Over the past five years, the European Union (EU) has enacted an ambitious set of digital policies aimed at upholding democratic values and individual rights. This includes the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act, the Data Act, the Data Governance Act, and the proposed AI Act. These regulatory efforts to improve the digital space are an important step toward safeguarding the digital values and sovereignty that Europe aspires to.
These values and goals were set out in the European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade that has been adopted by the European Parliament, the Council, and the European Commission at the end of 2022. The declaration includes the recognition of the importance of broad “participation in the digital public space” and calls for “promoting interoperability, transparency, open technologies and standards as a way to further strengthen trust in technology as well as consumers’ ability to make autonomous and informed choices.”
As Europe enters the second half of the Digital Decade, it is important to recognize that these goals cannot be achieved through regulation alone. Building digital public spaces as alternatives to the existing commercial platforms dominating today’s online environment requires investment in the Public Digital Infrastructure that would enable these spaces to operate.
Building that infrastructure requires public investment. Only by investing public money can we ensure that public digital infrastructures are optimized for societal value rather than economic return and break with the logic of extracting economic value from all interactions in the digital sphere.
If Europe is to reap the full benefits of the regulation adopted during the current mandate, digital policy-making during the next mandate must focus on investment in the Public Digital Infrastructure.
Building this Public Digital Infrastructure requires investment. This is why the EU needs to work toward the creation of a European Public Digital Infrastructure Fund. As we have outlined in our White Paper on a European Public Digital Infrastructure Fund, there is a clear need for a fund that can operate at the EU level and on a sufficient scale to support a Public Digital Infrastructure that can act as a viable alternative to existing services.
The overall objective of this fund must be to support the emergence and maintenance of digital public spaces in Europe by investing in the creation and maintenance of public digital infrastructures. The creation of such a European Public Digital Infrastructure Fund should build on — and extend — a number of existing initiatives, such as the Next Generation Internet initiative funded under the Horizon Europe program, the Sovereign Tech Fund initiated by the German government, and the French government-led effort to support infrastructures for the Digital Commons.
In order to achieve its objective, the Fund would need to operate on a much larger scale (€100 million+ on an annual basis) than existing initiatives and have a strong focus on investing in the creation and ongoing maintenance of services and platforms that enable connection and exchange between users (both individual and institutional). This must include communication services and platforms, storage and computing services, identity services, and their underlying software functionality, protocols, and standards.
A key criterion for support from the fund must be that all services and tools are developed as free and open source software and implement open standards. The fund should enable public institutions, civil initiatives, and private entities (especially SMEs) to build and maintain public infrastructures that contribute to a more diverse and resilient European software development ecosystem.
The establishment of a European Public Digital Infrastructure Fund must be a key element of the next European Commission’s policy agenda. The aim must be to make funding for the Public Digital Infrastructure an integral part of the next multiannual financial framework to be adopted in the middle of the next mandate.
In the meantime, the European Union and Member States should work together to scale up and combine existing efforts in this area and to mobilize additional funding. This should take the form of a European Digital Infrastructure Consortium, bringing together the Commission and Member States willing to invest in the Public Digital Infrastructure, which can serve as a precursor to a more permanent implementation of the fund.