Digital Rights on top of the agenda

The corona pandemic – and especially the development of a Dutch corona-app, has reignited debate about online security and digital rights. This week, for instance, there was RESET, an online conference that spoke about these issues in a session on Digital Rights. In this post we reflect on thought-provoking parts of the conversation and connect it with our own work in the digital domain, manifested in the Shared Digital Europe report.

Talking about online security and Digital Rights seems inevitable. Inevitable because of our digitalized day and age and the online reality of surveillance capitalism, inevitable because of the online conference’s very setting. But inevitable too because the Dutch government’s plans for developing a ‘corona app’ has stirred up much-needed debate about technology, its uses, potentials and dangers.

What is not inevitable though, but seemingly is, is the introduction of technologies into ever expanding areas of society and life, being promoted as solutions to diverse kinds of personal or societal challenges. During the Digital Rights session, Marleen Stikker, founder of Waag, sheds a different light: “Data-based policy, for me, indicates a lack of social, relational capital and networks.”

Technology-critical does not mean anti-technology

The Digital Rights session kicked off about digital rights: civil rights for the digital sphere. What would these entail? Why are they important? Personal privacy quickly comes to mind, but it is only half the story.

Digital ‘human’ rights has an inherent individual-centric approach, putting much responsibility on individuals. Our paper argues that “individuals should not be burdened with governing a part of society which is as enormous and complex as the digital space”. Complex and lengthy ‘privacy and cookie statements’ that confront us on a daily basis, illustrate this burden. Digital rights are important, but only part of the equation.

We need to look at systems, organizational models and algorithms driving the technologies we use and trust. In the Digital Rights session, Marleen Stikker, strikingly notes that technology or the internet itself is not the problem, the models and systems driving it are. Adding that when you say you are critical about technology, it does not mean that you are anti-technology, but that you want technologies to be safe and reliable.

Digital sovereignty and the commons

Stikker and her partner in conversation Ger Baron, chief technology officer at the municipality of Amsterdam, emphasized the need for ‘digital sovereignty’ as a digital right: the right to control your own data, how it is used, by whom and for what purpose. Or in Baron’s words: to act on one’s own will. Sovereignty, when stretched to apply to communities an societies instead of just individuals, comes close to a commons approach, we note.

When you look at personal data from a commons perspective, you see a valuable good that needs to self-stewarded by a community of people that produces them in the first place. Sovereignty, or self-determination, in this sense, amounts to a different, non-extractive but generative, model for data collection, storage and use. All the while people maintain their ability to fully participate in online social life.

The road towards a shared digital sphere

For the last 10 years, the European Union has focused on regulating the digital space towards building a Digital Single Market in Europe. This approach, guided by the principles of competition, innovation and market centrality, does not suffice to address challenges that are ahead of us. We need something that is society-centric and centers around regenerative, democratic and just approaches, safeguarding values such as autonomy, self-determination and privacy.

How to get there? During the RESET session, Stikker and UvA-researcher Sarah Esken, point to some major (future) shortcomings in the Dutch digital policy framework: We don’t have a (digital) domain where citizens are in the driver’s seat collectively and have access to financing – a commons sector;  we don’t have a minister for Digital Affairs that can put digital issues on the agenda permanently; and usually, there is not enough room for extensive testing of the workings and underlying dynamics of innovative hardware, protocols and apps. The remarkable example being the corona app, which is investigated rigourously now that it is under heavy public scrutiny in the Netherlands.

The Shared Digital Europe paper overlaps and builds on these notes by proposing four basic guidelines that could inform policy in the digital realm in order to arrive at a model for a safe and reliable internet that is open to all. Collective Self-Determination and Commons Cultivation are among them, but also Decentralisation of Infrastructure and the need for Empowering Public Institutions. Perhaps, indeed, starting with a minister for Digital Affairs.

Read the Shared Digital Europe paper here.