Bottom up digital sovereignty in Europe
This, living and constantly updated, post documents grassroots attempts of cultivating technology and data for the citizens' good from the 90's until now in different European cities.
As with the previous post which traces politically/industry driven digital sovereignty, this one is a labor of independent research as I go about reading and here's how I'd unpack different terms in the very first sentence to help explain what the following is about:
- “Grassroots” refers to independent researchers, open source advocates and members of local/administrative politics who've come together to address the effect of digital on the civic. There are many activist groups and startups who have designed solutions and indeed do fall into the same category but unfortunately – so far at least – I'm unable to cover them.
- “Cultivating” – observed ex post from what's documented below – happens via simplifying hardware and software to extend access to the masses. Bear in mind that by the 90s computers were widely used in many companies but it was still a professional rather than a personal/consumer domain.
- “Technology and data” – that's primarily personal(ly identifying) data from public services (communicating with other citizens, consuming public media and exercising democracy, health, finance, movement..etc) that is gathered on centralised platforms/technology and carried via cameras and other devices placed on streets.
- “90's until now in different European cities” – hopefully I find older initiatives to document and so far winding the clock three decades back. In what I found, I noticed that the projects took place in individual cities. Some projects were running in parallel in more than one city but nothing scaled to be adopted EU wide (unlike industrial projects).
In 1992, the French programmer Valentin Lacambre sought to connect the country's Minitel system. The free hosting platform that he built was called Altern and “allowed any person with an Internet access to open her online storage space to publish websites and manage emails accounts”.
As activity grew on the platform, the founder started receiving requests and complaints for being accountable for what users were posting on the platform. The debate around “intermediary liability” which was taking place in Europe and in the US at the time centred around Altern.
This culminated in a court ruling which held “Lacambre liable for the content of its users because it gave them a free and allegedly anonymous channel to broadcast their voices”. In response, the founder shut down the platform and its 47,000 websites in 1999. This became known as the “Altern Affair” and is referred to in the context of resisting online censorship.
From 1993 to 1999 Amsterdam’s De Digitale Stad was a “citizen-oriented network open to all Amsterdam residents through dial-in access points and public terminals”. It worked by motivating people to buy a modem and plug in into the city’s portal. The city’s vibrant squatter culture shaped The Digital State project's growing network by “situating it within a pre-existing tradition of media appropriation, activism, and organising”.
Users could visit the “post office” (to send emails), exchange gossip in virtual cafés, visit a number of themed city “squares,” and debate public issues all online in an attempt to empower citizens to embrace the new virtual frontier. “For the first time in the Netherlands, a computer environment came into existence where Dutch was spoken and where the agenda was set by Dutch social morals and codes.”
The start-up capital for the Digital City was 300,000 Guilders (≈ €140,000) and the city agreed to finance a 10-week pilot project ahead of the upcoming municipal elections. As the Internet had suddenly become commercial, the dynamics of the project was shut down in 1999.
Iperbole – launched in 1995 – was the second civic network in Europe and the first in the world providing free Internet access to citizenship. Created in Italy in Bologna, it was interpreted more than as a simple public service; it was part of a wider political vision aimed at using technological tools such as the Internet for the active participation of citizenship and as an attempt to “embed the Internet and the distributed model of communication within a longstanding project of political democratisation”.
Created by a Bologna council member and a language philosopher, Iperbole was an acronym that stood for “Internet “For” Bologna and Emilia Romagna”. According to its observers, that the project was launched and conceived before the widespread commercialisation of The Internet, helped rally the city behind it as being on the forefront of new technology.
During the 90s, 15% of the city's residents had emails and personal access to email (a high figure compared to other G7 countries at the time). Two years into the project, 200 local organisations had a web presence on the platform.
As commercialisation solved the issue of widespread access to and communication over IP, data ownership inspired the next generation of popular digital sovereignty projects.
DECODE – short for Decentralised Citizens Owned Data Ecosystem – was piloted in Barcelona and Amsterdam in 2018 and 2019 to provide “tools that put individuals in control of whether they keep their personal information private or share it for the public good”. The dangers of the ubiquity of centralised and uncontrolled by their rightful owners data extend from digital identity to IoT and public institutions.
The pilots focused on IoT to help citizens control the usage of the devices and the information created. Once created that information was stored in data commons for access by other citizens. Funded by the European Commission, the project was made up of 14 members from Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, France and the UK.