GJ Bogaerts, Public Spaces

photo of GJ Bogaerts
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
GJ Bogaerts, Public Spaces
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We’re thrilled to welcome GJ Bogaerts, head of new media at Dutch public broadcaster VBRO and director of the Public Spaces coalition, which is a partnership of public broadcasters, arts institutions and other public service institutions in the Netherlands. GJ tells us how he hopes a mix of government support and institutional independence will help ween Europeans off of private corporate platforms to create an internet that is safe and private for users, while safe from private interests.​

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey everybody. Welcome back to Re-Imagining The Internet. I’m your host, Ethan Zuckerman, at the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I am here with my friend here, John Boegarts, who is the head of digital media at VPRO, which is one of the Netherlands’ many public broadcasters. Significant for us today, he’s also the chair of the Public Spaces Coalition. It’s a remarkable project that’s hosted at publicspaces.net. We’re going to talk about this very particularly Dutch approach to thinking about re-imagining the internet. Here, John. Welcome. It’s so good to have you here.

GJ Bogaerts:

Thanks very much for having me, Ethan. It’s an honor.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, so I actually want to start by talking a little bit about your day job outside of the Public Spaces Coalition. What is VPRO, and even more broadly than that, how does public media in the Netherlands differ from public media we might understand like NPR in the US or the BBC in the UK?

GJ Bogaerts:

Well, traditionally, and by that I mean for the last 90 years or so, public media in the Netherlands have been organized according to originally religious denominations, right? Later on, there were some political affiliations of all of this as well, so we had this group of broadcasters that were organized along Protestant beliefs or Catholic beliefs or [inaudible 00:01:41] on liberal or social democratic beliefs.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Secular Humanists as well, right? That’s considered a religion in the Netherlands.

GJ Bogaerts:

In a sense yes, absolutely. It’s interesting, originally VPRO, the letters actually stand for something called Liberal Protestantism. There’s no really equivalent British translation, I believe, but it was a group of free thinking Protestant vicars and people in church that actually believed what the Bible teaches us is really to be as open-minded toward life and other people as we possibly can. Having that as a basis of religious thinking influences also the way you think about life and politics and so on. I think it was in the sixties or seventies or so that we as VPRO did away with this Protestant background, but what’s been left in our DNA, you could say, is this free minded, free willing thinking about life and the many opportunities that it gives us to shine, to design, to educate, to do research, to be curious, to really look at the world with as open an eye and open a mind as possible, and to investigate.

Ethan Zuckerman:

But even within a fairly small nation, the Netherlands has not just one public broadcaster as many European countries do, it has eight public broadcasters with different positions, different attitudes. For me, it’s just such a great exemplar of a different way of handling this question of what public spaces should look like. How has that sort of led to this idea of public spaces, what is the Public Spaces Coalition? What’s the relationship between these public broadcasters and other cultural institutions and this coalition?

GJ Bogaerts:

Yeah, I think in order to really understand that, I need to mention perhaps one more thing in relation to what we just talked about, which is that these broadcasters, eight of them, are not only subsidized by taxpayers’ money, but they are also syndicates. They’re also unions if you will, that people can become a member. Right? So VPRO is a middle-sized broadcaster in terms of membership, which means in the Netherlands you’ve got about 350,000 paying members. These paying members are people that feel some kind of affiliation to our programming and to our way of thinking. So that gives us a very firm basis in society. That goes for most of the other broadcasters as well. So when we talk about the kind of programming that we need to do, or the kind of problems that we need to tackle, we are very firmly rooted in these discussions that we have within our own memberships.

Those members are not just members of VPRO. They also belong to cultural institutions. They go to museums, they read papers and so on. So through those memberships, we are able to extend like a broad network to other organizations that have like-minded views as ours, which meant that it was a fairly small step for me to envision, okay, if we need to think or rethink or reimagine the internet as a space where the public domain really deserves a place of its own and needs to be strengthened, it was obvious immediately that was not something that VPRO could do on its own, but that we needed to put in our network and build this coalition. Because this is way too big a job to take up on our own.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right, so even with 350,000 members, even with some state support, it’s sort of a blend between the American model in which essentially our public media are our membership organizations, and something closer to the British model, where there is a tax providing a steady revenue stream, there’s something closer to a hybrid in the Netherlands context. But you were realizing that even given that level of support, even given a lot of people signing off on common values, the ambitions of this coalition were big enough that it couldn’t just be the broadcasters, it actually had to be cultural institutions as a whole. Who are the members of the Public Spaces Coalition?

GJ Bogaerts:

Currently it’s mainly based in the cultural sector, which means that there are a number of festivals, cultural festivals, film festivals, music festivals, and so on. A design festival. There’s also institutions for cultural heritage. So the World Dutch Library is a member. [inaudible 00:06:58] Netherlands is a member, some institutions that deal even with healthcare are members at the moment, but our focus is on cultural institutions. I think that one of the main goals of public spaces is actually a marketing goal. It helps that through this coalition, we are able to reach about 90% of the entire Dutch population of 17 million, right? Because we are so broadly organized, and because there are a number of public board costs as part of it, but also all the large scale organizations, lots of public libraries are members. We reach this amount of people. So our potential impact is fairly large.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So museums, cultural festivals, libraries, public broadcasters, anyone who’s touched by the life of the mind or the life of the arts in Dutch society probably has some connection to this. What is public spaces seeking to do? So you’ve talked very broadly about the idea of re-imagining the internet. What does that mean from your perspective?

GJ Bogaerts:

Well, in the basis, I think the Public Spaces Coalition is bound by a common dilemma if you will. That dilemma is that most of our members, they have this let’s say idea or they have programming that’s fairly critical of the way in which we handle our digital businesses these days, right? I mean, we’ve become so dependent upon platforms that are not driven by public value, but by commercial value, that’s fairly contrary to what we purport to be or to tell our audiences. I mean, we are critical in some of our programming of Facebook and Google and YouTube and Instagram and all those other big platforms. And at the same time, you’re more or less forced to use them because we also have a legal obligation to reach as large an audience as we can. And we can’t do that without them.

So that’s in the basis of… It’s a pickle that we found ourselves in, and we figured, okay, isn’t it obvious that we really need to think about the ways in which we can use public infrastructure, public, digital infrastructure to deliver the same kind of functionality that at present is being given to us or serviced to us by Google and Facebook and the likes, right? I mean, why is it that for such basic utilities, online utilities such as cloud-based collaboration or cooperation, or discovery and search, or even email or watching a video, we need to pay with our data? If you look at equivalents in the physical world, it would be like going to a public square, but only getting access if I’m going to show my passport to some gatekeeper, and this gatekeeper then jotting down all my details and selling them to the highest bidder, which is ridiculous. We feel in the end public physical infrastructure is organized in a certain way, and we should seek equivalence in the digital infrastructure. So that’s in the basis what we’re trying to further.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And this has real implications for your work personally, right? Because you’re the head of digital for VPRO, you have this challenge of how do you deliver the content that the network is producing, and you’re obligated to sort of reach the broad audience. The broad audience is using YouTube, they’re using Facebook, they’re using all of these different tools that you and I think would both acknowledge have business models that we find deeply problematic. Have privacy practices that we find deeply problematic. But it’s an incredibly heavy lift to think about how do we create a parallel media ecosystem for the Dutch public? How is public spaces sort of taking on just the monumentality of that task? It makes perfect sense, if we’re going to criticize surveillance capitalism, if we’re going to build programming criticizing this framework that we’re working within, how do we then get and create the different ecosystem? What has this meant in practical terms as far as building this alternative infrastructure?

GJ Bogaerts:

Well, obviously you’re right. It’s a big job and we figure, well, it took us about 25 years to break the internet and it’s going to take perhaps as long to fix it again. I hope not, but we should take that into account. Having said that, I think we’ve got a pretty clear cut road ahead of us. It starts by inventoring the kind of tools and instruments that we are currently using as public organizations. So we’ve done this exercise for ourselves at VPRO, and what we’ve seen is that we use about 25 different digital instruments in all our digital environments and apps and so on. So talking about tools to send out newsletters, to do analysis of our visitors, our content management systems and so on.

Next up is to kind of score all these instruments, those 25 plus instruments, on the five core public spaces values, right? Five core values that we feel are intrinsic to any sane public digital environment. So you’re able to score, for instance, this newsletter tool on those five different values. You see, okay, it scores let’s say 60%. Then you go out in the world and you look for alternatives that have a higher score on those five failures. There are plenty of those. Because if one thing, I mean the internet, obviously is also a very rich source of open source development, highly intelligent and creative people coming up with all kinds of solutions. It appears that for most of the functionalities that are intrinsic and very essential to our digital lives and functioning, there are tools available that do provide the same kind of functionality without selling our souls and our data to Google and Facebook.

What very often is necessary is some kind of design or user interface research phase that really would make these instruments as user friendly as the ones that are being provided by the big commercial providers at the moment. But in the basis, there is a number of instruments and alternatives available. So that’s the next step, setting up a kind of replacement investment scheduling that will tell you over the next five years, that’s the average life cycle of any digital instrument, over the next five years we go to replace one by one these big instruments by the ones that we feel score a lot better on these public spaces values.

That’s a program that we share with the world, we share our templating for the scoring. We want all organizations, at least the coalition members of public spaces to do the same kind of exercise. So we learn from each other, we do the mapping exercise together. So we do our exploration of alternatives together. In that sense, piece by piece, we are able to replace the functionalities such as authentication or video sharing or whatever by the alternatives that much more fit to work in a really public environment.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So I’m-

GJ Bogaerts:

I’m not sure, do I make sense at all?

Ethan Zuckerman:

No, it makes tremendous sense. In fact it makes so much sense that I almost can’t believe that every public broadcaster isn’t just adopting this and simply going through this. I mean, this feels like just a very straightforward roadmap for this. It feels like something that the BBC could pick up and PR could pick up, but also an art museum could pick up. The challenge obviously gets to actually replacing what you have with different tools. Give me a sense, for instance, out of those 25 tools, what are the ones that have come up as the most pressing, that are extremely contrary to values and need to be changed?

GJ Bogaerts:

I think in our case, it will be the tracking tools, right? The tools that you employ on your website and your apps to track what people are doing, how our audiences are behaving, what they are liking, what they’re not liking, where they spent more time on, what they spent less time on. At the moment at VPRO, I’m ashamed to say we still use Google Analytics to a large extent. Google Analytics is flexible in the sense that it allows you to configure more or less the amount of data that you share. So we’ve configured it in such a way that we share as little data as possible with Google. We anonymize IP addresses and so on, and it’s all possible within that suit, but still it’s controversial. It’s difficult, and we want to use something else. At the same time, it’s hard to find something really as good and as comprehensive as the Google suite.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Here John, talk to me a little bit about what are the public spaces values? How did the coalition come to them? Because it’s very clear that that’s essentially what you’re testing all of these things against, you’re testing against this question of what are our collective values and how do we make decisions from there? What are those core values, and what was the discussion that led you there?

GJ Bogaerts:

Actually, the setting out of the core values, accountability, transparency, openness, sovereignty, being autonomous, user centric-ness. That wasn’t so difficult. I mean, we got there in less than a day, I suppose, or even less than half a day. What’s difficult is how you turn all these abstract concepts into something that we can actually work with. Right? I mean, that took us two years. There’ve been a number of manifests over the last couple of years, that all are based on the same values and the same premises. Look at even the declaration of human rights, same kind of values. In terms of our remit as public organizations, we also obviously refer to our own statutes, right? That also confer being autonomous, which means being independent from any kind of commercial or political or ideological influence, and being able to come to decisions and conclusions on your own, on the merits of your points of view being editorially independent, and so on. Being transparent actually means being open to users in the sense of showing them what your processes look like. Be transparent about your motives and about what you’re there for in the world, what you’re trying to achieve.

Being open means allowing outside influences to come in and be open to co-creation, and to work as much together with other like-minded organizations as possible. Also embracing open source, because also that obviously involves some kind of transparency, right? Especially if we’re now coming into a new phase of thinking about, for instance, the use of AI in immediate production and consumption. The transparency of the algorithms that you’re using is paramount. It’s so important that you give people some insight in how recommender systems are being built, and on the basis of what kinds of prejudices perhaps you’re presenting them.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Do you feel like your users are embracing the same values? So just to give an example on this, I would think that one of the big challenges on this is if you move away from a highly surveillant, but also highly popular platform like YouTube, onto some sort of video hosting, whether you’re doing your own or whether you’re finding a platform that is more in line with values than YouTube, do the users come with you? There’s certain changes that are fairly easy to make, and you can make your decision around them. If you change your content management system, it probably doesn’t have much impact on the user. But when you get into the actual delivery of your content, that has real implications for the users. Are the users on board with this as well, or is that one of the harder shifts to make within this?

GJ Bogaerts:

I briefly mentioned it before, but I think that’s where the marketing aspects of our coalition comes into play. The fact that we have such a tremendous reach in the Dutch population I think plays an important part in that. I’ll give you an example. Right now at VPRO we are doing a project, we call it Monthly Union. It’s a very rough English translation, and it’s actually trying to connect women that are at the same moment in their monthly cycle. Right? We’re making media around that and connecting them, that are at the same moment in their monthly cycle, and engaging in conversations and trying to build some kind of community around that. A couple of years ago, we probably have used WhatsApp to set up lots of groups and so on. Now we’re doing it all in Telegram. So moving away from WhatsApp, and perhaps Telegram isn’t even the best choice. We could also-

Ethan Zuckerman:

I was going to say, I actually spent yesterday in a conversation with some scholars at Yale about the difficulties that Telegram is having with governance, but that actually just points to the challenges of all of this. But yeah, so you had to help people shift to a platform they might not have known as well.

GJ Bogaerts:

Absolutely. That’s the key point. I think what we’re seeing is that it’s actually working, and there has been a shift, I think, over the last couple of months at least, due to some changes in policy that have been a bit controversial from WhatsApp to other platforms. So that’s helping us. But I think in general, obviously especially from the point of view of public broadcasters, we are content driven. If the content is compelling enough, you get people to new platforms. That’s what I firmly believe. I mean, I think Twitter actually got big because of Britain’s Got Talent or some kind of show like that, at least in the UK and in Europe, because the BBC was promoting people voting for their contestants on Twitter. So obviously that’s over 10 years ago, so times have changed, but still it points to the power of public broadcasters and compelling content in order to get people to move away.

It’s going to be a gradual process. It’s not something that we’re going to do overnight. Public spaces is not only about adopting alternatives to present solutions, commercial solutions. It’s also about working together to tackle new problems. For instance, right now we’re working within our coalition at a concept called Proof of Provenance, improving provenance, actually, its aim is to provide people with a kind of certificate that any type of content they encounter online is certifiably from a certain source. It can always retrace the entire distribution chain from its origin to the present location, in whose hands has this content been, what has been done to it? How are we going to evaluate the originators, but also the editors of the content that I’m looking at right now.

Ethan Zuckerman:

This sounds a little bit like non fungible tokens, please tell me that you’re not moving all of Dutch public broadcasting onto the blockchain.

GJ Bogaerts:

No, no, no. We’re not, definitely not. No. I mean, apart from the philosophical issues related to that, I also have a problem with the environmental issues, the governance and so on. Yeah, no, nothing to do with that. I think in technical terms, we are looking much more at proven technologies such as certificates that are being issued by for instance, what’s the provider called, that provides you with the certificates that you have to ensure credentials on a website?

Ethan Zuckerman:

Server certificates, HTTPS certificates, the various different certificate issuing agencies. In this case, that same sort of system, which basically operates in the background for your browser and says, “Yes, I’m accessing publicspaces.net, and I see that there’s a signed HTTPS certificate from one of those trusted certificate bodies. That means that I believe that this is who I’m talking to, and that my information is not being intercepted.” So this might be the sort of thing where you could click on a news story and get that provenance chain of who edited it, who wrote it, where it originated?

GJ Bogaerts:

Yeah, absolutely. At the same time, and I think that’s very important to us, maintaining some of the key elements of internet publishing. For instance, anonymity. I don’t necessarily know who the originator is, I just need to know that it is a trusted source, right? So this is broadly applicable. For instance, if I’m running a website, which is aiming to help Anorexic girls, it should be mainly available for girls between 15 and 20. I don’t want to know who these girls are, but I do need to know it’s only accessible to them. So a certificate could be issued by a health provider, stating that this girl actually is in such a position and she should be allowed access to this forum. Solutions like that. We’re looking at that very closely because we feel it’s an important part of functionality that people have come to rely upon. They shouldn’t have to go to a Facebook group to talk about deeply personal problems like that.

Ethan Zuckerman:

One of the things that’s most exciting to me is this possibility that there might be a European counterweight to these models that have been emerging. There’s the US model of highly surveillant, but also highly competitive apps, and apps tend to do one thing, and then they’re acquired and built either into the Facebook or the Google empire. The other model seems to be the Chinese model, where every app seems to do everything. You build an app to be an integrated ecosystem that does everything from make payments to deliver pizza, to deliver you news. There’s occasional outliers in that ecosystem like Telegram, which is built by a pair of exiled Russians who might be in Dubai and might not be. But for the most part, it feels like this sort of US China battle. It feels like you might have a European pole within this that could actually end up being a counterweight to that. Is that the ambition of the conference, which by the way I’m speaking at tomorrow?

GJ Bogaerts:

[crosstalk 00:29:38].

Ethan Zuckerman:

I’m looking forward to it. This episode will go up a little bit after it happens, but I’m sure it’ll be a good record for it.

GJ Bogaerts:

I think it’s important to mention also that at the end of the conference tomorrow, we’re going to have elections in the Netherlands, next week, actually. There is an agreement by a lot of our parties that the next cabinet would need to engage much more in digital policymaking. There is an agreement what that policy making should be bound by, and the broad agreements that any policy should be based upon. Be very optimistic that this actually will get a place in next cabinet’s policymaking.

Finally, I think it’s also important to mention, talking about Europe, that what we’re trying to do fits in a European tradition, because we’ve got the history of serving public utilities in a way by publicly funded organizations, but that are still operating autonomously from a political influence. That’s under some pressure, especially in countries like Poland and Hungary and so on, but in large parts of Europe, especially in West and Southern Europe, it’s still very much the model that we live by, and that shields us from political whims and the kind of partisan politics that plagues much of American policymaking nowadays. Gives us this autonomy while also ensuring this kind of funding that we need.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Yeah. It is this moment where the European commitment to public goods, the European commitment to public service that is not the voice of the government, but might actually be a set of enormously diverse voices, as you’re getting [inaudible 00:31:42] public broadcasting, but also this notion of cooperation and saying, “We don’t want the world to work this way. We want it to work differently. So now let’s make a plan and let’s actually work towards it.”

I find Public Spaces just one of the most enormously inspiring projects out there. I would love for it to be much better known in the US and around the world, and let’s hope we can have a small contribution on this. The project is at publicspaces.net. [inaudible 00:32:18] John, it’s just been wonderful to have you here. I just love this project since the first time you came and visited MIT and we talked about it. I’ve been hugely excited about it, and I wish you the best of luck with the conference.

GJ Bogaerts:

Thank you very much. You forget to mention that you were actually yourself one of the inspirers of the public spaces project, because it was an interview with you in which you called for innovative European broadcasters to come up and stand up and try to do something about this dominance of Google and Facebook that’s actually inspired me to write the very first version of our manifesto.

Ethan Zuckerman:

That is incredible to hear. I’m not sure the credit’s really due to me, but I will take it. Thank you so much for being with us, and this is just so exciting. I hope you get inquiries all over the world coming out of the conference, and I’m going to let you go do the opening. I look forward to being with you at it tomorrow, and thank you for being with us and re-imagining the internet.

GJ Bogaerts:

Thanks very much, Ethan. Bye-bye.

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