New paper calls for digital public spaces

In a newly published paper, Zuzanna Warso, a human rights lawyer and a Director of Research at EDRi member Open Future (OF), explains why establishing Digital Public Space is necessary for the realisation of digital rights. Keep reading to learn why.

By Open Future (guest author) · November 23, 2023

For decades, online ecosystems have been dominated by commercial platforms that profit from people’s engagement and interactions. True digital public spaces, where people can openly express themselves, exchange ideas, and engage in substantive discourse without being exploited and having value extracted from them, are rare. Against this backdrop, in the newly published paper, Warso examines digital rights as a framework that plays a role in shaping the dynamics of online ecosystems.

Read the paper

The paper considers the feasibility of a holistic rights-based approach to creating genuine digital public spaces.

How does Warso examine the need for digital public spaces to fulfil digital rights?

Warso looks into the concept of digital rights and its scope, pointing out that it is a mixture of various rights frameworks with roots in human rights. It highlights a historical context where distinctions among different categories of human rights, stemming from the political and ideological divisions of the 1950s and 1960s, led to a prolonged period of overlooking social and economic rights by states, both in the digital and non-digital domains.

In the paper, you can learn about the complex landscape of claiming digital rights, given the peculiar situation of privately owned platforms, such as social media platforms, frequently serving as de facto digital public spaces. Within these spaces, various rights frameworks operate concurrently due to the different functions and conceptualisations of the same digital environments. These spaces, which allow for community activism as well as social and political interaction, are dominated by market-driven principles and dynamics.

What are the key limitations around the concept of digital rights?

The key limitations inherent in the prevailing conception of digital rights encompass challenges with the enforcement of rights, a disregard for social justice issues, and neglect of materiality and the environmental impacts of technologies that underpin digital public spaces. Despite its limitations, a rights-based approach to building digital public spaces can shape these spaces in a way that combats exploitative business models and protects individual and collective well-being.

To enjoy digital rights we need truly public digital spaces

The practical realisation of rights is contingent on the existence of an environment conducive to their exercise. Therefore, addressing the challenges arising from the digital environment’s interrelated political, economic, and social dynamics necessitates a dual approach.

While acknowledging the value of a rights-based approach, it alone cannot resolve complex digital challenges. There is a fundamental misalignment between private economic interests on the one hand and conditions required for the full enjoyment of rights on the other as the potential root cause of the difficulty in enforcing digital rights. Given that exploitative business models characterise the digital platform landscape, creating truly public digital spaces is just as important as platform regulation and defending rights within current online ecosystems.

Contribution by: EDRi member, Open Future

The white paper complements OF’s previous work in this area, explained in the Digital Public Space Primer. The Primer is a concise introduction to the various issues OF has been working on in this context. These include the need for investment in Public Digital Infrastructure, the role of the Digital Commons, and the importance of generative interoperability in building online public and civic spaces.