completeness of monitoring and reporting (everything needs to add up on paper) and a framework for so-called Multi-Country Projects.

All this to achieve targets: from digitally skilled population and highly skilled digital professionals, secure, “performant” and sustainable digital infrastructures – from 5G access, through production of semiconductors, to the first European computer with quantum acceleration. These are coupled with a higher uptake of digital technologies by businesses and digitisation of public services, the latter including access to health records and widespread use of e-ID.

Reading the policy programme is like entering a great looking restaurant, reading a deliciously composed menu and then learning from the waiter that Hawaiian pizza, iceberg lettuce salad and ham&cheese toast are all what is available. Simply, the EC’s to-do list, as important as its points are in some contexts, is also a recycled and unambitious inventory pointing to one general goal: supporting the digital market in the EU.

We have been experiencing shortages of IT professionals for many years now and European scientists have been in the race for a quantum computer probably for even longer.  Surely, to achieve those we need more money and coordination, but all of these targets are already possible within regulatory frameworks, be it national and EU-level. it is a waste of a good strategic opportunity to ponder on what we already know how to fix.

Irresistible charm of procedures

The proposal envisions that to achieve these goals the EC will be monitoring the targets regularly through an annual report on the state of the “Digital Decade”. The EC will scrutinise the key performance indicators and progress as reflected in the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) and assess the needs for any additional policies that might be required. National strategic roadmaps will be prepared in turn by the member states, including plans on new policies, financial and human resources to be allocated for the purpose, radio spectrum resources committed, etc.

Both the member states and the EC will be monitoring progress achieved nationally and the latter will be able to issue recommendations to improve member states’ performance, without any clear sanctions, however. All these actors will be able to create special consortiums to implement multi-country projects bringing in ideas and money to jointly make things happen. 

This is a staple EU-level of making things happen, indeed. The EU institutions believe that formalising relationships, building structures and setting out procedures is all there is to a successful paradigm shift. It is true that lofty ideas without practical solutions do not amount to much, either. As a political actor, the EU needs a clearly set out mandate to intervene. The broader context is, however, that without bold ideas all the efforts, time, and money are funnelled into sustaining a process for the sake of performing tasks. Opportunities are therefore lost, and that is also the case with the “Path to the Digital Decade”.

So what are these opportunities that the new proposed policy programme fails to tap into? The list could be long, but let’s examine briefly the most obvious one tying into the broader effect of the digital transformation that has a horizontal dimension: lack of access to a truly public space.

A public space that belongs to the public

The first problem is the one least developed in the EU-level policies; nevertheless its presence is looming over all legislative processes around curbing big platforms. Whatever we will do about behaviourally driven algorithms and however well the social networks will deal with content moderation, they will still remain privatised spaces of a seemingly public debate. In that domain the European denizens have no large-scale alternative to the Big Tech.

Creating such an alternative is of course a complicated endeavour, on all policy levels, which includes funding. If there were only a supranational entity mandated to use “all available instruments from industrial, trade and competition policy, skills and education, research and innovation policy and long-term funding instruments” to facilitate the emergence of such a space… 🙂 The good news is, besides the fact that the EU already has these powers, that conversations on how such a European digital public sphere could come about have been initiated.

A series of articles supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung explores the various sides of the issue, legal, organisational, regulatory and financial. “The public sphere is not something we can or cannot afford.”, write Johanna Niesyto and Katrin Dapp in the introductory essay, “The public sphere and democracy are a nexus.” Another publication is devoted to strategies for taking back control from Big Tech with various authors proposing “how the current crisis could boost our chances of breaking new ground by establishing an independent European Digital Public Space.”1

“A mix of legislation curbing bad behaviour on the single market, policies fostering sustainable growth models, funding enabling creation of business models not based on secretive algorithmization and data extraction and expropriation of platforms from oversight over freedom of expression should be the strategic objectives for the European digital decade.”

We need to advance this discussion and we need various EU bodies to look into this possibility since without their involvement there will be no real public space. This is where the essence of the EU – adding value to problem solving that is greater that a simple sum of its part – can be very successfully employed. A mix of legislation curbing bad behaviour on the single market, policies fostering sustainable growth models, funding enabling creation of business models not based on secretive algorithmization and data extraction and  expropriation of platforms from oversight over freedom of expression should be the strategic objectives for the European digital decade.  

Confining limits of the digital silo

As already stated, the next 10 years will be “a digital decade” whether we are conservatively repackaging old ideas under new labels or boldly go where no continent has gone before. Already ubiquitous technologies will only become more ever-present, more complicated to grasp, and more “native” to another generation of kids and teenagers. In a few years, it will be even more difficult to point an aspect of a human life as well as the life on the planet as we know it where technology won’t be a factor in shaping our future.

Another way to look at a good “digital strategy” is therefore to concede that as there is no digital future that is separate from our destiny. Crumbs and pieces of responsible approach to tech developments should be simply embedded in every effort to strategize, plan and support structurally. Responses to looming challenges will not be found solely in ensuring that once 80% of Europeans have basic digital skills, 20 million ICT specialists are employed, all populated areas are covered by 5G or that there is this one quantum computer plugged somewhere in Europe.

Ensuring that our human rights and dignity are not negotiated away by algorithms rests on the collective. The responsibility to master the free fall down the tech rabbit hole cannot depend solely on how well we swipe, copy and paste. The collective that bestowed large swaths of its wellbeing onto the EU has every right to expect that the EU can do more than copy and paste when planning for the next decade.

1 Disclaimer: I contributed to both publications with the article A European digital public sphere—legal and policy implications and a paper Back to the Future? The Digital Services Act and Regulating Online Platforms Built on Community-Led Moderation. Both projects consist of very interesting txts by various authors that i highly recommend to everyone interested in the concept of the European digital public space.