Digital Backyards Forum Introduction: What are (European) alternatives to Google and Facebook?

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  • What are (European) alternatives to Google and Facebook?

    The Internet mobilizes and amplifies issues in an unprecedented way, especially now that it has become a mass medium over the last 10 years – the first mass medium in human history which provides the mass with a voice.

    One may like this or not. Independent of that, one thing is clear: the Internet – as a space, as an infrastructure – is of greatest relevance to society, more and more so since all sectors of society are becoming part of it, and vice versa.

    Against this backdrop, it must strike as odd, when people mix it up with Google or Facebook.

    Obviously those web services aim at subsuming the entire online experience – with continuoulsy growing success. Symptomatically one of our students said: „I spend an hour online per day – checking stuff out on facebook“. For more and more people this means: Whatever is not on facebook, does not exist online. Perhaps does not exist at all. And we could say the same about Google, especially after the introduction of its many cloud services and other features that sum up to an all fulfilling world.

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    That people mix up Facebook and Google with the Internet is telling in many ways. Last but not least it indicates their assumed role in the global arena of free speech and public communication in the networked age. As Internet law professor Jonathan Zittrain, a collegue of Lawrence Lessig, recently remarked: „These ‘corporate gatekeepers’ are essential to keeping free speech robust“.

    Another indicator: Let us check out textbooks on online-journalism and realize how online-journalism today is basically identical with Google-Journalism. And be sure: Soon the text books will be updated with instructions to optimize and re-conceive „online journalism“ for the environments of Facebook’s social network and Apple’s iPad.

    Yet, the question will remain: What is online-journalism today? What is it other than Google-, Facebook- or iPad-journalism? And what is a global digital public sphere? What is it other than a realm subsumed under an intricate corporate veil?

    The mere fact that most of this is largely unreflected and that most of it is largely unaccounted for in public debates points to the dilemma of our situation. It sounds like Science Fiction, but at the beginning of the 21st century this is reality: The global public sphere is being privatized by a few corporations from Silicon Valley. And the rise of Russian and Chinese competitors does not really lighten up our day.

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    Right now more people should dare to articulate aloud what e.g. internet theorist Geert Lovink recently voiced in the Zeitschrift für Medien- und Kulturforschung. I quote Lovink: „Rather than repeat the unchanging formula from the founding of enterprise to the rise of economic collosus, would it not be time to invent the Internet anew as a truly independent public infrastructure that can effectively fight back against corporate domination and state control?”

    The time has come to think about alternatives. Obviously the quest for those alternatives can go into many directions. Perhaps we can settle on a few key issues:

    First of all we need alternatives to the digital monopolism à la Google and Facebook, since we don’t want the digital public sphere in the hands of few corporations. This political issue amounts also to our call to reclaim the Internet as a public space. Yes, we need alternatives to the rampant privatization of the digital commons!

    Last but not least we need alternatives to the McDonaldization of our networking cultures. After all those cultures provide the road map for contemporary societies as well as for societies to come. So we need to investigate further the potential of the Internet as a networking tool and as a catalyser for networking cultures. Instead of reducing it to a „simple machine“ operable with a „like button“ or a „search entry field“, we need alternatives that go beyond this toaster paradigm and that explore more creative, more empowering possibilities to connect people and information.

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    The awareness towards the digital monopolism of companies based in Silicon valley is growing in Europe. We hear complaints, we read smear stories about intransparent corporate practises. But we hardly ever learn about alternatives to Google and Facebook.

    In contrast to that the initiative „Digital Backyards“ is very pragmatic about this issue when it claims: The answer can not be yet another internet giant of European origin to rival Google and Facebook. A real alternative would be to empower diversity:

    1) diversity at the level of infrastructure: we need a distributed and decentrelized internet

    2) diversity at the level of web services: we need a plulrality of context and cause specific search engines as well as social networks

    3) diversity at the level of network cultures: how people and information are being connected should not be reduced to “facebooking” and “googling”, but to a vast array of practises.

    Obviously we need to begin somewhere. The initiative „Digital Backyards“ takes the geographical borders of Europe as a starting point, since we believe that the resources for alternatives to digital monopolism lie dormant in Europe’s diversity itself (which, as if looking through a magnifying glass, is only exemplary of the diversity of the whole planet).

    We need to address the challange to explore the potentials of diversity across language borders. Looking at Europe, we can state: This has been neglected over the last decades. On the other hand, the regional focus allows to address politics at a very concrete and direct level – so empowering diversity is not lost to the market or to the good will and strength of social movements alone. Yes, we also need a juridical framing. And the Anti-ACTA protests have reminded us anew of the role that Brussles plays in this context.

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    The quest for alternatives is even more urgent against the backdrop of the multiple crises in Europe. National populism and authoritarian governance are on the rise. Democracies are in a downward spiral – with presidents deciding in excluisve club meetings about the future of the continent instead of consulting with the people they represent.

    Academic studies have shown that Facebook’s walled (and putatively „safe“) garden amplifies the populist tendencies and serves as perfect host to extremist movements. Very much like this Google caters to the dark undercurrents raving the collective unconscious of apocalyptic Europe: The recent debates about the search engine’s autocomplete function as well as „illegal search results“ have shown that.

    At the end of the day it is all about the impact of algorithms, that are supposed to make our lives easier. And it’s all about the fact, that the very functionality of those algorithms remains totally intransparent to the masses that are serviced by them. And it’s more and more about the fact that those self-entitled flagships of internet freedom are obviously reproducing existing power structures – in the sense that those digital media corporations tend to enhance the established delusions of old media regimes while comfortably joining the hype around “disruptive technologies”.

    Just have a look at Google’s transparency report: The requests of user data by governments are on the rise. Yes, also by those very goverments in Europe that seemingly care less and less about democratic values, since „there is no time for democracy in a moment of crisis“.

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    If we can not re-invent the Internet today at this conference – obviously this is a rather long term endeavor – at least we can make space in our minds and re-imagine the internet: yes, we can talk about how the internet COULD and SHOULD be. In addition to that we can highlight best practise cases of existing projects or services that make use of the internet in an alternative and innovative way and thereby catalyse network cultures that go beyind the Google and Facebook paradigm. To give some examples:

    – search engines (e.g. ixquick) and social networks (e.g. lorea) that take privacy serious,

    – multilingual aggregator platforms (e.g. presseurop) that bring people and information together across language borders,

    – mesh networks and other seminal forms of decentralized networking, including conferences that place an emphasis not only on hot issues, but also on innovative formats for social encounters and sustainable networking.

    Last but not least we need talk about how to join forces under the current conditions.

    Tinker garages, corporate hotbeds, institutional labs, hacker bedrooms, editorial outposts – many of those digital backyards develop projects and products that aim at benefiting local communities respectively the whole of (world) society. Scaling up is the way to reach this ambitious goal. In today’s digital society this inevitably seems to imply: creating monopolies – like Google, Facebook and Co. Obviously not everybody can or does want to embark upon this path. So: Are there alternatives to this particular pattern of scaling up? Isn’t it also possible to scale up through cooperation? How is it possible to scale up by using and further cultivating the distributed and decentralized nature of the internet?

    Journalists, activists, bloggers, researchers, entrepreneurs, cultural workers and programmers from approximately 20 countries have gathered at this conference in order to talk about those questions. Last but not least we have gathered to expand the horizons of networking and cooperation.

    I am very happy that the Berliner Gazette is finally able to realize such an event. After all the key issues at stake here are very central to our work: How can the internet be used to foster a thinking „outside of the box“? How can it bring people together across boundaries?

    Those questions lead Berliner Gazette to analyze groundbreaking features of the Internet and to test them in practice. Against this backdrop our nonprofit and nonpartisan association of journalists, researchers, artists and programmers weaves its social networks – offline and online, locally and globally.

    In 1999 we began to publish berlinergazette.de in German under a Creative Commons-License – with more than 700 contributors from all over the world. For thrirteen years now we also organize conferences, seminars, workshops, edit books, etc. „Digital Backyards“ is a kick off event for a series of meetings in the next years.

    The text served as a script for the introduction to the “Public Talks” program of the “Digital Backyards” conference on October 20th. This version contains some modifications rendered afterwards.

    Krystian Woznicki ·
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