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