Public Digital Infrastructure

Laying the foundation for the Digital Public Space

This line of our work explores the role and potential of Public Digital Infrastructure in supporting Digital Public Space that contributes to the full realization of digital rights.

In recent years, the main focus of EU digital policy has been the regulation of Big Tech. With this regulation in place, there is now a need to ensure the emergence of digital public spaces that can serve as alternatives to existing commercial platforms. This means that Europe needs an ambitious agenda for investing in Public Digital Infrastructure to provide the foundation for an open internet that underpins our democratic values and the health of our societies.

Our work in this area is guided by the goal of creating an ecosystem in which Digital Commons and digital public spaces can emerge and thrive.

Timeline

The French Data Protection Authority (CNIL) has published a resolution on the 31st of January explaining its decision to greenlight the hosting of the French “Health Data Hub” by Microsoft, acknowledging the absence of an immediate alternative that aligns with the project's technical and functional requirements. According to Contexte, the CNIL has itself underscored the potential risks of the project’s hosting solution, cautioning that American authorities may compel Microsoft to transmit data hosted in the project, thereby raising concerns about data sovereignty and privacy.

The Health Data Hub is a public structure whose aim is to facilitate access to data hosted on a secure platform, in compliance with regulations and citizens' rights. The new insights allowed by this sharing of data aims to improve the quality of care and support for patients.

As European countries all grapple with the dilemma of balancing the benefits of increased data sharing with sovereignty, this decision underscores the imperative for strategic investments in digital public infrastructures at the European level, in order to build credible alternatives safeguarding the digital values and autonomy that Europe aspires to. You can read more about this in our proposal for a European Public Digital Infrastructure Fund.

On December 6, Evegeny Morozov gave a keynote at the Transforming capitalism in the Age of AI conference organized by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in Brussels. In his speech, he presented a progressive vision for public digital infrastructure, emphasizing the importance of thinking about it through the paradigm of the digital commons. Below is a transcript of the last part of his presentation:
“When I see that initial critique went wrong, was in formulating this alternative third path, this alternative third way, strictly through the paradigm of software. They didn't perceive institutions as also capable of facilitating social coordination. But ultimately, that's what institutions are. If you look at most public institutions in society, whether it's the post office, or the library, or the university, or many of the other examples I've given you before, their primary task is facilitating coordination among people, among people in institutions, among people and knowledge bases, but social coordination is at the heart of what they do. And the reason why I went into this detour, into thinking about institutions, is that (...) it is obvious that in this day and age, we can not just be building alternative free software products to match those that Silicon Valley is building.

This is nice, but I think those thinking about this through the paradigm of digital commons are probably getting a little bit closer to the right answer. Because digital commons imply not just the passive use of infrastructures, it means active care and maintenance of them. It means an actual involvement in an infrastructure as an institution, as opposed to just passive use. And it's obvious that if the path that the progressives would like to follow is neither that of the market AI nor the centrally planned AI. Then, the alternative that I think is consistent with their own philosophy and with their ideology is that of an institutionally mediated AI that facilitates social coordination. And that would be social coordination for perhaps the provision of public services; perhaps it would be for reinventing health institutions; perhaps it would be for facilitating and getting people away from the kind of alienation that we feel about politics and civic life. But ultimately, an answer to a properly distinct need for a properly socialist or social-democratic, progressive AI, I think, has to start with recognizing that this is a deeply political mission, and the deeply political mission has to return to the progressivism as something that is about allowing people to reach the maximum of their potential in a socially mediated and institutionally mediated environment and to do it in a way that does not solely rely on the market as the only institution capable of getting us there. I think it is very important to account for the costs of relying on the market, and as we account for them I think it is time that we also develop alternatives.

To develop these alternatives, I do think that a proper re-examination of our own project is needed, and I do think that trying to think about this through the lens of a massive push for digital commons as a hybrid path between infrastructures and institutions that societies and groups can be using to coordinate their own activities outside of the market, as the only reference point, would be a step in the right direction.

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