Information Law and the Digital Transformation of the University: Navigating Digital Sovereignty, Data Governance, and Access to Research Data

Universities have played a largely reactive role shaping the governance of digital infrastructures in recent decades. So far, the digitalisation of information has primarily been utilised by the private sector, leading to both the concentration and privatisation of data infrastructures in the hands of powerful corporate entities. As a result, these private entities have become a driving force in the design of public universities without the latter having much influence over this. Today, numerous aspects of academic research, educational programmes and institutional facilities are reliant on digital providers in ways that impact universities as independent, public knowledge institutions.

To safeguard academic freedom, and the university’s important societal function more broadly, universities must ensure a sufficient level of digital sovereignty over their data and digital infrastructure, as well as find better ways to articulate the sector’s interest in policy discussions. In this context, the term “sovereignty” refers not so much to geographical sovereignty as to regulatory recognition of universities’ digital requirements and the organisational capacity to leverage these vis-a-via digital providers, shaping the institution’s data governance practices in accordance with relevant public interests at stake.

Whereas the amount of data being generated in our society by digital services is growing exponentially, it becomes increasingly hard for (academic) research to access that data and produce meaningful scientific work about the changing world around us. The concentration and privatization of control over data is generating particularly deep impacts on independent academic research. Indeed, large technology companies only rarely release data under their control for independent outside inquiry. Combined with their resources and reach, these companies have thus become de facto gatekeepers of research agendas. While there might be various reasons for refusing access, important questions remain as to their validity and desirability – especially considering technology companies’ ubiquity and societal impact. These developments put restrictions on data for research in a new light and are a driver for new provisions to guarantee access to data for research in new legislation at the EU level (e.g. the Digital Services Act and the planned Data Act) and new transparency provisions more generally.

To summarize, the digital transformation of the university confronts us with two closely related challenges. Firstly, data on social, economic, political, and cultural activities, processes, phenomena are accumulated by private, often foreign, technological intermediaries who are not willing to share data with researchers. Secondly, educational and research activities are increasingly dependent on private technology infrastructures. Though these two challenges are different, the issue that lies at their heart is the same: it is the owners of the physical data infrastructures who ultimately define the practical, technical, and epistemic terms and conditions in which that data is defined, collected, stored, contextualized, managed, analysed, shared.

In view of the above, there is an increasing urgency to the question of what characterizes digital sovereignty for universities and how best to align institutional data governance practices with the changing realities and applicable laws in this area. Notably, the University of Amsterdam has developed a five pronged-approach to tackle digital sovereignty:

  • Raising awareness on the issue of digital sovereignty;
  • Research into large digital companies to reduce epistemic inequality;
  • Development of public digital infrastructure;
  • Define procurement mechanisms to guard digital sovereignty;
  • Amend (digital) legislation to protect digital sovereignty of universities.

To contribute to this initiative, the administrative staff departments of Legal Affairs, Information Management and Academic Affairs have asked the Institute for Information law (IViR) at the University of Amsterdam to conduct research into the law and policy of digital sovereignty, in relation to universities, as well as the way in which such sovereignty can be concretized in institutional practices and in relation to relevant policy developments in the data governance area.

Specifically, through this project, IViR will carry out multidisciplinary research

  1. to develop the concept of digital sovereignty customised to universities, based on a review of law and legal developments and infrastructural constraints within the university and scientific research context. This will involve a systematic review of the concept of digital sovereignty for public universities, breaking it down into various relevant dimensions in terms of applicable laws, public values, internal policies, and research infrastructures. It will specifically focus on the current and emerging regulatory environment impacting digital sovereignty for universities. In order to ensure a practice-oriented approach, the research will liaise with relevant stakeholders (EOSC, LERU, SURF, VSNU) and practitioners (e.g. data impact assessment specialists like Privacy Company) as well as ongoing projects (e.g. AmdEx) and best practice approaches aimed at resolving digital sovereignty constraints;
  1. to explore, analyse and evaluate how the law can help tackle, rather than reinforce, information asymmetries between academia and (the technology companies managing) private data infrastructures underlying society. Increased transparency and statutory data access requirements are increasingly seen as vital in ensuring independent academic research. We will map relevant legislative developments that affect access to data for research, identifying key gaps and opportunities for the research community. The research will connect to and build on practical insights gained through ongoing research, including Jef Ausloos’ VENI project and our involvement in the Digital Data Donation Infrastructure project, which is aimed at creating an independent infrastructure for Dutch universities, enabling individuals to donate their digital data to academic research in a secure, transparent, and privacy-protecting manner.


The final deliverable will consist of a scientific report (ca. 50 pages) containing a framework on digital sovereignty and access to research data with actionable recommendations. For each of the two themes, the research will involve the organization of a high-level expert workshop, bringing leading academic experts, policy makers, and practitioners together to discuss preliminary findings, gather additional perspectives for the research project, and establish links for engagement in relation to policy developments. Preliminary results, including findings on and input for ongoing legal developments (Data Governance Act, Data Act, Digital Services Act, Digital Markets Act, AI Act, text- and datamining under EU copyright law), will be regularly discussed in progress meetings with relevant UvA staff and other invited experts.

The report will provide policy recommendations on setting priorities for the sector and the University of Amsterdam in particular, including guidance that can be used for operational aspects such as contracting and public procurement. In addition, we will produce a short policy paper that can serve as a basis for engagement with relevant policy makers.

The commissioned research will contribute to the further development and implementation of the UvA Digital Agenda and UvA Open Science Program. It is also expected to benefit building expertise within the procurement capacities of ICTS and the Library, administrative departments of Legal Affairs, Information Management and Academic Affairs and our national and international university associations VSNU and LERU. The research at IViR will contribute to the realization of the Faculty of Law’s involvement in the Sectorplan for the Legal research area in the Netherlands and the University of Amsterdam’s research agenda on the Digital Transformation.

The research will start in 2022 and last for one year.

Rethinking news algorithms: nudging users towards diverse news exposure

Can we design news recommenders to nudge users towards diverse consumption of topics and perspectives? The growing role of news recommenders raises the question of how news diversity can be safeguarded in a digital news landscape. Many existing studies look at either the supply diversity of recommendations, or the effects of (decreased) exposure diversity on e.g. polarization and filter bubbles. Research on how users choose from the available supply is lacking, making it difficult to understand the relation between algorithm design and possible adverse effects on citizens.

We directly address the question of how news recommender algorithms can be designed to optimize exposure diversity. This innovative and interdisciplinary project builds on our extensive expertise on news diversity, news consumption behavior, text analysis and recommender design by providing: (WP1) a normative framework for assessing diversity; (WP2) a language model to automatically measure diversity; (WP3) a model of news consumption choices based on supply, presentation, and individual characteristics; and (WP4) a concrete prototype implementation of a recommender algorithm that optimizes exposure diversity, which will be externally validated in a unique field experiment with our media partners.

The project will bridge the gap between differing understandings of news diversity in computer science, communication science, and media law. This will increase our understanding of contemporary news behavior, yield new language models for identifying topics and perspectives, and offer concrete considerations for designing recommenders that optimize exposure diversity. Together with media companies and regulators we turn these scientific insights into concrete recommendations.

See also:

Political Microtargeting: Safeguarding Public Values

Project description:

Political microtargeting, and the conditions under which the use of AI and data analytics can contribute to, or threaten digital democracy are questions of central academic, societal and political importance. Central challenges to digital democracy are the lack of (1) a theoretical assessment framework, (2) the need for new methods to generate empirical insights into existing practices and their effects on users and society and 3) the lack of concrete suggestions of how to move the discussion from the current, very abstract level to discussing concrete regulatory and policy solutions.

Our research will tackle all three challenges through a unique synthesis of four sets of expertise (political philosophy, law, political communication and computer science) and a mix of sophisticated research methods (including experiments, a survey, digital tools and data analytics) to study political microtargeting on Facebook as a case study. Using democratic theory, we will produce a concrete set of legitimacy conditions that need to be fulfilled for political microtargeting to contribute, rather than harm digital democracy.

The insights from the normative analysis will be complemented, and tested by empirical research into actual practices and effects on voters. Using innovative digital tools, we will unlock the ‘black box’ and make the extent and dynamics of political microtargeting visible. Together, these insights will feed into the legal analysis to develop much-needed legal and policy solutions for governing political microtargeting.

The Political Microtargeting Project is a collaboration between the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, the Institute for Information Law and the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis. The research will be carried out in close cooperation with societal stakeholders (including the Ministries for Justice and BZK) and non-academic partners, such as AlgorithmWatch and the UK NGO ‘Who Targets Me‘.

See also:


Cultural & Creative Sectors and Industries Data Observatory

The cultural and creative sectors and industries (CCSI) are essential for the well-being and competitiveness of Europeans, but the way they are structured, they are often invisible in statistics. Our data observatory aims to be a permanent and reliable data source for socio-economic and socio-legal research and evidence based policy making.

Because most of the European cultural businesses fall into the microenterprise category, their simplified tax returns, financial statements, and statistical reporting provides too little hard data about the way they work, create value, innovate, or apply law.

While official data is hard to find about the CCSI, legally open and digital data is abundant but scattered. Our data observatory aims to be a permanent point of registration and collection of existing big data sources. We are accessing governmental and scientific data sources, which are legally open for re-use, but where data needs to be reprocessed for new scientific, policy or business uses. We also aim to achieve synergies by pooling research capacities and data. We particularly focus on economic, intellectual property and metadata type data.

Data observatories are permanent registration points for information. The automated data observatory concept of IViR and Reprex, an innovative Dutch start-up, is inspired by open-source scientific software and open data design. It automates data collection, documentation, metadata creation, and data integration procedures, and aims to achieve better data quality, and quicker ecosystem growth than existing EU, OECD, or UNESCO observatories.

We follow the concept of open collaboration, which allows the cooperation with IViR on the level of research institutes, universities as well as cultural organizations, microenterprises and even citizen scientists. We encourage individual researchers and organizations to help curating and validating or data, use or data, and bring in more data for a fuller picture.

IViR and Reprex strive to develop a model for transparent, reproducible socio-economic and socio-legal research that encourages data sharing and reuse with its collaborative governance. The CCSI Data Observatory is based on the Digital Music Observatory prototype, which was validated in the Yes!Delft AI+Blockchain Validation Lab and the JUMP European Music Market Accelerator, and our aim is to provide a 21st century path for observatories that fully comply with the best practices of open science and open policy analysis.

  • We place all authoritative copies of data on the open Zenodo repository. Individual can suggest new datasets here.
  • We are placing the datasets and their descriptive and administrative metadata in an open API.

IViR and Reprex aim first to use the observatory within the RECREO consortium. Please contact Daniel Antal, research associate at d.antal [at]  for further information.



Improvement of EU Copyright Data

Programme Description

In the European Strategy for Data, the European Commission highlighted the EU’s ambition to acquire a leading role in the data economy. At the same time, the Commission conceded that the EU would have to increase its pools of quality data available for use and re-use. As this need for enhanced data quality and interoperability is particularly strong in the creative industries, this project examines avenues for the improvement of EU copyright data. Without better data, unprecedented opportunities for monetising the wide variety of creative content in EU Member States and making this content available for new technologies, such as artificial intelligence systems, will most probably be lost. The problem has a worldwide dimension. While the US have already taken steps to provide an integrated data space for music, the EU is facing major obstacles not only in the field of music but also in other creative industry sectors.

Research Consortium

The research project is a collaboration of, and jointly funded by, IViR, the Centre for Information and Innovation Law (University of Copenhagen), CREATe (University of Glasgow), Erasmus University Rotterdam and KU Leuven.


On Thursday, 6 May 2021, an online workshop took place, based on this discussion paper:

Copyright Data Improvement in the EU – Towards Better Visibility of European Content and Broader Licensing Opportunities in the Light of New Technologies


Get together and welcome
Copyright Data – Status Quo and Improvement Initiatives in the EU and the US

Need for Improvement – Content Recommender Systems

Need for Improvement – AI System Training

Incentives for New Initiatives – Costs and Potential New Trade-offs in the Data Economy


  • Burri, Mira – University of Lucerne;
  • Cuntz, Alexander – Head, Creative Economy Section, WIPO;
  • Drazewski, Kasper – Senior Legal Research Officer – Consumer Law, BEUC;
  • van den Eijnde, Vincent – Director, Pictoright; President, European Visual Artists (EVA);
  • Flynn, Sean – Director, Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property, American University Washington College of Law;
  • Fossoul, Virginie – European Commission, DG GROW;
  • Garkova, Inna – European Commission, DG EAC;
  • Giorello, Marco – European Commission, DG CONNECT;
  • Hol, Eric – Chief Information Officer and Director Licensing, BumaStemra;
  • Kabai, Eszter Kabai – CLO, Artisjus;
  • Landova, Tereza – Head of Licensing, Intergram;
  • Martens, Bertin – Joint Research Centre (Seville) of the European Commission;
  • Miks, Tomas – Deputy CO, SOZA;
  • Müller, Benoît – Director, Copyright Management Division, WIPO;
  • van der Net, Cyril – Ministry of Justice and Security, The Netherlands;
  • Özgen, Burak – General Counsel, GESAC;
  • Ormosi, Peter – University of East Anglia;
  • Paic, Alan – OECD;
  • Peukert, Christian – HEC Lausanne;
  • Scacco, Gianpaolo – European Commission, DG EAC;
  • Schmid, Matthias – Ministry of Justice, Germany;
  • Towse, Ruth – Bournemouth University
  • Vanderveken, Inge – Legal & International Affairs, SABAM;
  • Vuopala, Anna – Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland;
  • Woods, Michele – Director, Copyright Law Division, WIPO;
  • Wouters, Rodolphe – European Commission, DG CONNECT;

Responsible Algorithms: How to Safeguard Freedom of Expression Online

Project awarded with NWO-Veni grant 

Due to the unprecedented spread of illegal and harmful content online, EU law is changing. New rules enhance hosting platforms’ obligations to police content and censor speech, for which they increasingly rely on algorithms. João’sproject examines the responsibility of platforms in this context from a fundamental rights perspective.

Hosting platforms—like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube—are the gateways to information in the digital age. They regulate access to content through a range of ‘moderation’ activities, including recommendation, removal, and filtering. These activities are governed by a mix of public and private rules stemming from the law and platforms’ internal norms, such as Terms of Use (TOS) and Community Guidelines.

In light of the unprecedented spread of illegal and harmful content online, the EU and Member States have in recent years enacted legislation enhancing the responsibility of platforms and pushing them towards content moderation. These rules are problematic because they enlist private platforms to police content and censor speech without providing adequate fundamental rights safeguards. The problem is amplified because to cope with the massive amounts of content hosted, moderation increasingly relies on Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems.

In parallel, the EU is ramping up efforts to regulate the development and use of AI systems. However, at EU level, there is little policy or academic discussion on how the regulation of AI affects content moderation and vice-versa. This project focuses on this underexplored intersection, asking the question: How should we understand, theorize, and evaluate the responsibility of hosting platforms in EU law for algorithmic content moderation, while safeguarding freedom of expression and due process?

João’s project answers this question by combining doctrinal legal research, empirical methods, and normative evaluation. First, the research maps and assesses EU law and policies on platform’s responsibility for algorithmic moderation of illegal content, including three sectoral case-studies: terrorist content, hate speech, and copyright infringement. Second, the empirical research consists of qualitative content analysis of platforms’ TOS and Community Guidelines. Finally, the project evaluates the responsibility implications of algorithmic moderation from a fundamental rights perspective and offers recommendations for adequate safeguards.

Empowering Academia through Law: Transparency Rights as Enablers for Research in a Black Box Society

Project awarded with NWO-Veni grant

While modern technological developments have enabled the exponential growth of the ‘data society’, academia struggles to obtain research data from the companies managing our data infrastructures. Jef’s project will critically assess the scientific, legal and normative merits and challenges of using transparency rights as an innovative method for obtaining valuable research data.

With a number of upcoming EU legislative initiatives on transparency, this project could not come at a better time. Indeed, academia is suffering from a great paradox in the digital society. The so-called ‘datafication of everything’ results in unprecedented potential and urgency for independent academic inquiry. Yet, academics are increasingly confronted with unwarranted obstacles in accessing the data required to pursue their role as critical knowledge-institution and public watchdog. An important reason behind this, is the increasing centralisation and privatisation of data infrastructures underlying society. The corporations managing our data-infrastructures have strong (legal, technical and economic) disincentives to share the vast amounts of data they control with academia, effectively reinforcing the ‘black box society’ (Pasquale, 2014). As a result, there is an important power asymmetry over access to data and who effectively defines research agendas. This trend has only worsened after recent ‘data scandals’, especially in the wake of Cambridge Analytica. Calls for more transparency from academia and civil society have been largely unsuccessful and efforts to scrutinise data practices in other ways often run into a range of hurdles. At the same time, new and proposed policy documents on algorithmic transparency and open science/data remain abstract.

Against this backdrop, the project will explore how the law – ie disclosure/transparency obligations and access rights – can be used by the academic research community as a tool for breaking through these asymmetries. This may appear counter-intuitive as academics are often confronted with legal arguments to prevent access to data, often for valid reasons such as privacy protection or intellectual property. Yet, these arguments are often abused as blanket restrictions, preventing more balanced solutions. The project will unpack the many issues underlying this tension and evaluate how the respective information asymmetry between academia and big tech can be resolved in light of the European fundamental rights framework.