The EU’s Digital Agenda Assembly and No-Disconnect-Strategy

Working Breakfast on Internet Freedom

I attended this event on June 21st in Brussels. It was hosted by Freedom House and MEP Marietje Schaake, who has been active in promoting human rights online (e.g. see her video message to the Rio de Janeiro Human Rights & Technology Conference). The event gave an overview of the EU’s No-Disconnect-Strategy, an effort to support activists and promote Internet Freedom. A number of EU officials as well as online activists from various countries were present. Although it was agreed that participant names would be kept confidential, I believe I can share the following notes:

The No-Disconnect-Strategy has 4 pillars:

  1. Development and deployment of technologies to promote Internet Freedom
  2. Training and awareness for activists
  3. Guidance for businesses about (anti-)censorship technologies
  4. Development of European capabilities for situational awareness (monitoring the state of online censorship)

One EU Commission representative stated that civil society too often focuses on criticizing, and that it has a bad track record of making useful proposals. The question on how to fund the development of anti-censorship technologies came up. While the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) is the EU’s primary instrument for research, it is also known to be complex and not easily accessible. One more flexible alternative might be the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. Another question was the relationship of EU Internet Freedom programs with similar efforts in the US, such as the FreedomBox, or the Open Internet Tools Project. While participants of the meeting said that such coordination is happening and that projects should be complementary, it was also mentioned that European values are very different from American values, and that the EU should be leading in the field of Internet Freedom.

Digital Agenda Assembly - Workshop

One June 21st, I also participated in the DAA workshop about Social Media. There was a strong focus on economic aspects of social media services, and on the question on how they can help to create jobs and growth in the EU. Besides creating “digital jobs”, social media can also be used as business tools and lead to new economic models. One participant stated that Facebook was a walled garden and asked whether it would not be better to have social media that is more decentralized and pluralistic. The highly disappointing answer from the panel was that Facebook was not a walled garden, because everybody was on it anyway, and that therefore there were no walls between its users.

Digital Agenda Assembly - Plenary

June 22nd was the day of the plenary session. The video recordings can be found here.

Juliana Rotich - Executive Director of Ushahidi - gave a keynote speech. Some of the points she made were:

  • The Internet provides “lateral” opportunities to get views “from the ground”.
  • Data scientists will be needed to make sense of “big data” and do good for society.
  • In Africa, mobile phones and mobile money are transformative powers.
  • Personal data is everywhere, and it can be used for mining and inference. It can create new economic and social opportunities if the data is allowed to flow rather than be locked in, and regulation must not lose sight of this potential, however, there are also privacy concerns.

Besides giving an introduction of Ushahidi and enumerating a number of impressive success stories, she also touched on a few other projects and technologies, e.g. Global Voices, M-Pesa, Mxit, mySociety, and Personal. Two random quotes from her speech:

  • “We need trailblazers, not gatekeepers.”
  • “Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.”

A panel titled “Everybody online and empowered” followed. Some takeaways:

  • Simply being online is not enough. Information must be 1. available, 2. accessible, and 3. usable. More software for inclusion of e.g. handicapped people is needed.
  • Will we get to “Every European Digital”? We should be very ambitious.
  • The right to be forgotten, as well as the right to not be online at all must be respected. Many 50+ citizens are terrified of new technologies.
  • Digital skills of parliamentarians are important (“Nerds in Parliament”). There is a problem with politicians’ knowledge about technology.
  • Democracy must find legitimacy in these changing times. It will only be strong if it also listens to minority voices. It is important to find and consider all opinions (those on Twitter are not everybody).

In the closing speech of the day, Robert Madelin of the EU Commission’s Directorate-General for Information Society and Media (“DG Connect”) noted that high-speed legislation is needed for a high-speed Europe, that the goal should be to connect more people more evenly, that innovative funding mechanisms should be developed, and that the Digital Agenda’s work must be personal, easy, and urgent.

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