Wilhelm’s wish works wonders? New strategy paper for a European Public Sphere published

An English language version of the paper was published today:
European Public Sphere. Towards Digital Sovereignty for Europe
and of the press release, 16.07.2020

The director of the Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation, Ulrich Wilhelm, had started his ARD presidency (2018-2019) with the large-scale project of a “European super media library”. Over the course of his presidency, this evolved into a European infrastructure for digital media platforms.

Today, the National Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech) has released the results of a project group led by Henning Kagermann, Chairman of the acatech Board of Trustees, and Ulrich Wilhelm:

Henning Kagermann, Ulrich Wilhelm (eds.)
European Public Sphere. Shaping Europe’s digital sovereignty
acatech Impuls, 14 July 2020

press release,
(in German)

The other members of the project group are: Markus Haas (CEO Telefónica Deutschland), Thomas F. Hofmann (President of the Technnical University Munich), Paul-Bernhard Kallen (CEO Hubert Burda Media), Johannes Meier, Chairman of the Advisory Board Cliqz GmbH, Burda’s former search engine and browser) and Jan-Hendrik Passoth (technology sociologist, Technnical University Munich and Munich Center for Technology in Society).

European digital, technological and data sovereignty is the overall goal of the paper. A digital ecosystem called the “European Public Sphere” (EPS), “which in its technical form already embodies European values”, is the way to achieve it. The current Corona crisis, the paper says, has highlighted how dependent Europe has become on non-European platform operators. It is therefore high time to actively establish a European open alternative. The financial efforts to overcome the crisis are called “great opportunities for European companies and start-ups and thus for increasing value creation in Europe.”

The lowest layer of the proposed architecture is a cloud infrastructure, which the paper envisages to be the European Gaia-X project. The layer on top of that includes services like search, recommendations, language translation and identity management. The content services are on layer 3 and include news, av platforms, e-gov, e-school and smart city.

Technology is never neutral. Therefore the authors want all partners to commit to a „Values by Design“ approach. The one page on what these values are highlights “diversity and openness” with respect to both technology and content and “transparency and accountability”. Then we get two antagonists: “competition and the common good” and “individual rights and collective purposes” that “initially appear to be contradictory” and “must be brought into a meaningful relationship”. Data protection, protection of privacy, democratic values are mentioned, also technological values like modularity and interoperability, and, of course, the values enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The paper also has a clear focus on monetary value creation. Diversity is also called for in business models. In the chapter under that title we read that learning from Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google, Tencent, Alibaba means learning that they do not focus on just one technology or business model. “Instead, as the scalable nucleus of the strategy, certain core competencies are repeatedly combined with other resources (“flywheel effect”) to create new business models in different markets” and similar business babble.

And finally, the paper presents another layered model of “a European video ecosystem as a possible business model in the video sector”. The top layer “modules & customer promises” is a “Euro TV Portal” that includes all European broadcasters’ live and on-demand content with comprehensive search, personalisation, automated translation and “fair advertising”. These elements of functionality and user experience are apparently further spelled out in the layer below. Underneath which we find “content”, itself in three sublayers. The top one is: “professional content by public-service and private broadcasters, press”. Below that: “Content from science and culture (e.g. from archives, museums, universities etc.)” that apparently does not deserve the attribute “professional”. And below that: “User Generated Content” (sic!).

The envisioned governance structure is – as was to be expected after previous statements by Wilhelm – a Public Private Partnership (PPP). The public part ist to be a European Digital Agency with a steering and coordinating function and a budget. The European Public Sphere Alliance is to involve “all relevant actors from the economy and civil society” based on cooperative and meritocratic principles.

The fact that the paper uses the disparaging phrase “UGC” should be enough to dismiss it. But even that aside, it is apparent that this is a very business-centric and top-down model. Essentially a European distribution infrastructure for commercial media, plus PSM content that’s been paid for already anyway and can earn some extra ad money, some science and culture icing on top and then a sandbox, a “Remix Portal”, for citizens to do “UGC” in, with rights-cleared content and “simple tools”.

With Telefónica and Burda among the authors, that might not be a surprise, and one could be grateful that Wilhelm’s special friend Mathias Döpfner from Springer is at least not named as one of them, even though there is certainly nothing in the paper that would be offensive to him. The paper has many right ideas that add up to a wrong model.

Citizens, civil society and civil society initiatives are mentioned extensively – as tokens. One footnote in particular mentions examples of relevant initiatives: the FSFE, the Beyond Platforms Initiative, Public Open Space and the EBU (sic!). Yet it remains unclear why these initiatives or any other civil society group should join Telefónica, Burda, Springer and the EBU in developing a distribution infrastructure for commercial av content.

A European Public Sphere that is a “business model in the video sector” – that sounds very much like Netflix in European and not like anything I would associate with a digital public sphere. Adding e-government services makes the whole vision seem even more like BTX on steroids. Back from the catch-up services in the early 2000s into the future of the past. You want to give a “Euro TV Portal” to the youtube generation – really?

My conclusion after first reading: Wilhelm’s WWW is not going to work. That might be easy to see and say, but the real challenge is to do it better. Can we imagine a bottom-up building of a network of digital European public open spaces worthy of that name? In a civic-public-partnership? The Internet way? The Wikipedia way? EPS is not the way forward, but it is a welcome challenge to develop citizen- rather than business-focussed alternatives.

PS. Even “EPS” sounds bureaucratic like something from the stock market or like printer trouble. EPOS is just a so much cooler acronym.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *