Introducing SDEPS

Shared Digital European Public Sphere
July 6, 2021
Image by: Jakub Koźniewski
In April this year the first-ever international conference hosted by Public Spaces brought together a large number of organisations and people working on varying aspects of creating Digital Public Spaces in Europe. In the aftermath of this conference we have started working with a number of these organisations to set up a European coalition committed to the idea of building alternatives to the exiting online ecosystem, which is dominated by a handful of commercial players: this coalition for a Shared Digital European Public Sphere (SDEPS for short) aims to bring together different types of organisations (institutions, civic initiatives, CSOs, technology projects) from different sectors (public service media, civil society media, education, cultural heritage institutions, commons projects, civic initiatives) with different ways of working (media production, technology development, advocacy) who are united in their determination to build a European Digital Public Sphere.

The coalition strives to provide a European coordination layer for efforts aimed at developing alternative online infrastructures and to become a common voice vis-à-vis EU policy makers. To guide this work the SDEPS coalition has recently adopted the following statement of principles:

What is the challenge we are trying to address?

Access to, and the use of, digital platforms is no longer an innovation – it is an essential resource for organisations both public and commercial. The European digital public arena is largely dominated by a small number of for-profit media platforms. Public service & community media, educational and academic institutions, cultural organisations and producers as well as civic initiatives have increasingly become dependent on their services in the absence of viable public alternatives. The result has been an enormous transfer of wealth from the public sector to these private actors’ platforms, which in turn has allowed them to wield enormous power over the media landscape and public discourse, with little or no accountability. This imbalance and lack of a viable alternative is detrimental to the internet, to our democratic values, and to the health of our European societies.

Policy makers across Europe and the society at large have started to realize that this status quo must be changed and that they can positively shape this landscape. Over the past few years we have seen an increasing willingness to regulate in the digital space with the express aim of upholding democratic values and individual rights, accompanied by a clear recognition of the central role that digital plays across society and in Europe’s future. The European Union’s ambition for a ‘Digital Decade’ is reflected for example in the priority given to digital under the Recovery and Resilience Funds, while the vision for the New European Bauhaus initiative seeks new approaches to technology that put inclusivity, accessibility and affordability at the heart of how we live and work.

These efforts to regulate and improve the digital space are very much welcome, however we can do more, indeed we must do more, to ensure the digital values and sovereignty that Europe aspires to. Europe’s digital vision must include an ambition for a European Digital Public Space, which offers and supports alternative digital public infrastructures built on democratic principles.

What do we want?

Europe’s digital ambition must reach beyond the role of global regulator to that of global leader if it is to realise its goal of digital sovereignty. It is not enough to aspire to an alternative to Big Tech, we must actively build it. A European Digital Public Space, built on democratic values and public digital infrastructures, can be the cornerstone of that alternative.

Public digital infrastructures will promote more sovereign societies and individuals through the democratisation of access, transparency and accountability, while shared standards and interoperability will allow knowledge and culture to flow, helping people to connect. Europe’s technological and civic communities already lead the way in developing the building blocks that will make this a reality. However, that must be accompanied by ambition, investment and a strategic approach at the political and European level.

Our pan-European coalition of civil society initiatives, public service and community media organisations, and cultural (heritage) institutions is committed to creating digital public spaces that are aligned with our shared values as Europeans. As part of our ambition to deliver real and enduring value to society and our communities we aim to put the European Public Digital Space on the EU policy agenda. Our goal is to secure the commitment and investment necessary to build the public digital infrastructure we need, and to support an interoperable ecosystem of public institutions and civic initiatives that can drive and spark it.

The time for Europe to invest into digital public infrastructure is now. The networks are in place, the ambition is clear. Now we only need the political will to create digital public spaces that offer a credible vision beyond narrow commercial interests to make this Europe’s Digital Decade.

On Friday this week the SDEPS coalition will hold a first public meeting where the members of the coalition will give an introduction into the current and planned activities of the coalition. Join us from 1400h – 1500h CEST to learn more about our work and how you can contribute to building a European Digital Public Sphere. To participate please register by mailing us at participate@sdeps.eu and we will mail you a meeting link ahead of the event.