Some 180 participants representing a variety of lobby groups, associations, and other interests attended the Digital Agenda Stakeholders Day on 25 October 2010, ranging from big business to one-person companies, from Member States’ ministries to independent think tanks, and from research organisations to associations serving the disabled. The European Commission was out in full force as well, spearheaded by Vice President Neelie Kroes in person. I was kindly invited to take part, too.
I am however torn whether the event was disappointing or democracy at work.
To the Commission’s credit, they were venturous enough to experiment with a new staged grass-roots workshop methodology that was supposed to boil down about 200 wildly disparate ideas submitted by the participants beforehand to all of seven with majority appeal in the course of the day.
The purpose of the exercise was to launch projects that will be presented in a semi-finished state at the June 2011 high-level Digital Assembly summit.
As a prerequisite, each participant was assigned to a small thematic group to explain his or her original proposal and to contribute to the respective group’s common suggestion. This approach makes a lot of sense: if all stakeholders concerned with copyright or all associations serving vulnerable groups work together, they might actually form a coalition that is able to actually achieve something good.
On the other hand, many participants found themselves in groups they were somewhat alien to; all those who did not precisely fit into one of the pre-defined activity areas were placed less congenially, if not at random. Consequently, their proposals became unlikely candidates in the first place to make it through the negotiating and voting process that ensued.
So I guess that was the unavoidable trade-off. You could have either a small number of rather global proposals or a hardly manageable abundance of very (if not overly) concrete ones, but not both. I am not sure whether the consolidation mechanism applied at the Stakeholders Day was appropriate, but I concede that it would have been pretty difficult to implement a better one – some methodological glitches in detail notwithstanding.
On the other hand, is the Digital Agenda not expressly supposed to be a concerted yet multi-track effort, literally working hundreds of angles at the same time? Perhaps there just are no stakeholders of the Digital Agenda as a whole, only stakeholders of a number of particular Digital Agenda subsections. Is the Agenda therefore too encompassing a policy after all?
Through several rounds of mutual presentations, refinements of the resulting proposals, and votes throughout the day, the final seven were selected and eventually presented to the Commissioner. Here they are:
(1) Set up a project that puts user needs at the centre of all ICT development with a view to developing better technology for all users in an iterative process: survey needs, produce, evaluate, survey needs at the newly achieved level, and so on;
(2) Set up a cooperative framework to ensure inclusion and digital literacy for all groups at risk to be left behind by the current manifestations of ICT, with a special focus on personalising services and inspiring user participation in creating them (disclaimer: that was the group I got assigned to);
(3) Improve the conditions for ICT business start-ups by creating a European “Digital Valley” (modelled after the famous Silicon Valley) and by investing in local talent to keep it from going abroad;
(4) Launch an initiative to roll out community-driven broadband networks in areas where commercial Internet access providers neglect to offer them by tapping into local financial resources and expertise;
(5) Create common standards for open data provided by governments and other organisations in order to render the data better usable across thematic domains and across national borders for mash-ups and data-driven journalism;
(6) Issue a single European electronic identity to consumers in order to boost the EU’s single market on the Internet by providing added security and trust for e-commerce;
(7) Introduce standardised machine-readable copyright clearance mechanisms to enable the fast and easy clearing and settlement of license rights for the myriads of digital objects circulating the Internet, while at the same time solving the issue of private copying levies.
All of the above suggestions certainly have merit, and it is too early yet to get into them in detail. First, they will need to proceed from the idea stage to more elaborated initiatives. Some may still be dropped and replaced by proposals that did not make it into the original top seven.
Commissioner Kroes repeated her admonishment that Europe is “not in the driver’s seat” of global ICT-related developments. To my mind, one of the reasons for this was exemplified by the Brussels event: The overall perspective is pretty hard to keep when individual stakeholders advocate particular interests without a proper framework of informed civil society awareness of what is at stake. This debate is taking place in the US right now, while Europe as yet remains derivative at best.
This article was originally published by the European Journalism Centre (EJC).
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