Woman climbing mountain with European flag
Post

Working Paper: A vision for the future internet

Read our new working paper, setting out NGI Forward's ambitious vision for the future of the internet.

To coincide with the Next Generation Internet (NGI) Policy Summit on 28 and 29 September, we are launching a working paper and kick-starting a discussion about the policy vision and roadmap we want to set for the Next Generation Internet.

The European Commission’s ambitious Next Generation EU recovery plan aims to not just kickstart economic growth and boost employment, but also
use this moment as an opportunity to catalyse the digital and green twin transition.

The internet and its supporting technologies will be instrumental in making these efforts a success, but we cannot harness its full power unless we solve the underlying, systemic issues currently holding it back.

That is why, in this working paper, we set out an ambitious vision and mission framework to create a more democratic, resilient, sustainable, trustworthy and inclusive internet by 2030.

There is no single silver bullet solution that can help resolve all the challenges presented by connected technologies and the digital economy. Instead, we need a wide variety of interventions to reach our objectives, targeting issues across all layers of the internet’s power stack — from its underlying physical infrastructures to the ways in which information flows through the system and impacts our societies.

Challenges across the layers of our power stack model

We propose unifying the ambitious objectives of the Next Generation Internet initiative into one single mission, to sit alongside the ambitious missions previously defined by the European Commission.

Taking such a mission-based approach will empower policymakers and the public sector to take a holistic view, articulate a compelling European story, and mobilise the right actors in Europe’s diverse technology ecosystem to bring about the changes we want to see.

We focus our efforts on five key pillars: 

Democracy: Power over the internet is concentrated in too few hands. Citizens should have more ownership over their own personal data and identity, and a real voice in the development of new innovation. Building a more democratic internet also means levelling the playing field in the digital economy, allowing more actors to meaningfully compete, and public-interest initiatives to thrive. 

Resilience: A human-centric internet also needs to be resilient in order to ensure the continued reliability and sustainability of its networks and social infrastructures. Mounting cyberthreats, climate shocks and rising demand impact different layers of the system, and require renovation and more secure processes to remain robust. 

Sustainability: If we want the internet and related digital technologies to play a role in solving the climate emergency and further the objectives of the European Green Deal, we need to ensure we minimise their own environmental footprint and advance the circular digital economy. 

Trust: From reading an article on social media to making an online payment — trust in and on the internet is vital if we want to make most of its promise. Europe needs more trustworthy models for online interactions, reliable information, data-sharing and identity management, as well as helping to ease growing distrust in the geopolitical arena. 

Inclusion: The internet needs to be accessible to all. This means removing economic and infrastructural barriers to access, but also the development of a flourishing multilingual internet, where services are available and safe to use for underrepresented communities.

You can download the full report here:

Picture of Toomas Hendrik Ilves
Post

NGI Policy Summit: Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves interview

As president of Estonia from 2006 to 2016, Toomas Hendrik Ilves pushed for digital transformation, ultimately leading Forbes to label him “the architect of the most digitally savvy country on earth”. Every day, e-Estonia allows citizens to interact with the state via the internet. Here, Ilves discusses why other governments might be slower with such […]

As president of Estonia from 2006 to 2016, Toomas Hendrik Ilves pushed for digital transformation, ultimately leading Forbes to label him “the architect of the most digitally savvy country on earth”. Every day, e-Estonia allows citizens to interact with the state via the internet. Here, Ilves discusses why other governments might be slower with such developments, and ponders how things can improve further in the future.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves is one of the speakers of our upcoming NGI Policy Summit, which will take place online on September 28 and 29 2020. Sign up here, if you would like to join us.

This interview originally appeared as part of the NGI Forward’s Finding CTRL collection.

Estonia had a rapid ascent to becoming a leading digital country, how did you push for this as a diplomat in the 90s?

Estonia became independent in ’91, and everyone was trying to figure out what we should do – we were in terrible shape economically and completely in disaster. Different people had different ideas. My thinking was basically that no matter what, we would always be behind.

In ’93, Mosaic came out, which I immediately got. You had to buy it at the time. I looked at this, and it just struck me that, ‘Wow, this is something where we could start out on a level playing field, no worse off than anyone else’.

For that, we had to get a population that really is interested in this stuff, so I came up with this idea – which later carried the name of Tiger’s Leap – which was to computerise all the schools, get computers in all the schools and connect them up. It met with huge opposition, but the government finally agreed to it. By 1998, all Estonian schools were online.

How did things progress from there, and what was the early public reaction like?

We had a lot of support from NGOs. People thought it was a cool idea, and the banks also thought it was a good idea, because they really supported the idea of digitization. By the end of the 90s, it became clear that this was something that Estonia was ahead of the curve on.

But, in fact, in order to do something, you really needed to have a much more robust system. That was when a bunch of smart people came up with the idea of a strong digital identity in the form of a chip card,2 and also developed the architecture for connecting everything up, because we were still too poor to have one big data centre to handle everything. That led to what we call X-Road, which connects everything to everybody, but always through an authentication of your identity, which is what gives the system its very strong security.

It was a long process. I would be lying to say that it was extremely popular in the beginning, but over time, many people got used to it.

I should add that Tiger’s Leap was not always popular. The teachers union had a weekly newspaper, and for about a year, no issue would seem to appear without some op ed attacking me.

Estonia’s e-Residency programme allows non-Estonians access to Estonian services via an e-resident smart card. Do you think citizenship should be less defined by geographical boundaries?

Certain things are clearly tied to your nation, anything that involves political rights, or say, social services – if you’re a taxpayer or a citizen, you get those.

But on the other hand, there are many things associated with your geographical location that in fact have very little to do with citizenship. In the old days, you would bank with your local bank, you didn’t have provisions for opening an account from elsewhere because the world was not globalised. And it was the same thing with establishing companies.

So if you think about those things you can’t do, well, why not? We don’t call it citizenship, you don’t get any citizen rights, but why couldn’t you open a bank account in my country if you want to? If we know who you are, and you get a visual identity, you can open a company.

Most recently, we’ve been getting all kinds of interest from people in the UK. Because if you’re a big company in the UK, it’s not a problem to make yourself also resident in Belgium, Germany, France. If you’re a small company, it’s pretty hard. I mean, they’re not going to set up a brick and mortar office. Those are the kind of people who’ve been very interested in setting up or establishing themselves as businesses within the European Union, which, in the case of Estonia, they can do without physically being there.

What do you think Europe and the rest of the world can learn from Estonia?

There are services that are far better when they’re digital which right now are almost exclusively nationally-based. We have digital prescriptions – wonderful things where you just write an email to your doctor and the doctor will put the prescription into the system and you can go to any pharmacy and pick it up.

This would be something that would be popular that would work across the EU. Everywhere I go, I get sick. My doctor, he puts in a prescription. If I’m in Valencia, Spain, he puts it into the system, which then also operates in Spain.

The next step would be for medical records. Extend the same system: you identify yourself, authorise the doctors to look at your records, and they would already be translated. I would like to see these kinds of services being extended across Europe. Right now, the only cross-border service of this type that works is between Estonia and Finland. It doesn’t even work between Estonia and Latvia, our southern neighbour. So I think it’ll be a while, but it’s a political decision. Technologically, it could work within months. The Finns have adopted our X-road architecture especially easily. It’s completely compatible; we just give it away, it’s non-proprietary open source software.

The technical part is actually very easy, the analogue part of things is very difficult, because they have all these political decisions.

What would your positive vision for the future of the internet look like?

Right now I’m in the middle of Silicon Valley, in Palo Alto, and within a ten mile radius of where I sit are the headquarters of Tesla, Apple, Google, Facebook, Palantir – not to mention all kinds of other companies – producing all kinds of wonderful things, really wonderful things that not only my parents or my grandparents could never even dream of, but even I couldn’t dream of 25 years ago. But at the same time, when I look at the level of services for ordinary people – citizens – then the US is immensely behind countries like Estonia.

The fundamental problem of the internet is summed up in a 1993 New Yorker cartoon, where there’s a picture of two dogs at a computer, and one dog says to the other, “On the internet no-one knows you’re a dog”. This is the fundamental problem of identity that needs to be addressed. It has been addressed by my country.

Unless you have services for people that are on the internet, the internet’s full potential will be lost and not used.

What do you think prevents other nations pursuing this idea of digital identity?

It requires political will. The old model and the one that continues to be used, even in government services in places like the United States, is basically “email address plus password”. Unfortunately, that one-factor identification system is not based on anything very serious.

Governments have to understand that they need to deal with issues such as identity. Unless you do that, you will be open to all these hacks, all of these various problems. I think I read somewhere that in the Democratic National Committee servers, that in 2015 and 2016, they had 126 people who had access to the servers. Of those 126 people, 124 used two-factor authentication. Two didn’t. Guess how the Russians got in.

What we’re running up against today is that people who are lawmakers and politicians don’t understand how technology works, and then people have very new technology that we don’t quite understand the ramifications and implications of. What we really need is for people who are making policy to understand far better, and the people who are doing technology maybe should think more about the implications of what they do, and perhaps read up a little bit on ethics.

On balance, do you personally feel the web and the internet has had a positive or negative influence on society?

By and large, positive, though we are beginning to see the negative effects of social media.

Clearly, the web is what has enabled my country to make huge leaps in all kinds of areas, not least of which is transparency, low levels of corruption, so forth.

I would say we entered the digital era in about 2007, when we saw the combination of the ubiquity of portable devices and the smartphones, combined with social media. This led to a wholly different view of the threat of information exchange. And that is when things, I’d say, started getting kind of out of hand.

I think the invention of the web by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 is probably the most transformative thing to happen since 1452, when Gutenberg invented movable type. Movable type enabled mass book production, followed by mass literacy. That was all good.

But you can also say that the Thirty Years’ War, which was the bloodiest conflict, in terms of proportion of people killed, that Europe has ever had, also came from this huge development of mass literacy. Because it allowed for the popularisation of ideology. Since then, we’ve seen all other kinds of cases; each technology brings with it secondary and tertiary effects.

We don’t quite know yet what the effects are for democracy, but we can sort of hazard a guess. We’re going to have to look at how democracy would survive in this era, in the digital era where we love having a smartphone and reading Facebook.

Picture of Marleen Stikker
Post

NGI Policy Summit: Interview with internet pioneer Marleen Stikker

Marleen Stikker is an internet pioneer who co-founded The Digital City, a non-profit internet provider and community for Dutch people, in 1994. She is now director of Waag, a cultural innovation centre in Amsterdam. Here, she explores the early beginnings of the internet, explains what went wrong, and ponders the future of online life. Marleen […]

Marleen Stikker is an internet pioneer who co-founded The Digital City, a non-profit internet provider and community for Dutch people, in 1994. She is now director of Waag, a cultural innovation centre in Amsterdam. Here, she explores the early beginnings of the internet, explains what went wrong, and ponders the future of online life.

Marleen is one of the speakers of our upcoming NGI Policy Summit, which will take place online on September 28 and 29 2020. Sign up here, if you would like to join us.

This interview originally appeared as part of the NGI Forward’s Finding CTRL collection.

You have personally been involved with the internet from the beginning of the web. What have we lost and gained since those early days?

Back in 1994 when we launched the Digital City, the internet was a green field: it was an open common where shared values thrived. It was an environment for creation, experimentation, and social and cultural values. There was no commercial expectation at that moment and there was no extraction of value for shareholders. The governance of the internet at that time was based on what the network needed to function optimally, the standard committee IETF made its decisions on the basis of consensus.

We lost the notion of the commons: the internet as a shared good. We basically handed it over to the market, and shareholders’ value now defines how the internet functions. We didn’t only lose our privacy but also our self-determination. The internet is basically broken.

What do you think was the most influential decision in the design of the World Wide Web? How could things have turned out differently if we made different decisions?

I think the most important decision was a graphical interface to the internet, enabling different types of visualisation to exist. The World Wide Web brought a multimedia interface to the internet, enabling a visual language. And with that enabling, a whole new group of people got to use the internet.

The World Wide Web became synonymous with pages and therefore publishing, which emphasises the idea it was to do with classical publishing and intellectual rights regulation. Before the World Wide Web, the internet was much more a performative space, a public domain. The publishing metaphor was a set back and for me quite disappointing.

What were the big mistakes where we went wrong in the development of the internet? How do you believe these mistakes have shaped our society?

The whole emphasis on exponential growth, getting filthy rich through the internet, has been a real problem. Basically handing over the internet to the mercy of the capital market has been a major miscalculation. We should have regulated it as a public good and consider people as participants instead of consumers and eyeballs. Now we are not only the product, but the carcass, as Zuboff underlines in her book on surveillance capitalism. All the data is sucked out of us and we act in a scripted nudging environment, captured in the profiles that companies store in their ‘black box’. We should have had encryption and attribute-based identity by default. The fact that these companies can build up their empires without regulation on the use of our data and behaviour has been a major flaw.

We have to re-design how we deal with digital identity and the control over our personal data.

How do you believe the internet has shaped society for the better?

The internet is empowering people by giving means of communication and distribution, and it enables people to share their ideas, designs, and solutions. For instance, in the MakeHealth program that we run at Waag, or the open design activities.

Can you explain your idea for a full-stack internet and tell us more about it?

I believe we have to design the internet as a public stack, which means that we have to start by expressing the public values that will be guiding the whole process, it means that we re-think the governance and business models. We need open and accountable layers of technology, both hardware, firmware operating systems and applications.

It means that we ensure that there is accountability in each part of the internet. At the basis of all this should be the design for data minimisation, data commons, and attribute-based identity so people can choose on what they want to reveal or not.

We are good at diagnosing problems with the internet, but not as great at finding solutions. What should we do next, and who should implement change?

It starts with acknowledging that technology is not neutral. That means that we need to diversify the teams that build our technologies and make public values central. We have to regulate big tech and build alternatives towards a commons based internet. The governmental and public organizations should make explicit choices for public technologies and alternatives.

What is your positive vision for the future of the internet?

After leaving the internet to the market the last 25 years I believe we will need another 25 years to bring back the commons and have a more mature and balanced next generation internet. I do believe 2018 has been a turning point.

Are you personally hopeful about the future of the internet?

I think the coming era could be game changer, if we keep on working together I see a positive future, we can regain a trustworthy internet.

If we use the current crisis for good, we can rebuild a trustworthy internet. We will need to rethink the principles behind the internet. We need to be thorough and choose an active involvement.

On the whole, do you think the web, and the internet more broadly, has had a positive or negative influence on society?

Both… It gave a lot of people a voice and a way of expression, which is still one of the major achievements of the internet. But it also put our democracies in danger and if we are not able to counter these new powers, the outcome will be a very negative one. If you can’t counter surveillance capitalism the outcome of the cost-benefit will be extremely negative.

Post

New Horizons in Search – workshop blog

On November 13th, the NGI Forward project (the NGI’s initiative’s Policy Lab) held an expert workshop on the topic of search and discovery in the Atelier de Tanneurs in Brussels.  This workshop brought together over 30 invited experts from across Europe to reflect on the future of internet search, and help shape the European Commission’s […]

On November 13th, the NGI Forward project (the NGI’s initiative’s Policy Lab) held an expert workshop on the topic of search and discovery in the Atelier de Tanneurs in Brussels. 

This workshop brought together over 30 invited experts from across Europe to reflect on the future of internet search, and help shape the European Commission’s funding and policy agenda in this important area. 

This blog discusses some of the main take-aways of this day; a longer report, informed by all the great insights we gathered during the day, will follow soon. If you are interested in being involved in these conversations, do get in touch with the NGI Forward project or sign up to stay informed here.  

Search and discovery?

The way in which we order, discover and retrieve information online is one of the, if not the, key building blocks of the internet. It is therefore no surprise that many of today’s technology debates prominently feature aspects of search and discovery: from fairness in automated decision-making and recommendation algorithms, to the sustainability of the internet; from the impact of online disinformation on our democracies to centralisation in the digital economy.

But it is not just in the present that these topics are so important. New technological developments in, for example, artificial intelligence and the IoT space as well as rising hyper-connectivity blurring the boundaries between offline and online, might dramatically change how we think about search in years ahead. This workshop is an opportunity to surface some of these emerging dynamics and opportunities. 

Search and discovery is a key topic on the agenda of the Next Generation Internet, the European Commission’s ambitious flagship programme aimed at building a more inclusive, democratic and resilient future internet. The purpose of the workshop was to bring together experts working on different aspects of search, across disciplines and industries, to reflect on the current state of the field, and recommend ways in which the NGI can help strengthen existing ecosystems.

Throughout the day, we focused on answering three key questions

  • What are today’s main challenges and opportunities in the space of search: what does the current landscape look like? 
  • What might search and discovery look like in 5 to 10 years? How are emerging dynamics reshaping this space? 
  • What can we the search community do to help ? What are Mechanisms to strengthen the ecosystem

Biggest challenges and opportunities in search today
At the start of the workshop, we asked all participants to share what they thought were the biggest challenges and opportunities driving development in search and discovery. From this exercise, we’ve collected a lot of very varied and in-depth insight into the current state of the space. 

As a group, we distilled the discussion into five overarching umbrella topics:

  • Centralisation of power: Many elements of search are dominated by just a handful of players. How do we find the kind of business models and seize new opportunities around, for example, decentralisation that might help level the playing field in this key sector of the digital economy?  

    Participants emphasised we should not just look at centralisation when it comes to access to data (and respective size of user bases), but take a full-stack approach, where we look at how power can be better distributed across layers of the internet. 
  • Sustainability and resilience: One key concerns several participants surfaced was the environmental impact of search and data storage more broadly on the planet. The budding field of green search tries to address the high energy intensity that comes with search- from ensuring we minimise computing power required to run search queries to ensuring we limit storage and duplication of data. Developments across the search space should be studied with a sustainability lens in might: emerging opportunities in, for example, object search and IoT might help make some processes smarter and more efficient, but are also likely to add new strains on the system.

    One interesting insight that emerged from our discussions on sustainability was on the need to be careful when we think about making processes more decentralised in order to reduce their energy intensity. Greener or more distributed alternatives are often good in essence, but do not always scale as well as existing systems- sometimes inadvertently increasing inefficiencies rather than reduce them. Careful cost-benefit analyses are necessary before we lock ourselves into new systems.
  • Creating a user base for alternatives: Though there are many alternative solutions out there, few manage to compete with the large actors dominating this space. Part of that is a function of economics, but our participants also pointed out that smaller (open source) tools often do not do a particularly good job when it comes to user experience and usability. Addressing these challenges will require a myriad of different solutions, which will be discussed in greater depth in our final report.

    What all participants agreed on, however, is that there is an important role to play for the European Commission- both in levelling the playing field through setting fair rules, but also through procuring and funding alternatives, enabling them to find a larger market and find pathways to sustainability on the funding front. 
  • Data quality and access: trust, bias & fairness: How do we ensure search and recommendation systems base their decisions on high-quality and representative data and do not perpetuate existing inequalities? Underpinning black-box algorithms are often hard to understand and near-impossible to challenge, which can lead to the unfair targeting of certain groups, or, probably more pertinent to the field of search, steer our behaviour in directions not of our own choosing or otherwise bias outcomes (e.g. women being shown job ads for less well-paid positions than their male counterparts).

    More investment in research and tools that can help us better understand or respond to these biases and inequalities is much needed (though we must not let currently hot debates about ethics in data and automated decision-making overshadow other persistent issues in the space). 
  • Multilingualism: The dominance of English and other major world languages on the internet means that we lose out on a lot of richness of content (which is not taken into account in search queries, for example), and exclude large groups from benefiting fully from the digital economy. The European Union, home to an incredible linguistic diversity within its borders, can play an important frontrunner role in developing a more multilingual internet. 

What might the future hold? 
What might the field of search and discovery look like in five to ten years? How are emerging developments in the search space, such as new possibilities in cognitive and object search, and broader social dynamics reshaping the field? 

What kind of real societal problems could these new possibilities help solve? Can we, for example, make aspects of search greener or help level the playing field in the digital economy? And what new challenges might they instead surface?

Participants agreed that if Europe wants to expand its role in the field of search, it needs to address some of the key challenges we face today, but also seize emerging opportunities and technological advances in the space.  Our participants pointed out that a lot of existing dynamics will only become more entrenched as the field of search expands beyond the current confines of “the internet”. Addressing economic, social and political challenges will worsen if we don’t address them now. 

There are however also many very exciting opportunities and growth fields that will likely transform the field in years and decades ahead. That’s not just topics like green search, the emerging opportunities for objects to communicate with each other, and also be “found” by one another (object search) and ways of making search more serendipitous and better able to recommend us things we might not yet know about, but fit our patterns of interest (rather than linear recommendations).

It’s also important to not treat the field of search as a vacuum: emerging dynamics in other technology field will interlink and expand the possibilities we currently have at our disposal. Think for example of the previously mentioned IoT space, but also advances in 5G, which will make continuous, real-time connectivity, discoverability and communication possible, or AI and Machine Learning. 

Where do we go next? 
After a hugely insightful workshop, we are not done with this work. Our upcoming report will summarise the key insights the group surfaced during the day, and will also make a set of high-level recommendations for what the European Commission should do to help strengthen the search and discovery ecosystem. But we also want to hear from the wider community about what topics we might not have covered, and further deepen our understanding of emerging issues in this space in the coming months. 

If you want to take part in these conversations, do join the conversation on our NGI Exchange Platform. 

Post

Exploring an NGI Trustmark

Trustmarks are a well-established mechanism which help consumers make more informed decisions about the goods and services they buy. We all know the fairtrade stamp on our bananas, trust environmental certifications, and value Better Business Bureau stickers. Where we haven’t seen the trustmark used much yet, or at least not very effectively, is within the […]

Trustmarks are a well-established mechanism which help consumers make more informed decisions about the goods and services they buy. We all know the fairtrade stamp on our bananas, trust environmental certifications, and value Better Business Bureau stickers. Where we haven’t seen the trustmark used much yet, or at least not very effectively, is within the space of responsible technology and software. 

After a series of highly public scandals which have put in question the trustworthiness of the technology and tools we rely on (from privacy violations and data misuse to large data breaches), there is a rising demand among the general public for ethical, responsible alternatives. It is however not always easy for consumers to find these alternatives, partially due to a lack of easy-to-understand and -find information (among a deluge of apps, how do we know which ones are most careful with handling our data, for example?), but also because of the lack of maturity of the marketplace for these types of tools to begin with (few have been able to gain real traction).

Trustmarks could help solve these issues. A stamp of quality for products that, for example, follow high security standards, do not track and sell the data of their users or use ethical production processes, could make it easier for consumers to pick out these tools in a crowded marketplace, and simultaneously raise awareness about how some of these values are not embodied by many of today’s most popular tools. Furthermore, a trustmark could support the creation of an ecosystem and market around ethical tools, which can struggle as being “responsible” often means compromising on user friendliness, effective marketing and above all profitability. 

Exploring the Trustmark idea in the digital space

On September 25 2019, the NGI Forward held a short workshop on trustmarks as part of the NGI Forum, the Next Generation Internet’s flagship community event. This document outlines the key messages and take-aways from this workshop. 

In this small workshop we brought 16 participants together to explore trustmarks in more depth, and examine their potential value and how they could be practically employed. Before trustmarks can be put to the test, there are a lot of open questions left to be answered. In this workshop, we surfaced many of the key issues that still need to be resolved and different potential solutions. 

Many of the participants in the workshop reported already being involved in the development of some sort of digital trustmark. There are a number of trustmark type initiatives emerging in areas such as the responsible use of data, Internet of Things (IoT) and cyber security. For example the Trustable Technology Mark (https://trustabletech.org/) developed for IoT devices or Sitra’s work on the concept of a ‘Fair data label’ to inform consumers about services’ compliance with basic principles and standards of data protection and reuse. Many of these initiatives are asking the same kinds of questions the workshop set out to explore, how could a trustmark for internet related products or services provide value, what factors make a trustmark a success and which areas should a trustmark cover? Many of these projects have already faced some key challenges, which are explored more below. 

How could a trustmark be useful? 

The main benefit of the trustmark model is the opportunity to empower consumers to make informed decisions about the product or services they are using and it also helps companies to prove their products or services are ‘trustworthy’. It is clear that consumers increasingly have trust issues around the digital products and services that they use, whether those be privacy concerns or potential harms emerging from automated algorithm- based decision making (such as targeted ads or curated social media news streams). Trustmarks may also be able to add additional value, not just for consumers but also for companies and the EU’s drive to make the next generation internet (NGI) more ‘human-centric’.

Trustmarks could help create a market for responsibly created, trustworthy products. This could help encourage the creation of more products and services that compete with existing business models that are largely based on data exploitation and monetisation, and offer a ‘responsible’ alternative. Trustmarks could also help further raise awareness among consumers of the many issues digital products and services can create.  At the same time a new market for responsible, trustworthy products, services and business models may help embed ‘human-centric’ values into the next generation of innovations. Introducing greater transparency around products, services or business models is one of the central ways trustmarks could help facilitate this change. Trustmarks could also improve trust in the digital economy, a critical step in making the most of the digital economy and providing improved private and public services.  

Challenges:

Scope

Successful existing trustmarks cover a wide range of things, from adherence to health and safety standards to ethical business practices. They often focus on one area rather than covering every element that may benefit from indicating ‘trustworthiness’.  A narrower focus can help with consumer engagement as it is easier to convey a single idea over several different metrics outlining many different aspects of what a ‘good’ product is. However, too narrow a focus may not cover all necessary issues, thereby giving consumers a false impression of trustworthiness of the overall solution. This difficult balancing act around getting the scope and remit of a trustmarks right, is particularly challenging for digital and internet products as the issues we have seen emerge around them are so multifaceted. Data collection and use, cybersecurity, accessibility, physical elements of a product, hardware and software etc. Could a useful comprehensive NGI trustmark be created that covers anything from a social media picture app, an IoT sensor to AI algorithms? 

To identify some of the important areas an NGI trustmark could cover, workshop participants focused on individual high-level issues, such as sustainability or responsible data use, rather than attempting to construct a comprehensive trustmark, which the group both agreed would not be particularly useful, nor viable to debate in the short time available for the workshop. 

However even focusing on narrower areas identified many different open questions and concerns that merit further exploration. Participants found there were differing needs, risks and norms across sectors and verticals, for example retail and health, which meant that standards for “good” would likely differ significantly across solutions and applications. 

Metrics and evaluation

For trustmarks to work, we require reliable and easily transferable ways to measure and evaluate how well a product, service or business model meets the relevant requirements. For some areas discussed during the workshop, for example CO2 consumption or energy use as part of sustainability, it would be fairly easy to develop appropriate metrics (particularly as there are already other product trustmarks that do this), but for other, perhaps more subjective, areas like data handling, bias and discrimination, or ethical practice developing such metrics is much more difficult and fuzzy. 

Assessment may also be hampered by two additional factors;

  1. Software is continuously being updated and changed. How can we make sure that after repeated tweaks, products or services still meet the trustmark’s basic requirements? Is it viable for any governance system to oversee such a vast, rapidly changing landscape? 
  2. ‘Black box’ systems, which generally refer to complex AI algorithms in this context, limit the ability to be open and transparent. We may not know what the system is doing or how it achieves the outputs it creates. Alternative metrics may be required in these instances (for example focusing on data handling or data sources), or the trustmark could focus only on explainable systems. 

Another related question around how the trustmark works is whether it is used to define a set of minimum requirements or it is used to identify ‘best practice’. Minimum standards make it easier for more companies or products to acquire a trustmark, but also mean that the solutions championed do not necessarily push the bar for good behaviour. Minimum standards might even reward bad behaviour in some cases, where companies are encouraged to only do the bare minimum. 

Governance model

How to govern trustmarks is one of the biggest challenges in making them a success. Building trust in a trustmark requires the involvement of well-respected institutions, and, as many participants noted, can be very expensive. Especially the auditing and review of solutions, is an open question. 

The digital landscape is vast: if demand from the private sector for the trustmark increases, this could potentially involve hundreds of thousands of companies. There are many ways of doing assessments, either through self assessment or auditing by an independent auditing body (often the outcome is somewhere in between the two). Participants indicated that the focus should be more on independent self-assessment to avoid false self-reporting. However this creates other challenges in terms of resourcing and ability. Any governing body with assessment responsibilities would need to be resourced appropriately to carry out its functions. In light of the growth of the digital economy and ongoing auditing needs as software is updated this may be significant. This raises the question of how the trustmark would be paid for. If it is paid for by companies who apply it may put additional barriers in the way of smaller companies, startups or free, open source software. 

The governance of the trustmark also needs to be tied to a trusted organisation itself, in order to help strengthen support and credibility of the trustmark. Participants felt that the European Commission was in a strong position to play this kind of role. Participants also indicated that many initiatives have stalled or failed to come to fruition due to a lack of funding or support from a larger independent institution. 

Business models and consumers

A trustmark’s success will be heavily dependant on how effectively it can help disrupt entrenched business models and create a market for alternative, responsible companies. This will be particularly difficult in the data economy where many different companies have vested interests and lobbyists will play an influential role. 

Perhaps most important of all however is consumer engagement. If consumers are apathetic about an NGI related trustmark then it will never achieve any of the potential goals set out above. Workshop participants did not consider this to be a big challenge however, as many polls and public engagement exercises have already demonstrated the public’s interest in areas like privacy, data use and sustainability concerns. Trustmarks can be used in several ways, identifying potential impacts on the user or environment, a way to educate consumers or through eliciting a ‘feel good’ response (eg fairtrade approach).

Themes

Participants also brought up a variety of other important topics trustmarks could potentially be used for: 

  • Sustainability: The sustainability of the internet itself, software and hardware are becoming a topic of ever greater salience, though public awareness about the large environmental footprint of many of their connected devices and internet use remains limited. One possible way of encouraging technology companies to adopt more sustainable ways would be to design a trustmark around these issues (which could everything from CO2 emissions from data centres, energy efficiency, ability to recycle a device, etc.). 
  • Privacy and data use: Trustmarks could be given out to companies whose tools handle their users’ data in a particularly secure way, allow for data portability, otherwise make valuable datasets available to third parties in a responsible way, or use particularly transparent models for consent, to name just some examples of concrete interventions we could evaluate on in this realm. 
  • Cybersecurity: Also cybersecurity is often touted as a potential focus of a trustmark, particularly in the Internet of Things space. Has a solution of device successfully undergone a security audit? How transparent is the company about cyber breaches and underlying vulnerabilities? How securely do they store users’ data? Though this is an interesting area, lack of transparency might make it hard in practice to certify tools. 
  • AI ethics: Using trustmarks to formalise AI ethics principles in specific tools often came up as a possible application. Could we give trustmarks to solutions that offer transparency about the inner-workings of their algorithms? Make serious efforts to reduce bias? Subjectivity and lack of agreement about what “ethical” means, will require intensive efforts to build a coalition around this topic. 
>