The EU’s Digital Agenda (part II): Megalomania or Jack of all Trades?

This article is the second of a three-part report on the Digital Agenda Stakeholders Day, an event held by the European Commission in Brussels on 25 October 2010.

Part one, The EU’s digital agenda (part I): What is at stake? (published on Wednesday 20 October, 2010) looked at some of the overarching issues that most areas of information and communication technology (ICT) have in common.

Part two will now put the EU’s digital agenda into its political context, and part three will be a review of the actual Stakeholders Day event.

The Agenda

It is certainly not easy to cope with the challenges of the information and communication technology (ICT) sector these days. It has a way of pervading practically all aspects of life, whether you want it or not. The initiates’ capability, not to mention patience, is frequently put to the test.

At the same time, the ever-shrinking group of people who do not actively use a computer at work or at home must still learn to manage a plethora of ostensibly ‘smart’ devices – mobile phones, cars, ticket machines, ATMs, satellite navigation, television sets, power meters, and so on. And what’s more, this development will not stop.

There are however, as yet many practical obstacles as well as unresolved issues to reaping the best benefit from ICT, for personal purposes as well as for the economy and society as a whole.

This diagnosis is the driving force behind the European Union’s Digital Agenda. The European Commission has demonstrated its commitment to the Agenda by creating a dedicated portfolio, a post that is held by the former Commissioner for Competition, strong-willed Dutchwoman Neelie Kroes.

And yet, when you look at the official strategy paper for the Digital Agenda, it is a pretty mixed bag, touching upon policy areas as different as network infrastructures, inclusion of disabled people, or the preservation of cultural artefacts.

The field is so diverse that it seems hardly possible to subsume it under one overarching strategy, particularly since one might consider it unusual to define the work area by the underlying technological foundations, yet not by the respective purposes. Wouldn’t health-related aspects of ICT be best handled by the Health Commissioner, fine arts by Education and Culture, and telecommunication infrastructure by Information Society or, if need be, Competition?

There is a lot to be said in favour of this distributed approach, and the respective portfolios will not be excluded from pursuing the Digital Agenda, nor should they be.

On the other hand, as discussed earlier, across all the application areas of ICT there are several common and mutually interdependent issues that need to be tackled irrespective of the specific purpose of a technological solution.

Accordingly, it may help to put particular weight behind them in a major concerted effort. Also, if there is a shared groundwork, innovative, domain-crossing uses might come up which nobody had thought of before.

European implications

However, juggling the often antithetic factors playing into ICT development or its application is certainly not a small endeavour, and because ICT is by default global or at minimum supra-national, the Digital Agenda is a European and even global project by necessity.

Neither Internet nor phone networks stop at national borders, nor does the trade with electronic hard- or software, or cyber crime for that matter.

On the other hand, power grids, ICT-based services, or content license rights still often do, thus impeding the full configuration of the European Single Market.

In all, the European Commission’s Digital Agenda is impressively advanced, taking the entire spectrum of ICT-related issues and challenges into account and expressly advocating an open and inclusive Internet as well as promoting transparency and interoperability in electronic devices.

In fact, the Digital Agenda is in many places so progressive as to presumably draw the dissent of several other EU departments and, even more likely, the opposition of some Member States’ governments, mostly for reasons of law enforcement, surveillance, and control, but also for considerations of economic protectionism. Hence we might count ourselves lucky that none other than Neelie Kroes got the assignment.

Of course, there are flaws in the detail. While the Digital Agenda has a quite comprehensive thematic reach, not all of its components are equally well elaborated yet.

In some areas, there are concrete policies in full swing already. In other fields, proposed actions sound a bit like token lip service to the Commission’s abstract EU 2020 strategy with no clear concept to back them up so far.

In some domains, approaches seem slightly unfocused, for instance where media literacy initiatives are mentioned in the same breath as women’s involvement with ICT and assistance for disabled persons.

Such weak spots are however, to be expected in a complex policy area and will certainly improve over time, not least since the EU is implementing an ongoing scheme of public consultations into many key matters.

Regulatory sway

In the meantime, the Commission seems so enthusiastic about the Digital Agenda that it now shows tendencies to summarily include basically anything that even remotely touches upon a bit or byte under the Agenda’s umbrella.

How many of the programmes on European television are of European origin, for instance, does not belong into this context; it is promotion of the TV production industry, or perhaps even cultural policy, but would have been implemented under a fully analogue media landscape just the same.

While the overarching policy approach to ICT makes sense, it better not be inflated to the extent it becomes arbitrary and loses its edge.

In the same vein, the question of how the Digital Agenda affects conventional media regulation seems as yet underexposed. The EU’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) as well as national media regulation systems are still fixated on legacy (i.e. analogue) media with their neat separation of channels, usages, ownership structures, and business models.

To take the Digital Agenda seriously would entail looking for an altogether new and overarching approach to this issue as well.

An interesting example for this is the German Federal Network Agency that takes care of competition and consumer interests in just about anything that works along network principles, whether it is telecommunication, rail systems, power grids, or natural gas supply.

It is one of the first attempts at practically implementing the insight that regulation today might above all be about safeguarding an infrastructure that enables both business and the public sphere, rather than stipulating content requirements or controlling property.

Yet, the decision for Kroes – or Kroes’ own initiative to tackle the task, whichever came first – also illustrates a painful deficit in the Digital Agenda to date: that despite all efforts to make it broad enough and to involve society as a whole, the entire discussion inside the EU is lopsided in that it focuses predominantly on the economy and depends almost entirely on business actors, many of them blue-chip companies.

The strategy is about growth and jobs, which is fine, but it neglects considerations of the public sphere and open source initiatives.

This also becomes palpable at the EU-backed Future Internet Assembly, the Public-Private Partnership “Future Internet”, and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s ICT labs project, which are all dominated by the interests of big industry.

The missing corrective

What Europe is still missing is a substantial intellectual debate about the Digital Agenda and its implications for civil society and politics, similar to the one that has developed around the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard with protagonists such as Jonathan Zittrain, Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler, and others.

Notably, all three are law professors, not engineers, but rather than sticking to dry jurisprudence, they are critiquing the wider implications of Internet governance and ICT for society, developing clear-sighted, extremely well-argued, and sometimes even visionary insights.

The US debate is, however, deeply rooted in the specifics of the American constitution and could therefore urgently use adaptation to European traditions and points of view.

Nevertheless, the Harvard discourse illustrates how the entire ICT sector can benefit from knowledgeable semi-outsiders challenging the assertions of industry as well as ICT research efforts and government actions.

But doing this takes a special breed of participants in the discussion: people who navigate the interface between society and technology, who are tech-savvy enough to understand the underlying principles, yet keep a sufficient distance so as to not be blinded by purely technical or business rationales.

It is this kind of innovative and groundbreaking outside-the-box-yet-pragmatic thinking that Europe dearly needs in order to carry its unique philosophical tradition forward and to complement the engineer’s and business developers’ expertise with corrective influence on behalf of society and the public sphere.

Cultural content aggregation initiatives such as Europeana or merely technical directives concerning a common market for rights are great, yet not enough. The Digital Agenda should also extend significant support to independent scholarly analysis of its subject matter and seek guidance and assessment of its activities beyond easily quantifiable parameters.

This includes, by the way, opening the arena for mainstream journalism as well.

Only if the entrenched paradigms of regulation and economic policy are thoroughly revised and put into their wider context, the Digital Agenda will be able to truly coordinate its variety of angles into one consistent and sustainable strategy.

This article was originally published by the European Journalism Centre (EJC).

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Please see also Lenart J. Kučić’s related post (in Slovenian).