“If you want to give people a seat, you need a table first”

The Internet is busted. Huge corporations are calling the shots, extractive business models prevail. And safe and privacy-friendly online spaces have become scarce. How do we move from extractive practices to regenerative ones? How do we retain public control and move to a people-centered internet?

In our research on a Shared Digital Europe and public-civic spaces, we argue that public and civic actors need to build these alternative spaces. And that interoperability is an essential principle, through which they can together form a bigger ecosystem. Over the course of summer, we consulted friends and experts on the question: how do we get to public-civic spaces, what role does interoperability play? And what is holding governments and civil society back to make the shift? In this series we share the insights of these conversations one at a time.

Previously in this series were conversations with Nathan Schneider, Mai Ishikawa Sutton, Jaromil, Geert-Jan Bogaerts and natacha roussel.

This time we chat with Jan-Hendrik Passoth, who is Professor of Sociology of Technology and head of the Science & Technology Studies Group at the European New School of Digital Studies at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) . His research group explores how to build digital infrastructures based on public value, organize software engineering as a responsible social practice, as well as how to integrate arts and critical design in order to change the way digital technologies are developed and understood. Passoth has worked for a long time on the politics of infrastructure and is the co-editor of a book called Agency without Actors: New Models for Collective Action. One central concept in that book is the Latourian concept of non-human agency which is to say that ‘agency’, the capacity to determine things, outcomes, the environment, is not exclusively human, but resides in technologies, protocols, materials , and so on.

Created by Mick van Dijk. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike; CC BY-SA

Passoth has been working on interoperability on different levels. One is his contribution to an interdisciplinary project group at Acatech, the German National Academy of Science and Engineering, which put out a paper in 2020 called European Public Sphere. Towards Digital Sovereignty for Europe that talks about the urgent need for a ‘European Public Sphere’ online, what that could look like and how it might be established. In September 2021, it was taken up by the Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) of the European Commission when Passoth was invited to a public hearing.

A seat at the table

Acatech is an influential group in the German tech-policy landscape but, according to Passoth, it is often also very research and industry-driven. When he thinks back to the writing process, he characterizes  a part of his role to act as a mediator to bring ngo’s and civil society organizations on board, ‘because they make the important points but are often not well-represented in the tech-policy discussions’.

Participation and public accountability are recurring themes in the conversation with Passoth. Interoperability, he argues, is often presented as a technical quick fix to make things more open and collaborative. ‘But this is not just going to happen through the tech stack’. In practice, there are power plays around making systems interoperable, and there will be policy and digital industry players who will have a strong voice about what kind of interoperability we will have.

In other words, it is not the shape of technology that allows interoperability, or even democracy, but the governance of it. Therefore, Passoth argues, it is crucial to give organized civic actors as well as ‘silent voices’ a seat at the table, and we need strong governance forms to make sure these actors keep their seat at the table.

Created by Mick van Dijk. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike; CC BY-SA

‘That’s also where cooperatives can come in’. A cooperative is just one example of how one might structure democratic governance, one which might not scale well or even be too centralized. Perhaps that’s true, Passoth adds, but the practical advantage of a cooperative is that there is an entity, a place where people can effectively be included. If you want to give people a seat, in other words, you need a table first.

Too much faith in the agora

But even a solid table and well-structured civic participation might not be enough, Passoth warns. In the 70s and 80s, Internet governance was fairly transparent, participatory and thereby democratic. Later, this changed. For Passoth, the lesson we can learn from these ‘implemented blueprints for participation’ – like internet standards – is that they can be hijacked. This happens, for example, when big companies and their engineers are overrepresented in efforts to reform the internet or when one single corporation introduces parallel standards (like Huawei’s proposal of an alternative to the Internet Protocol).

 

What is interoperability?
Interoperability is the technical ability to plug one product or service into another product or service. It is also one of the founding principles of the internet, as it has been originally envisioned.
There are many types of interoperability, like indifferent interoperability: think, for instance, of a car manufacturer that doesn’t care about what chargers are plugged in its cars’ standard cigarette lighters) or cooperative interoperability, when a technology developer wants other people and companies to create add-ons that fit the technology (such as phone manufacturers opting for a standard 3.5mm headphone minijack). And there is the opposite of cooperative interoperability, when a technology is downright hostile to others trying to connect, called adversarial interoperability.
There has been a lot of talk about interoperability in activist and policy circles, but not a clear view on what role it might play in developing digital spaces that are not dominated by huge for-profit corporations. There is also a focus on competitive interoperability (which regulates the big players) and not enough talk about generative interoperability, sustaining new ecosystems. You can read more about this in our background stories on interoperability and how we got to work with it: Interoperability 1: Policymaking is Worldbuilding and Interoperability 2: The Fork in the Road.

 

‘It seems to me  that there’s too much faith in the agora’, Passoth claims, arguing that it is not enough to create open and participatory processes. ‘The consensus seems to be  that if we create participatory formats, then we will have democratic regimes. But democracy works not only through the agora, but also through its institutions, and representation does not only mean allowing the place at the table, but actually creating the need for participation as well, even if it’s a burden sometimes’. So instead of an “open agora”, we need specific institutional setups that will enable participation, and help to deal with power imbalances.

Hard work

The Data Governance Act – proposed by the European Commission in 2020 and provisionally approved by the European Parliament and Council – threw ‘data cooperatives’ in the mix of possible strategies for a fairer internet. An interesting, but barely developed proposal.

But treating promising governance structures like cooperatives as organizational fixes often  ignores another important aspect: that their implementation and maitenance is complicated, hard work and often ‘messy’. Passoth: ‘Just look at the world of coops that we already have, in health, in food delivery, these realities are not so romantic, right?’ He has a ‘heart  for cooperatives and the idea of using them for governing data sharing. But at the same time, he argues that we must learn again from the history of cooperatives, of real life cases, and realize how complicated cooperative organizing is.

Created by Mick van Dijk. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike; CC BY-SA

Interoperability’s image of being a technical or organizational ‘quick fix’ for a fairer internet directly contradicts this ‘messy’ reality. Take discussions about what kind of interoperability is needed, for instance, about whose standards are in the API’s, about what types of interface are used or about what data formats are opted for. In this sense, interoperability means hard practical work, especially when you make a case for participation or even cooperative governance.

Tick-the-box-exercise

Does or could interoperability lead to unfavorable outcomes, we ask Passoth. He shares a more common fear that it might, especially when it comes to control over components that make up the digital sphere. That’s why he ‘always’ stresses that interoperability as a tech-political goal is a very limiting frame. ‘Take messaging. A check-the-interoperability-box exercise would mean that, if you send the message from Whatsapp, you can receive it in Telegram. But who actually gets to monitor the transmission, who has the data on that, who can collect the metadata? This is not defined, sometimes not even discussed’.

Thus, merely creating technical interoperability is just one step of the way, says Passoth. It might not immediately lead to unfavorable outcomes, but it does leave control over technologies to the players that are currently running them. Such models of interoperability don’t touch the business model of the big players, like a certain standard or data format, keeping the power structures intact or even reinforcing them. ‘The question is: can we do more?’

Having put too much faith in the ‘agora’ and participation, what are possible alternative solutions? Passoth points to institutions. ‘A solution can be to have certain types of transparency obligations or accountability obligations for industry, not only in terms of data use but also in terms of what kinds of formats and standards are used. Public institutions or agencies acting in the public interest can be charged with this responsibility’. These new institutions, supported by public and civic actors, are crucial for ensuring and maintaining the balance of power in interoperable ecosystems.

 


This blog series is a co-production of Commons Network and Open Future in the context of the joint project Shared Digital Europe.