Thinking about the Digital Public Sphere

Book cover

This essay is based on a talk given at the first meeting of the Shared Digital European Public Space group, which took place online on 9 July 2021. It is published in Building a European Digital Public Space: Strategies for taking back control from Big Tech platforms, edited by Alexander Baratsits.

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It is published under CC-BY-ND 4.0 DE


This paper questions: how public democratic discourse can be established in an increasingly digitized world; how European values such as openness, transparency, data sovereignty and collaboration, as well as fundamental rights, diversity, pluralism, quality and freedom of expression, can be represented online; which policies would be necessary to build an independent European infrastructure; and how the digital public sphere can be subjected to democratic control.

The Public Sphere

The idea of a public sphere was first clearly formulated by Jurgen Habermas in his 1962 book “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft)”, translated into English in 1989 (Habermas 1962; Habermas 1989). The public sphere is best understood as a zone of engagement for members of a society where discussion and debate can take place, where the shape of the society is determined, and where political actions may be initiated or regulated. Now that the network has emerged as the defining characteristic of this latest stage of extractive capitalism, it seems reasonable that the framing of the public sphere should extend to cover the new affordances of digital technologies.

Just as we talk about digital markets and their characteristics in places like the Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine et al. 2009), so too can we ask how having access to the connectivity and tools available online affect society, and try to understand the digital public sphere. Extensive research – or rather a quick online search – reveals that the term itself is not new: the first reference Google Scholar can find is in 1994, in Gunnar Liestøl’s essay “Hypermedia Communication and Academic Discourse: Some speculations on a future genre published” in “The Computer As Medium” (Andersen et al. 1993).

1994 feels about right. At the time I was working for the UK’s first commercial ISP, PIPEX, as the network was becoming a place for social action. In May 1994 I ran one of the first web-based online events at the launch of the book “Imagologies”, examining the impact of the network on teaching practices. And in September that year I ran the FringeWeb, part of the Edinburgh Fringe, putting material from The Guardian newspaper online (The Guardian 2017) and hosted a cybercafe in Edinburgh where people could post digital photos and reviews (Wilkie 2009; The Guardian 2019). The following year I joined The Guardian as Head of the New Media Lab and we launched the newspaper’s website.

It has been used frequently since 1994, largely in the academic world, and much has been written about the impact of the network on society. (One strand of that work became known as Web Science. I’ve been involved with the Web Science Institute based at Southampton University in the UK for some time.)

However, away from academic discourse, there has also been another, more practical strand of thinking, asking what the digital public sphere would look like if it was built deliberately, instead of hoping it would emerge, like the original public sphere that Habermas first identified, from the affordances of social discourse. This seemed a useful exercise because the online spaces we were building seemed far too prone to commercial capture, the destruction of the blogosphere between 2005 and 2010 being the best example.

My involvement in this work goes back a while. In 2000 I wrote a pamphlet for the UK’s Cooperative Party about the need to preserve the Internet as a mutual venture and not allow it to be completely shaped by commercial interests (Thompson 2000). In 2002 I wrote an essay for the UK tech publication The Register that outlined the need for what I called a “safe European web”, where European standards for free expression and rights could be asserted instead of allowing the US First Amendment and Californian Ideology to dominate (Thompson 2002).

Then in 2009 I joined the BBC’s archive development department as part of a team thinking about what the BBC could do with its significant archive of old broadcasts, documents, images, etc., some of which was digitized – a lot more is today than back then (Bunz 2009). The archive development group wanted to find ways to make more of the collection than just reusing bits in new programs and the answer revolved around the online public space. (Thanks to Tony Ageh, Jake Berger, Hilary Bishop, Mo McRoberts, Radha Satkunam, Aisling Jarvis, Richard Leeming and others who made this such an exciting time. )

Building on earlier work like BBC Backstage (Forrester 2011), which opened up APIs to access BBC data, the Creative Archive (BBC 2014) and a project called Paragon, which aggregated catalogs from a number of sources to deliver enhanced archive search, we developed a model that we called the Digital Public Space, which is best described as the digital public sphere without sociological or philosophical scaffolding (Ageh 2015; FutureEverything 2013). It was a pragmatic approach to developing a system that could hold the BBC’s collection in place long enough to incorporate other archives, with the belief that galleries, libraries, museums and other archives would want to join. We hoped it would result in a creative space that the BBC would then value as more than just a program library.

We tried very hard.

ACE, the English arts funding body, spent £3m on over fifty digital commissions for an online service called The Space as a test bed, with carefully curated catalog data to support enhanced discovery (MTM 2013). A serious RDF-based aggregator followed. Then the Research and Education Space was launched, giving UK schools and colleges access to over a million programs from the archive (McRoberts 2015).

We digitized the rushes from a fifty-year-old documentary about the 1914–18 War, all the BBC’s Shakespeare holdings, and a large collection of archive clips for an app we called Remarc aimed at the carers of people with dementia (Berger 2017a; Berger 2017b). We spoke at conferences and were interviewed in newspapers. Creative Exchange, the five-year UK government funded knowledge exchange network, made the Digital Public Space the focus of its activity and sponsored the research of dozens of PhD students at Lancaster and Newcastle universities and the Royal College of Art ( Jacobs/Cooper 2018).

In doing this we worked with a wide range of arts and cultural institutions, including Europeana, the European Commission and the National Libraries of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Eire.

Our model called for an online zone of engagement built around open catalogs, licensed assets and permissive usage models to support creative reuse, going beyond access to co-creation. We were grasping at something beyond the walled garden and a monolithic service, something porous, able to grow, to deliver the web’s potential, bringing people together for shared endeavours, enabling access to the world’s knowledge in a self-organized manner, without the need for a central index or search engine. It was a nice dream.

It was a liberal, humanist dream: a public service broadcaster that believed offering the best of everything to everyone would result in good outcomes for individuals, society and the economy, seen as part of that society. However, the BBC began running out of energy to deliver it by 2015: the organization was in the midst of its periodic review, as part of the renewal of the Royal Charter that underpins the broadcaster; funding was short; and radical ideas about using the archive to drive a new model of the Internet as a space for public service were hard to sell. I moved from the archive team to BBC Research & Development.

The archive became a vehicle for getting old programs online, either through the public service iPlayer or as a paid service, first through the short-lived BBC Store and, more recently, on the successful Britbox streaming service. The archive development team changed personnel and focused on more editorially driven projects, where it has succeeded in making a significant contribution to people’s lives, albeit without the underlying Digital Public Space model.

It wasn’t just that the BBC lost momentum. The technological world in which we were operating was changing too due to the growth of enormously powerful online private interests, with business models that rely on occupying public space and private communications and analysing what happens there in ways that are far more intrusive than security guards in a shopping mall could ever be. This has driven the emergence of many strands of resistance – or rather a strand of thinking in civil society that asks how things could be different. Because things can be different.

For me, as I look at the range of organizations promoting a decentralized Internet, I return to the core insight from Lawrence Lessig’s 2000 book Code where he pointed out that “code is law”; in other words, we can only do on the network those things that the network has been programmed to permit. Unless there is an MX record for my mail server, that server will not receive external mail. Unless the packets my network interface sends are valid TCP, they will not be read or forwarded. The underlying code is the law, and also the judge and jury that puts that law into operation.

But the code is just code. New code can be written and, if that code is deployed, there will be new laws. If we can imagine a better network, then we can build that network. And if we can persuade other people to use our code, then that network can become the network. For me, decentralization is about taking that insight and turning it into the design and deployment of systems at all levels of the network stack. It’s a full stack revolution and I believe the BBC has a role to play in this.

The broadcaster was created in 1926 by government to deliver the benefits of the emerging communications technology of radio communication to the people (BBC 2017). It did so, first with sound, then with sound and pictures. The BBC worked with others to shape the nature of broadcast technologies and support its ambitions – for greater image contrast range, for higher fidelity, for stereo, for colour, for more lines, for digital transmission, for more pixels, for more and more pixels.

Now we are required to do online what we have done over the air. As a non-commercial research department with an obligation to explore emerging technologies for the good of licence fee payers, the UK and the world, BBC R&D is well-placed to apply public service considerations to the online environment for the betterment of society and to develop a new range of tools and services that provide real value to audiences (BBC 2016).

We support the model of a public sphere that is grounded both in the fundamental values of the EU (human dignity and human rights, including freedom of expression, press freedom, privacy, openness, inclusiveness, transparency, accountability, individual freedom, democracy, equality, diversity, (data)sovereignty and the rule of law), the fundamental values of the Internet (distributedness, interoperability, open standards, cooperatively developed free software, open access to knowledge and open data), and will participate in technical initiatives, standards development and sharing outcomes.

The BBC is not a campaigning organization, but we can support activities that are aligned with our values and mission as we seek to create a humane Internet that serves our audiences: individuals in all aspects of their lives and the wider society. The debate on a distributed, shared digital European public sphere has already started and we are pleased to be part of it, building on the Archive Development and R&D contributions we have made in the past.


Bill Thompson is a well-known technology journalist and advisor to arts and cultural organisations on matters related to digital technologies. He is a Principal Research Engineer in BBC Research & Development where he leads the Future Value Research team and is jointly responsible for the New Forms of Value research programme. He has been working in, on and around the Internet since 1984, and was Internet Ambassador for PIPEX, the UK’s first commercial ISP, and Head of New Media at Guardian Newspapers where he built the paper’s first website.


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