Governance of Digital Public Spaces

Executive Summary

This series of articles discuss the governance of digital public spaces and what that entails. It builds on the previous work done by both Waag and the PublicSpaces coalition, who argued for the importance of such digital public spaces. The aim is to create digital spaces where people can exercise their rights and duties as citizens and come together, act, and interact freely. In this case, ‘freely’ means the absence of surveillance, filter bubbles, as well as the absence of behavior nudging, among other things. Creating such digital public spaces is an ongoing challenge, as the internet is a vast socio-technical system with numerous stakeholders, resources, and interests. Before we can investigate how to create digital public spaces exactly, we need to understand how to establish and govern such spaces. That is the purpose of these articles.

Regarding governance, questions arise: who is in control and what are the processes of organising that power? Governance is considered and presented as a framework of rules, relationships, systems, and processes. However, this framework cannot fully account for the nuances of human relations. We must look at the human side of governance by investigating real-life examples of the governance models in digital spaces. Thus, we have structured this report as follows: every chapter discusses one aspect of governance by first defining the main concepts and concerns about the governance of digital public spaces. Consequently, these concepts will be delved into deeper by looking at one or more case studies. These use cases are aimed to make the reader think about possible governance models of digital public spaces.

The aspects of governance we will be investigating are:

  1. the legal framework that underlies the governance of technology;
  2. how these underlying public values are put into practice;
  3. which stakeholders are involved in the socio-technical system;
  4. what resources are involved exactly in digital public spaces and how the corresponding scarcity is created;
  5. and how these resources can be shared democratically.

The section Governance of Technology defines constitutional rights as the starting point from which digital public spaces should be designed. Judges and courts play an increasingly important role in guaranteeing these rights in various areas, primarily through international treaties. Several influential cases show how international treaties try to force governments and companies to respect human rights. This is not only possible as a victim but also through the collective actions that represent a public interest. The verdicts in these case studies pave the way for similar actions.

The second section, Putting Values into Practice, discusses the operationalisation of public values. In the context of designing governance systems for digital public spaces, we have identified three core values that should underlie design and development: open, democratic, and sustainable. Open refers to accessibility, transparency, and availability for public scrutiny; anyone with a stake in the system should be able to access the governance mechanisms. Democratic then refers to the equality between large and small interests and respect for democratically anchored laws and regulations. Finally, a digital public space must be economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. The Apache foundation is an excellent example of a platform that emphasises open, democratic, and sustainability values. 

The third section, Stakeholders and Stakeholder Interests, looks into the stakeholders in the system and their respective interests. An interest, or stake, can loosely be defined as the value that can be derived, for a stakeholder, from a smooth, optimally running technical system. While this value is generally abstract, the internal stakeholders in the system have a shared understanding of their stakes and how they relate to each other. External stakeholders can be defined as the parties affected by the system without explicitly participating in the system. The external interests can suffer when the internal interests are maximised. When considering governance models for any system, the aim is to optimise the value for the stakeholders. A realistic open, democratic and sustainable system’s governance model must account for the internal and external stakeholders as well as the public interest. There is also the question of the ‘size’ of interest and how this affects decision-making and representation. One of the most important aspects of democratic governance is not that the majority decides but that the minority is heard. We must design our tools and governance models to explicitly and regularly challenge our notions of stakeholdership so that these systems are run fairly and beneficially.

In the section Resources and Scarcity, we turn towards the questions of what goods are we dealing with and how are these distributed? Digital resources are generally the digital items and objects that can be created, bought, traded, mined, or gathered. However, perhaps the most crucial resources in this digital age are attention and findability. While some of these digital resources might seem abundant and infinite, certain limitations create scarcity in these resources. The kind or amount of digital scarcity the stakeholders experience depends on their geographical location and socio-economic position. The amount of power someone has largely determines the distribution of the resources. However, we can also see power as a resource in itself. For example, certain Wikipedia pages can only be edited by people who have already proven their expertise and trustworthiness by successfully authoring or editing other pages.

Finally, the section Mechanisms of Governance discusses how these resources can be distributed democratically. While technical protocols are not often understood as the means of democracy, they can sneakily implement social rules by determining the options for how a conversation is organised, how people vote, and what other ‘affordances’ people have when using a piece of technology. Not to forget the options that are not presented to us. Even the banalest technical options have profound consequences for our freedom when using technology. For a technology to be governed democratically, it must have the mechanisms that allow for democratic interaction. It should not be up to developers and tech companies to decide which options we have for interacting with one another. It should be up to us, the people, enforced by legislation and made iteratively possible through the co-creation of digital public spaces which explore and present the possibilities for more democratic technology.

This report is a starting point for further research into the extent of the socio-technical system surrounding digital public spaces and can and must be expanded. We want to stress that this report and the lists of stakeholders, resources, and use cases are not exhaustive. It is meant to make the reader aware of the vast layers of the internet. Additionally, we want to equip the reader with the tools to critically analyse and assess other digital spaces on, for example, their operationalisation of public values, their inclusion and exclusion of certain stakeholders, or their (un)democratic manner of dividing the available resources.