Category Archives: Europeana

Gambling with our souls: why Brexit and the EU’s deal with Turkey are bad ideas.

In collaboration with Anthony Zacharzewski – Translated and reposted from CheFuturo

European leaders have a deal with the Turkish government. It works like this: Syrian refugees cannot go on from Greece into other EU countries. We are sending them back to Turkey instead. For each one we send back, we pick another from Turkish camps and admit her to Europe. Turkey gets a revamping of its EU accession talks, easier visas for Turks coming into Europe, and money. But what does Europe get in return?

Not much, it seems. Policy experts think the one-for-one scheme is unworkable. The Greek state, understaffed after years of austerity, does not have the capacity to deliver it. Aid agencies think it is “inhumane“. The UNHCR questions the credibility of the safeguards intended to protect vulnerable asylum seekers. European diplomats expect the deal to be brought before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Traffickers will likely see an increase in their grim business.

Chances are the scheme won’t work. And if it did, it might make things worse. Not just for those who crossed desert and sea to get stuck in Greece. For Europeans too. Economists have long done the maths and shown that migrants are net contributors to European welfare states (survey). Migrants are on average younger, more educated and more entrepreneurial than natives. For all their disadvantages, Syrians managed to start 415 companies in Turkey in the first two months of 2016. Without migrants, our aging population would soon be unable to support itself (source). Immigration is good for growth, which is why business leaders want more of it.

So, EU leaders have locked themselves in an unworkable deal and a humanitarian disaster. In so doing, they also crippled their own economies. What’s going on here?

The easy answer is: politics. With twenty years of steady growth suddenly brought to a stop and in many places put into reverse, Europe has spawned populist parties – often ethnic nationalists, always anti-government and anti-EU. They target the disgruntled, those who have lost out from the new high-education, high-skill jobs market. The populists draw on resentment, but offer no real change – just the simple, clear and wrong solution to each country’s problems: stop the migrants!

Economic crisis has brought these parties to prominence, but economic growth tomorrow would not cause them to wither, because they draw their real strength from a deeper problem: we have allowed ourselves to forget what Europe is about.

Europe was never about standards – though they support innovation and growth, and give consumers and business confidence. Standards are just a tool to develop the European single market. And the single market itself is just a machine designed to prevent war.

Europe is about peace. Peace initiatives have happened before, but the European Union is self-reinforcing. Over the decades, EU institutions have enabled, and we the people have built, a dense web of relationships. First it was international trade; then education (Erasmus, anyone?); then business partnerships; then thousands and thousands friendships and marriages. War has become unviable, unthinkable.

This was never meant to stop at our borders. Peace and prosperity through trade is also our foreign policy. Countries at our borders like that, so they want in. And we obliged, letting more and more countries in. We wisely invested in the less developed ones, using European funds to upgrade their infrastructure. They rewarded us by blooming into prosperous countries, with solid middle classes eager to buy German cars, Italian design, British financial services. Ireland, then Spain, then Estonia, then Romania.

The caravan still rolls on, beyond Europe’s present borders. The Balkans were at war only twenty years ago. Now they are at peace, and getting prosperous. They like us there, and we like them back. We are good neighbours. We fund highways, libraries and public buildings at a fraction of what a military presence would cost. We have prestige and influence. We can navigate the region speaking English, German, Italian. We can pay in euro everywhere. All countries are getting in the accession queue.

Everybody aspires to be us, because peace, upholding human rights and free trade work. Gun-toting nationalistic empires don’t. Ask the Ukrainians: they could be part of the last old school empire in Europe, Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. But they appear not to want to. When their president signed a treaty with Russia in 2014, they staged a revolution, kicked him out of the country and organised citizen militias to fight pro-Russia paramilitaries in the East.

It’s not just Serbians and Ukrainians. It’s Syrians, Tunisians, Eritreans. Whatever their countries do, people aspire to being a part of our project. This is what Europe is all about; this is our legacy. We are the only polity in the world to have renounced violence and uphold mutual understanding as the way forward. Even at these times of crisis, we are a beacon of hope for humanity.

And that brings us to Brexit. Those uncomfortable Europeans, the British, are going to be asked on 23 June whether they want to stay in the EU or not, and the answer is far from certain. As with those trade links, those Erasmus studies, those romances, Brexit reaches into every part of Europe – all the more effectively because it is taking place in Europe’s most-spoken language.

Much of the debate has been awful, from both sides. The supporters of Britain’s place in the EU seem to have no arguments beyond money, jobs and finance – important, but not enough to make the case for Europe’s wider ambitions and possibilities. Reassurances of the Remain campaign today close off any future development of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Their argument is “vote for Europe, because our Europe has no Schengen, lots of opt-outs, and absolutely no Euro”.

On the other side, the Eurosceptic press are dominated by anti-immigrant populism, and a desire to go back to some imagined time of national unity, monoculture and full employment. Mainstream politicians on the Leave side cannot acknowledge that medium sized nation states have no power in the modern world, so they have have had to construct unrealistic futures, where Britain prospers by slashing regulation, or by creating free trade deals with its former empire, or just by getting those Europeans to do what the Brits say.

This is an attempt – who knows how successful? – to rationalise around an emotional reaction – a love for Parliament, for British democracy, the ‘thousand years of British history’ which a former Labour leader thought the EEC would put to an end. Sovereignty, democracy and national power are slippery concepts. The dry world of European summits and compromises might be more effective power but it is not more romantic power.

The default of the Brussels bubble is to believe that Europe will get there in the end. In mid-euro-crisis, a European politician said “we all know what we have to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected once we’ve done it”. As time has passed, that politician is President of the Commission, governments around the continent have changed – but the Euro remains. Maybe in five years the migration crisis and Brexit will be in the same place – not solved but not quite so present, a memory of a panic.

Maybe not. There is a saying that companies go bankrupt at first slowly, then all at once. Look around Europe and the signs are there that the structures are weakening, the institutions becoming hollowed out, as they are with national politics.

But in that romantic love of the Brexiters, there is an answer to the problem of European politics, and not just in Britain. We have to make Europe something that can be believed in again – not with an emotional allegiance, but as a shared project of construction, based on those principles of freedom, openness and democracy.

You can’t do that by decreeing a European nationalism, commanding a tear in the eye as Ode to Joy plays. Some people feel that now, more may feel it in the future, but it can’t be invented. Instead the connections and the networks of Europe should be celebrated as success not denigrated as failure.

If we fail to do that, what else can we Europeans do? Well, we could follow the lead of the Brexit camp, and focus on being just 28 more nation states. Doable, maybe. But we would be second-rate nation states. Too small. Too old. Too petty. Plagued by low growth, high debt, an ever more aging population, and populist, rancorous politics. A backwater in the coming Asian century.

A peaceful continent for us all to roam freely is our gift the world, what makes us unique. Politicians in the UK and elsewhere, when they talk of breaking this down, or restricting its scope, might gain some short-term consensus and media visibility. But they are gambling with our souls.

Photo: Malachy Browne: murales at The Jungle, a semi-official refugee camp in Calais (France)

Photo: Marco Giacomassi

Setting the agenda: how the open data community entered the radar of European political leadership

On July 17th 2014, addressing the Open Knowledge Fest crowd in Berlin, EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes made the following statement:

We want to work with you, and see you work together across borders and languages. We have set up Erasmus for Open Data to support this. Starting with an event in Nantes, France, in September. But if you have an idea for what more we could do – then let us know! – source

I normally don’t pay too much attention to announcements, but hey: this was fast. To the best of my knowledge, the idea of an Erasmus for open data did not even exist before April this year. For a concept to go from first-time appearance in a private blog to candidate policy of the first economy in the world in three months is unprecedented. Just what is going on?

A short recap:

  1. Back in April, in the wake of the Spaghetti Open Data gathering, I wrote a post that argued for a proposal for an Erasmus-like program for open data. The idea was to build those all-important horizontal ties that can connect today’s open data communities, largely national, into a European-level one. The post sparked a small debate with some of my fellow activists in other European countries, notably some that are or have been involved with EPSI (the European initiative on public sector information), like Ton Zijlstra in the Netherlands and Martìn Alvarez in Spain.
  2. In early July I got an email from French NGO LiberTIC: they have gotten the city of Nantes to get behind a conference seen as the launchpad of a future Erasmus Open Data initiative. EPSI platform is fully involved. The European Commission is going to show up, probably represented by EPSI platform’s project officer. To show they mean business, LiberTIC have even allocated a small budget for funding at least some data geeks to fly to Nantes. With the usual generosity, Spaghetti Open Data are rising up to the challenge – Italy will be well represented in Nantes, I can promise you that.
  3. Now, the Commissioner has joined the front line. That she even knows about this means somebody in DG CNECT (the EPSI team?) must have done a really good job of getting the idea up through the hierarchy.

We might get our Erasmus for open data. Or not. Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear to me: if a random guy like me can spawn an idea on his personal blog in April and hear a European Commissioner throwing her full support behind it in July, it means the open data community is setting the agenda. We are on the ground, we are doing interesting things with data, and everybody acknowledges that. We are talking to government agencies who are supposed to set the standards and write the guidelines, and at times doing quite a bit of the work for them – and who else can those guys talk to? We can mobilize quickly and effectively – just look at how LiberTIC threw together an international conference in two months. And everyone knows you just can’t do open data without a strong open data grassroots community.

So Europe is listening; and the signs are there that the Italian state, amidst the usual drama, handwaving and short-termism, is listening too. It would be a shame to waste this opportunity to build some data-powered transparency and knowledge sharing into our societies. But I think the community is ready, and the opportunity will not be wasted.

Meanwhile, Ms. Kroes, thanks for your support. There is a small factual mistake in that part of your speech (“we have set up…”): Erasmus open data, as of now, is a community initiative, not a EU one. No big deal; we are not territorial, now the idea is out for everyone to improve on. You are welcome to Nantes, just like any other data geek, within or without your official capacity. If you come as a private person, drop us a line: there will be code to write, and datasets to cleanup, and pizza and war stories about data to trade. We’ll sit down together and scrape some EU website. It will be fun.

Join us in Nantes for the Erasmus Open Data conference

Copyright in the EU and the Dark Side of online consultations

Imagine you are in Hamburg for 30C3, the thirtieth annual conference of the legendary Chaos Computer Club – the first and the largest association of hackers in Europe. Uncharacteristically, you are being engaged in politics: you take part in a meeting convened on the fly by Ásta Helgadóttir, a young activist of the Icelandic Pirate Party. The person speaking now is Amelia Andersdotter,  a 26-year old Swede, Member of the European Parliament, also a Pirate. She explains that the European Commission is considering a reform on copyright law, and that such reform is at risk of damaging the Internet’s freedom and wholeness. The Commission has recently launched an online public consultation, but taking part in it is so difficult and time-consuming that activists fear only the copyright industry’s professional lobbyists will end up participating in it.

Andersdotter and her staff, helped by many volunteers, have compiled a on online guide to the consultation available in 13 languages, but this is not good enough. For everyone to be able to participate, it is critical that participation is made much easier and more intuitive.The group decides to achieve this building a website that starts from the friction with copyright law experienced by citizens on the web every day encoded in user stories (for example: “I don’t dare to make a remix because of fear of repercussions”). From there, the website guides citizens to share their points of view on these small daily conflicts, and inserts their reflections in the questionnaire as appropriate. All is left to do is for the citizen to download the completed questionnaire and e-mail it to the Commission.

As the meeting ends, a task force of coders and designers fires up their laptops and goes to work. For starters, Stefan Wehrmeyer from Open Knowledge Foundation Germany writes the core code for the new website, and uploads it on a GitHub repository (a familiar collaboration platform for open source programmers) for everyone to be able to contribute. Next, Mathias Schindler from Wikimedia Germany rewrites the questionnaire’s questions in terms of situations that are easy to map onto normal experience of the web. Finally, Juliana Okropiridse, Bernhard Hayden, Christopher Clay and Peter Grassberger of the Austrian Pirate Party kickstart a hackathon to finish the website. Hosted by (Viennese hackerspace) Metalab’s assembly at 30C3, they code all night long. At 8 the next morning, is online. The date is December 30th, 2013.

All this has really happened.

How did we get there? How does a fairly technical legal issue like the reform of European copyright law get to be debated, and eventually acted (and hacked) upon, in a hacker conference? To understand this, we need to take a step back.

On December 5th 2013 the European Commission launched an online consultation on copyright law reform in Europe. In the digital age, copyright law has become a contentious issue: adapted to broadcast technologies (printing press, radio and television), it ended up clashing with the Internet’s technological and social infrastructure. Network technology allows to make fast, inexpensive and exact copies of any content (books, music, films, scholarly articles etc.) and to spread them across the planet at the speed of light. On top of that, it allows – and sometimes requires – to do things that have no exact equivalent in the pre-digital world, like linking, caching, or remixing them. Are these things legal? Under which conditions? Predictably, netizens ended up wondering why would these operations – useful, simple, cheap – not be allowed; and digital native teenagers across the globe engaged in them with gusto.

Copyright holders reacted aggressively to what they think is an infringement of their rights. They demanded and obtained from lawmakers harsher penalties for copyright infringement (especially in the USA), and consistently sued young people, even minors, for lots of money – probably trying to scare off other infringers by gunning for some. The debate heated up. Exactly a year ago, on January 11th 2013,  Reddit co-founder and hacktivist Aaron Swartz took his own life at 26 years of age. He was facing prosecution for copyright infringement – he had downloaded a large number of copyrighted scholarly journal articles, using his access as a MIT student). 

Copyright is important, and the opening of the European Commission’s consultation could be good news. But there is a problem. The consultation consists in a questionnaire to download, fill and email to the Commission. The questionnaire is available in English only; takes several hours to complete (it is 36 pages long and consists of 80 questions); is written in legalese; and the window for doing all this is only 60 days, including the festivities break [yielding to requests from citizens, the deadline has now been moved 28 days forward to March 30th].

What sort of citizen do the designers of this consultation have in mind? I can think of only one type of person that fits it: professional lobbyists working for the copyright industry – record labels, movie production companies etc.. Lobbyists are fluent in English; know well the regulation they are trying to influence; and have no problem finding the time to fill a 80-questions questionnaire, since they – unlike most of us – get paid for it.

There is nothing wrong with a lobbyist stating an opinion in the context of an online consultation. But it is wasteful: lobbyists already have their channels. They have Brussels offices, industry conferences, money to hire consultants and experts and deploy them towards their goals. A public consultation – especially one that uses a pervasive channel like the Internet – could and should go the extra mile to enrich the debate, involing a number as high as possible of ordinary citizens.

Why has this not happened? According to Andersdotter, the Directorate General for the Single Market (DG MARKT) keeps a low profile to eschew controversies and conflicts – but in vain, since these are inevitable. “European citizens are in constant tensions with copyright law – says Andersdotter – For example, it is common for teachers of foreign languages to play DVDs or music CDs as a way to make their teaching more engaging, even if they bought them privately [editor’s note: yes, it is illegal]. Or it may happen that a French citizen shares a music video on YouTube with a German friend, but the latter cannot view it because French right holders have a deal with YouTube and German ones don’t. Many Europeans, especially young, have problems like these.” And it’s not just teenagers: in May 2013 LIBER, the European association of research libraries, walked on DG MARKT’s stakeholder dialogue initiative, claiming that “the research and technology communities have been presented not with a stakeholder dialogue, but a process with an already predetermined outcome” (source). The office of the Single Market commissioner Michel Barnier has not replied to our request for comments.

What can we learn from this story? I think there are three important conclusions. 

The first one: online consultation risk playing an antidemocratic role. They can be presented as a gesture of openness and transparency (“it’s on the Internet! Anybody can join in!”) but in truth offer only a new participation channel for interests already represented – a sort of Dark Side of online participation. To prevent this, citizens would do well to demand from their institutions not just to be consulted, but that consultations are designed to maximize participant diversity.

The second one: citizens can play a role in making them better. In the case in point and in other similar ones (remember ACTA?) a smart, tech savvy civil society mobilized to protect a global common, the freedom and health of the Internet ecosystem. Such instant, liquid mobilization produced longer-lasting organizations like Wikimedia and Open Knowledge Foundation, and meeting places like 30C3. Online participation has its Dark Side, but it also has a few Jedi Knights.

The third one: the political space opened by these movements is natively international. Hackers, as no politically relevant group before them, collaborate across state frontiers in a natural, unassuming way. The project to democratize the European consultation on copyright involved people of many nationalities, without anyone ever feeling the need to refer to the positions of one country or another. Interestingly, leadership tends to be allocated to young women like Helgadóttir (23, deputy member of the Icelandic parliament) or Andersdotter herself.

I am fascinated by Andersotter’s trajectory. Elected when she was only 21, she proved incredibly determined, acquiring an impressive competence on international conventions and treaties regulating the Internet in Europe and becoming a reference point for the continent’s open source movement, as well as for the hacker scene in general. She has held her (well documented) ground in favor of Internet freedom, and has not shunned conflict when conflict was in order. She does her best to make the European Parliament more open and welcoming for hackers and activists – for example, she organized a screening of the film about Wikileaks We steal secrets and made it open to the public. Hackers and activists across Europe reciprocate with an almost palpable affection, as if she were – after Lady Ada Byron – a second Queen of the Machines. She could be the first of a new breed of digital native European leaders, grown up between hackathons and The Big bang Theory reruns.

The story I told at the beginning of this post looks more like a scene from Matrix than a story of European politics. And yet, when you think about it, this is exactly the European Union that the founding fathers dreamed of: hackers, designers, civil society activists, elected representatives collaborating across all countries  to broaden the channels of democratic participation on the Union’s policies. If I could offer a word of advice to the next Presidents of the European Commission, Parliament and Council I would tell them: fly close to the hackers, involve them, ask them to help you design the Union’s online consultations. They are building the European agora that you could not give us. And – frankly – their code is vastly better than yours.