Is the EU serious about Digital Public Space?

April 30, 2024

Last week, netzpolitik published a story about the EU institutions closing shop on Mastodon and Peertube.  The “EU voice” and “EU video” services were initiated two years ago by the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) as alternative, privacy-friendly, and user-focused social media platforms for EU institutions, bodies, and offices (EUIs). However, after two years, the EDPS announced that

despite our efforts to find a new home for EU Voice and EU Video in other EUIs, we have been unable to secure new ownership to maintain the servers and sustain operations at the high standards that EUIs and our users deserve.

The article in netzpolitik rightly pointed out that the effort and resources to moderate two servers shouldn’t be too high of a hurdle for an annual budget of more than 180 billion euros. Later that day, the EU Commission announced on Mastodon that their commitment to the fediverse was “here to stay” and that they are “working on a solution to ensure our continued presence on your feeds.” This statement came as a relief.

We have previously highlighted how public institutions have become dependent on corporate, for-profit services (such as X or YouTube) in the absence of viable alternatives. In light of this dependence, we urged public institutions to commit to supporting a Digital Public Space that would exist outside the control of for-profit entities that extract value from users of their platforms.

Providing public services through infrastructures under the control of the public (e.g., through the decentralized approach of the fediverse) would operationalize the idea of building and securing Digital Public Spaces. On paper, policymakers have already embraced this concept, as indicated by the inclusion of a section on “Participation in the Digital Public Space” in the European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade, which was adopted by EU co-legislators in late 2012.

The story of the EU’s Mastodon and Peertube servers is a litmus test for whether EU institutions are truly committed to the idea of a Digital Public Space and to addressing the challenge of a digital space dominated by a few corporations.

For all the talk of “digital sovereignty,” it would be unfortunate (to put it mildly) if the EU proved incapable of running a couple of servers to host a decentralized service and provide an alternative to its X and YouTube social media accounts.

Zuzanna Warso
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