“Developing a network of trust”
10 Feb 2022
In a series of interviews we portray our Culture of Solidarity Fund grantees. The grantee featured here successfully applied to round 4: Culture of Solidarity in times of an infodemic.
Built upon the quintessential European values of trust and solidarity, the project ‘European Cultural Backbone 2.0’ (ECB2.0) aspires to launch a digital infrastructure in the form of a federated system where cross-European nodes of broadcasting services, disseminators of audiovisual content, and media outlets collaboratively participate on a single platform. European Cultural Backbone 2.0 envisages a decentralised network that facilitates the exchange of content, metadata and audiences between nodes. The open source software package that will make this federation possible will be created collectively during a hackathon and will be called REPCO, short for ‘replication & collector’.
Initially conceived by Cultural Broadcasting Archive (DE), freie-radios.net (DE), AMARC Europe (European chapter of World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters), and arso (DE), now the project has expanded to include Irish Near Media Co-op, the Catalan community media platform, t!S* (transcending!nSOLIDARITY), and PublicSpaces (NL).
What has inspired you to devise this project?
The disruptive transformation of the “public” through digitization has led to monopolising structures on the Internet that make Europe dependent – both at an infrastructural level and politically – on non-European private and state players. At the same time, these structures undermine our democratic order.
Various approaches embrace similar values that commonly mention the involvement of civil society as a critical factor, yet without providing any detail regarding how such involvement should transpire.
We want the vision of a European Digital Public Space to be discussed and realised in concrete terms as a network of platforms run by civil society.
Why do we need European digital infrastructures? What other urgencies do you address?
By itself, platform regulation is insufficient to break the dependency on US and Chinese platforms. For the mid- to long-term, rather, Europe needs a sovereign digital infrastructure based on European values of its own; an important component is democratic governance, whereby the involvement of civil society may serve as a litmus test for democratic maturity.
The contribution of ECB 2.0 to a European digital public space is based on the four principles of a shared digital Europe, summarized as: i) a decentralized infrastructure; ii) self-determination; iii) cultivating the Commons; and iv) empowering public institutions. These principles correlate closely with the European values presented in the German Academy of Science and Engineering’s (acatech) IMPULS paper on shaping Europe’s digital sovereignty: namely, diversity and openness, transparency and accountability, competition and the public wealth, and individual rights and collective purposes. The aim, then, is to secure these principles and values using ECB 2.0 methods, organisation and technical design that ensure a rights-based, people-centred alternative to commercial platforms.
What does a decentralised and federated network look like? What sorts of mechanisms and procedures make this type of organisation possible, and what are its essential qualities?
The central element of ECB 2.0 is a decentralised, federated network that can be structured in a way to provide the basic guardrails for a comprehensive plurality. Rather than a “Euro-Tube” approach, a network of extendable, existing European infrastructures can be created, so that the diversity of providers itself would lead to desired plurality. Essential, however, is to avoid the kind of market-focused logic that inevitably leads to the domination of commercial enterprises. Instead, a system that interlaces commercial with non-commercial public players should be created.
Platforms replicate their metadata where each independently decides which of them is replicated and displayed. The federated structure protects content against being blocked by politically repressive state institutions. Platforms use algorithmic search and recommendation systems in order to share content and audiences. To ensure transparency, their operational functions will be visible throughout the network. The ECB 2.0 developer community will make tools such as speech recognition, translation tools, metadata replication (repco) and recommendation systems available as open source which provide the technical basis for metadata enrichment and exchange. The aim is to settle with other platforms from PSM [Platform Specific Model] and OpenGLAM [Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums] areas on general standards for building a common ecosystem that supports sustainable technology development.
In terms of content and organisation, the participating platforms are closely aligned and each has its own system of community moderation. They’re committed to basic liberties, especially freedom of expression, and advocate respectful and appreciative communication. Each node internally defines and implements its own policies and then automatically communicates its decisions with other nodes, which, in turn, may decide whether or not to follow suit through their own moderation. This way the necessary work is divided up while maintaining and preserving the editorial autonomy of each separate node.
On the basis of these shared values and living practice, a “network of trust” should develop and, out of this, a constructive digital public space can evolve.
In the medium term, automated translation could help overcome language barriers, allowing the network to expand as a European content distribution system.
Can you briefly explain REPCO and how it works?
A special set of technical tools is required to establish a democratically constituted kind of networking without seeking to replace existing, independent infrastructures, by employing technology that transforms contextual collaborations and intersections into public-generating practice. The technical basis for this undertaking is an existing, decentralized network of self-managed “nodes” that allow the exchange of metadata across platforms, so that the content of each platform may be accessed using common search functions and recommendation systems.
Therefore REPCO will be an easy-to-use open source software package that supports this smooth integration of content from existing platforms via open APIs [application programming interface] and standards (e.g., RSS feeds). The goal is to transfer data from diverse platforms into a common data model, an efficiently mapped intersection that incorporates data from all partners without requiring the creation of a new, all-encompassing standard. Existing platforms and media projects such as radio and podcast platforms and archives of recordings and past events serve as a starting point.
A Wikidata search on the topic of climate change, for example, might then deliver results from the German FRN , whereas users of Spanish language content might receive recommendations from CBA as well as from the Catalan platform XRCB or the Irish partners.
Does ECB 2.0 fit into a lineage of similar endeavours? How would you historically situate this project?First steps for discussing and creating such a network were already undertaken over 20 years ago when the technical requirements and standards weren‘t yet respectively available for civil society players.
Under the term “Tactical media”, strategies for using activist artistic and technical methods for political and media intervention have been widely discussed and tested to challenge dominant structures in society and develop new means of producing and distributing media in a digital sphere. Facing the platform monopoly and wide distortion of the public discourse the political need for having independent infrastructures as well as democratic technical tools is even much stronger today.
The initial European Cultural Backbone protagonists in 1999 were initiatives like Public Netbase, c3, deBalie, deWaag, Ljudmila, Ars Electronica, V2, and others.
Granted: 40000 euros