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Vintage photograph of a child and an adult working on a 1970s computer, with the words 'L'information a la portee de tous'
JR 01 scientific computer
Jouets rationnels
Deventer Musea
The Netherlands
Vintage photograph of a child and an adult working on a 1970s computer, with the words 'L'information a la portee de tous'

This position paper supports the consultation of the European Commission on the principles that should underpin Europe’s digital landscape and underlines elements that we believe are critical to realising the potential of digital cultural heritage for Europe’s future.

It is a joint position from the Europeana Foundation, Europeana Network Association, and Europeana Aggregators’ Forum. 

Challenges to Europe’s digital ambition

The COVID 19 pandemic has accentuated societal issues and inequalities across countries, sectors and communities. It has clearly underlined the importance of digital access for Europe’s citizens, institutions and businesses, while also highlighting the deep digital divides that exist. 

Access to, and the use of, digital services and platforms is no longer an innovation or a ‘nice to have’ - it is an essential resource for citizens and organisations, both public and commercial. Ensuring a level playing field to guarantee that access and use of digital technologies, for example by addressing the need for shared standards and interoperability of data and systems, is a necessity. It is clear that creating a strong digital foundation for all is not just more important than ever, but absolutely vital to Europe’s future. 

Importantly, we also now understand that the opportunities provided by digital technologies must be viewed in the context of the wider socio-economic challenges that society faces. For example, global issues such as climate change and digital technologies cannot be seen as belonging to separate realms, but rather as key areas of research, education, creativity and knowledge-sharing shared across many sectors and online. The internet has promised universal access to knowledge; the promotion of critical engagement with online content that fosters inclusivity, diversity and understanding is essential to shaping a more equitable society. 

Europe’s current digital landscape challenges that ambition and potential. 

Citizens, public organisations, civic initiatives and commercial enterprises have all become increasingly reliant on the services of a small number of for-profit media platforms. The resulting imbalance of power over the media landscape and public discourse has raised challenges around, and concerns on how to address issues such as privacy, misinformation, and biases. 

To date, the digital policy focus on infrastructure and technologies has not provided the necessary counter to this environment. However, there has been a growing recognition in civic, political and policy circles of the importance of a values-based response.

The need for a values-based European digital landscape

In its Communication Digital Compass: the European way for the Digital Decade the Commission explicitly recognises that focusing only on digital infrastructures, skills and capabilities is not a sufficient approach for defining Europe’s digital future. These key elements must be balanced with the dual approach of ensuring a fair and secure digital environment. 

A values-based European digital landscape that helps nurture more democratic and inclusive societies, is therefore essential to ensuring a level playing field for all people in the EU to access and leverage the full potential of digital.

Towards a rights-based, people-centred approach

In this context, the Europeana Foundation, Network Association and Aggregators’ Forum, collectively representing the Europeana Initiative, strongly support a rights-based, people-centred approach to the concept of digital citizenship and the development of principles that promote a more equitable and democratic digital environment in which

  • basic liberties and rights are protected online, 

  • sovereignty of data is protected,

  • public institutions are empowered to function in the public interest, and 

  • people are able to participate more fully in the creation, functioning and potential of their digital environment.  

Universal access to cultural heritage in an open, inclusive and democratic digital environment

The principles proposed by the European Commission in this consultation are important. They are also diverse and wide-ranging, reflecting the nature of digital technologies, their potential applications, and the citizens, institutions and organisations that access and use them. Their common thread is the promotion of democratic access to open and sustainable digital technologies and skills. 

The Europeana Initiative recognises the relevance and importance of these principles through its work with the cultural heritage sector, and we believe that we have useful insights to share on them. However we believe that a fundamental principle is missing - that of universal access to cultural heritage online

Europeana was established by the European Commission in response to a call from Member States that the future of Europe’s digital heritage was too important to leave to commercial forces. That call understood the importance of the role of culture in society and foreshadowed the role that digital would play in our lives. 

Europeana’s focus is on supporting the cultural heritage sector in its digital transformation  because access to cultural heritage is vital to humankind - to our knowledge and understanding of who we are, where we've come from and what we can become. Democratising access to cultural heritage online, in ways that support inclusivity, innovation, creativity, education and knowledge sharing, is at the heart of Europeana’s purpose. And a cultural heritage sector embracing digital is a sustainable, relevant and resilient sector, contributing to a Europe with a growing economy, increased employment and improved well-being for all.
We work with Europe’s cultural heritage institutions to ensure that digital cultural heritage is shared in formats and of a quality which allows use and reuse by researchers and educators, creatives and innovators, and all citizens. Our work promotes the use of digital technology that makes cultural heritage online accessible, traceable and trustworthy, which in turn means people can explore it, use it, be inspired by it and learn from it with confidence. It contributes to an open, knowledgeable and creative society.
The role of digital technologies in enabling access to culture as a means of promoting inclusivity, creativity, critical engagement, education and knowledge-sharing, is essential to empowering citizens and creating fairer societies. 
Ensuring the principle of universal and continuing access to culture online will be fundamental to achieving that goal.  

We also believe that the proposed principle of a secure and trusted online environment does not go far enough if our digital landscape is to truly reflect the values-based society that Europe aspires to. It is not enough to aspire to an alternative to Big Tech, we must actively build it. To that end, we propose that this principle be expanded to encompass the concept and development of an open, decentralised, and trusted European digital public space. A digital public space that is built on democratic values and public digital infrastructure, and that ensures an inclusive, rights-based, people-centred alternative.

Views on proposed principles

In this context, the Europeana Foundation, Network Association and Aggregators’ Forum, collectively representing the Europeana Initiative, strongly support the principles of: 

Universal Access to internet services, noting:

  • Historically, heritage institutions have been at the forefront of making democratic access to information a reality, so that everyone has access to and can be empowered by the worlds’ knowledge. In the online world, this translates to ensuring that everyone has access to internet services - promoting equality and removing barriers to access to digital content. Our sector feels it has a duty to support this principle to defend universal access to information and knowledge.
  • Through access to internet services, people are able to access cultural heritage and cultural heritage sites without the time, cost and carbon footprint of travel. This enables a democratic access to knowledge, including for a wide variety of purposes, and therefore greater potential for new strands of thought and innovation.   
  • Access to Internet services should also include mobile access, including for example 4/5G, to serve all people, including those in remote areas where hard infrastructure might not be available due to a lack of incentive for commercial services. However, means of addressing the entry barriers to those mobile services, including financial, must also be considered.

A secure and trusted online environment, noting:

  • That the proposed principle does not go far enough and should be expanded to the principle of an open, decentralised, trusted European digital public space, built on democratic values and public digital infrastructure that ensures a rights-based, people-centred alternative to commercial platforms. 
  • Cultural heritage institutions - large and small - are the trusted guardians of the world’s heritage and knowledge, open to and sharing that knowledge with the public. That safe, trusted and open access space must be mirrored in the digital environment. 
  • Digital technologies and expertise can, and must be, used to ensure our shared cultural heritage remains accessible, authentic, trustworthy and traceable online.  Shared standards and interoperability can support this, allowing knowledge and culture to flow, and helping people to connect. 
  • The Europeana Initiative strives to promote a secure and trusted online environment, creating a digital space for culture where the rights of users are respected, where reliable, trustworthy data and information are exchanged, and where people are informed and confident on the possibilities to safely and legally reuse items they access. This is evidenced by our work on the Public Domain Charter, the CC0 release of millions of items, and the adoption of the ‘Commons’ as a guiding principle. 

Universal digital education and skills for people to take an active part in society and in democratic processes, noting:

  • The realities of educational infrastructure, resources as well as skills and expertise vary vastly across the EU, and those differences have become further pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular in the digital sphere.
  • The development of digital competences must include both educators and learners, throughout all appropriate levels, areas of education and stages of life. 
  • Cultural heritage institutions are valuable resources and places for non-formal education, however there are numerous barriers to accessing their actual contribution to building lifelong learning infrastructures. Digital provides both an imperative and means by which to bring both formal and non-formal educational spaces together.
  • The need to provide the opportunity to build digital skills for all citizens, those in formal education and those who are lifelong learners.
  • The need for ever greater emphasis on accessibility in terms of visual, audio, cognitive and physical usability to ensure that older, digitally challenged, or less able citizens can access online resources to support their equitable participation in society. 

Access to digital systems and devices that respect the environment, noting:

  • Digital services and devices have their own carbon footprint and ecological impact. Part of capacity building for digital skills level should include education on how to measure and minimise that impact. For example using renewable energy, switching to service providers that use renewable energy, turning off servers that are no longer used, and measuring baseline carbon footprint and then working to reduce it. The ecological impact of digital should be weighed against the benefit, adopting a digital approach where there is real tangible benefit to the user and society.

Accessible and human-centric digital public services and administration, noting:

  • Cultural Heritage Institutions are  understood to be driven by the public interest, to make access to culture universal, and they strive to ensure that purpose informs their online role and presence also. 

Ethical principles for human centric algorithms, noting: 

  • Democratising  access to cultural heritage through digital technology means doing so in ways that recognise and are able to address the challenges of algorithmic bias,  and support better understanding of data and its validity countering a lack of representation and the growing threats of disinformation and deep fakes.
  • Developing AI specific undergraduate study programmes, in line with European digital values, and the use of such technologies to support inclusivity and representation in educational resources, is of the essence. 
  • A human-centric and ethical approach to Artificial Intelligence (AI) should be further developed at EU level for cultural heritage based on the European Commission’s White paper on Artificial Intelligence - A European approach to excellence and trust - and adopted at Member State level.

Protecting and empowering children in the online space, noting: 

  • Digital content, tools and services have the potential to democratise access to cultural heritage and therefore knowledge for all including children and young people. However, this must be done in ways that support inclusivity, creativity, and critical engagement in education and knowledge sharing if they are to truly have the opportunity to contribute to a more equitable and inclusive society. 
  • The promotion of media literacy and critical thinking through the use and analysis of trustworthy primary sources has the potential to empower children and young people in a digital environment full of disinformation. Cultural heritage institutions are an important source of reliable, trustworthy and high quality digital content for education at all levels. 
  • Cultural heritage institutions are key providers of digital resources for supporting learning and creativity, and there is a need to address issues ensuring the reusability and interoperability of those resources.
  • Empowering children online means that they must first be online; this principle is therefore closely linked to the principles of universal access to internet services and universal digital education and skills. The underlying imperative that no-one is left behind must inform Europe’s digital approach, recognising and supporting those that lack equitable access to online services, resources or educational environments, including children and young people.
  • It is important to recognise how, when and where children engage with digital content to be able to protect them and ensure they interact only with content suitable for their age. 

Access to health services online, noting:

  • The proven positive impact that engagement with culture can have on mental health, social and community interaction as well as for well being, and the potential for digital access to culture to provide opportunities for all people to benefit from that impact.