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How video games are becoming the next frontier in the ‘Tech Cold War’

The 'platformisation' of the games industry is posing some serious challenges for Europe and the internet at large.

What is a platform and when does it require regulation? Just as lawmakers in Brussels are beginning to seriously grapple with this question, researchers at the University of Amsterdam have published a paper on the evolution of the free-to-play shooter game Fortnite into a content delivery platform and its potential for manipulation

What the researchers identified are two mutually reinforcing trends that blur the lines between certain online games and traditional platforms: by curating in-game events, adding social-media-like features and enabling increasingly sophisticated player interaction, games have the potential to become platforms in all but name, giving developers and third parties an engaging, new channel for the delivery of paid content and services, which can range from pop music concerts and movie trailer premieres to political campaigns

Modern games can also play with our expectations, emotions and needs in ways that elude other means of expression. At their best, this makes games a powerful medium for introspection, education and social commentary. At their least ethical, it reveals the lengths to which some designers will go to manipulate their hyper-engaged audience – from Freemium titles that artificially limit and time content to induce FOMO (the fear of missing out), to addictive in-game microtransactions that resemble gambling in all but name. 

Games that act as quasi-platforms can generate billions of Euros in revenue – Photo by Sean Do on Unsplash

What makes these trends more concerning is that the global gaming industry is exhibiting the tell-tale signs of ‘platformisation’ even at the macro level. Having experienced a period of democratisation and significant growth on the production side in the late 2000s and early 2010s – consider, for example, the advent of app stores and the renaissance of indie games – we are today seeing a period of heavy consolidation and centralisation of market power. And just as in other segments of the tech and creative industries, the new gatekeepers of gaming are engaged in winner-takes-all battles for attention, data, monetisation and intellectual property. 

Why Europe is losing out 

Widely recognised as one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, some estimates see the gaming sector turning over as much as $300 billion by 2025. Already today, games significantly outpace the global film and music industries. While the EU is a major consumer market for games, with revenues in excess of €21 billion in 2019 alone, it lacks the corporate heavyweights that dominate the industry in Asia and North America. As in other segments of the technology sector and creative industries, Europe boasts a rich tapestry of world-class developers and innovators but is home to few of the major studios or publishers and, at best, plays a supporting role in the development of gaming hardware, services and infrastructure. With the loss of the UK’s exceptionally strong gaming sector – which gave birth to Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto – to Brexit, it’s fair to say that Europe risks once again falling behind the big and, in China’s case, emerging players – a familiar refrain in the Tech Cold War.

Making Europe competitive in gaming will require greater support and smarter, forward-thinking regulation at the transnational level. Until relatively recently, the politics and regulation of video games were largely under the purview of national governments. Like many other areas of cultural and media policy, EU Member States tend to treat video games as a national competence. Often that means that countries have to go it alone when they feel the need to regulate, as Belgium did with its recent ban on loot boxes in games. But as online gaming and digital distribution are becoming the norm, it’s no longer possible to ignore the medium’s borderless nature and geopolitical relevance. Brussels needs to be prepared to deal with the looming challenges of the industry.

Through the technology glass

One solution is to look at gaming through the prism of platforms, technology and data policy, rather than just media and creative industries policy. This makes sense for several reasons. Firstly, on topics like Europe’s ‘digital sovereignty’ or the future of AI, the institutions in Brussels have finally come to terms with the idea that digital, competition and foreign policy are inextricably intertwined. As with data governance or social media regulation, it makes sense to view video games in the same context of Europe’s systemic competition with the Chinese and U.S. digital economies. 

Secondly, large swathes of today’s gaming industry are owned, controlled or gate-kept by a small number of dominant and data-hungry technology companies, many of which are U.S. or China-based. That is a notable change from the early days of gaming when the industry was shaken up by garage start-ups, medium-sized toymakers, slot machine operators and manufacturers of HiFi equipment.

Lastly, gaming is plagued by many of the same transnational issues that we’re dealing with in technology and data policy. The gaming sector, too, struggles to contain the power of platforms, ensure fair competition, curtail the amplification of harmful content and champion data protection. Its concerns, too, include the manipulation of online marketplaces, foreign takeovers and the security and safety of products and services. 

A ‘platformer’ as a platform is a platform

As the University of Amsterdam paper shows, a small sub-segment of games can – and probably should – be considered content delivery platforms. Sticking with their example, Fortnite is not so much a game in the traditional sense as it is an adaptable infrastructure that allows its developer Epic Games to deliver content and services, including advertising and product placements, to players in a highly engaging and immersive way.

Blurring the line between game and platform: Fortnite recently staged an in-game film festival – Image: Epic Games

Despite being nominally free-to-play, Fortnite operates its own marketplace and in-game currency. It generates billions of dollars in microtransactions and even manages to mobilise its players to express their political support for developer Epic’s antitrust disputes. It also boasts around 350 million registered players, an unknown but no doubt significant percentage of which are underage. In sheer numbers, that puts it on par with Twitter’s 330 million users. Unlike Twitter, however, Europe’s political class has taken relatively little notice of what’s going on over at Fortnite. 

Trying to target Fortnite with ex-post regulation in 2021 would be missing the point. The game has been around for over three years, a lifetime in a fast-moving industry. It’s also just one highly-visible example of symptoms that affect an increasingly ‘platformised’ and politicised industry. Take PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), a popular South Korean eSports title that goes heavy on microtransactions and has been downloaded a respectable 800 million times

Because PUBG’s mobile version was co-developed by China’s Tencent, India recently moved to ban the game, describing it, alongside TikTok and a host of other Chinese apps, as a threat to the country’s ‘sovereignty and integrity’. In response, PUBG’s South Korean developers felt compelled to end their collaboration with Tencent in India.

There’s no immediate appetite in the EU to replicate such politically fraught measures, but the steady escalation of the Huawei controversy has shown that international political pressure to sanction tech companies can build up quickly and India’s decision on PUBG demonstrates how geopolitical context matters. In a country still set to bring more than 600 million of its citizens online, mobile games are a huge driver of smartphone adoption. Putting them under the microscope as vectors for soft power, economic exploitation and cyber attacks seems not entirely unreasonable.

Won’t somebody please think of the children?

Whether or not they would accept their classification as platform providers, it’s fair to say that the better-resourced publishers and gaming service providers have become more mindful of their responsibilities when it comes to ‘traditional’ online harms, particularly safeguarding minors. The rallying cry of “protect the children” – whether that’s from gratuitous violence, too much screen time or online grooming – has been a depressing constant in the politics of video games for decades, even if the evidence base often remains shaky

Responding to a proliferation of national-level initiatives to regulate social media and online services after 2016, the gaming industry in Europe was quick to differentiate itself from traditional platforms, emphasising its responsible business practices and comparatively functional self-regulatory regime. Amping up their efforts to protect minors, who generally make up a larger share of the user base in games than they would on platforms like Facebook, the industry has been pushing its own online safety codes, educational campaigns and parental controls. Some platforms have rolled out automated flagging of suspicious online conversations to tackle grooming and online child sexual exploitation

The Uncensored Library makes banned journalism available inside the game Minecraft – Image: Uncensored Library

Playful propaganda

But as gamers get older – the average age of video game players in the EU is 31 years – and the industry finds itself at the centre of geopolitical competition, other ‘online harms’ are likely to come into focus. In 2019, Reporters without Borders released the Uncensored Library, essentially a Minecraft server granting in-game access to banned journalistic articles in an attempt to evade internet censorship in countries where Western social media channels were banned. Although laudable on its own terms, the project highlights how video games can become vectors and catalysts for political speech and even propaganda, a complex phenomenon that deserves a differentiated policy response. 

Concerns over radicalisation loom especially large. At least since the Gamergate controversy of 2014, there is an implicit assumption that gaming subcultures skew towards digitally-native, hyper-engaged adolescent males with extreme views, a combination of characteristics often targeted by Russia’s Internet Research Agency and other state-sponsored troll farms. On the whole, that characterisation doesn’t hold true. Gamers are a more diverse and representative crowd than we give them credit for, and the stigmatisation of players as violent, at-risk individuals or misogynist shut-ins is more counterproductive than helpful when trying to identify or address the issue. 

As a recent paper by the Radicalisation Awareness Network points out, public debate on the relationship between games and radicalisation – stoked after far-right attacks in Christchurch, Halle and El Paso – tends to oversimplify and conflate distinct issues. Games that are designed as propaganda tools, such as Hezbollah’s Special Force, will require a different response than the use of gaming-adjacent communication tools by radicals. Similarly, the use of gaming-cultural references by extremist sympathisers is not quite the same as the application of game design principles to terrorist recruitment, as exemplified by virtual scoreboards for ‘successful’ attacks. If policymakers in Brussels are serious about curtailing challenges like radicalisation, grooming and misinformation on the internet, then a good evidence base on the relationship of these issues with games should be the priority – preferably before reductive media narratives take hold and limit their scope to act. 

States of play

Data flows and foreign takeovers present another contentious issue worth examining in this regard. Online games, and mobile games, in particular, are becoming an increasingly important source and beneficiary of data harvesting. As state or state-owned actors are beginning to invest in video games on a large scale, their ties to the industry are inevitably going to raise questions about the downstream use and potential abuse of gaming data. It’s easy to see how an increasingly state-sponsored gaming landscape could have a similarly destabilising effect on public trust as the arrival of Russian TV and Chinese tabloids had on the Western media ecosystem in the 2010s. 

Indeed, the biggest area of concern seems to be China’s meteoric rise in the games industry, which makes as much sense economically as it does in terms of strategic data access. With investments in over 300 gaming companies, Tencent has rapidly become the world’s biggest video game publisher. Allegations of data-sharing between the tech giant and the Chinese government have already been the subject of occasional criticism, but its stakes in gaming companies with significant data assets, including Fortnite developer Epic Games and eSports giant Riot Games, are likely to receive more scrutiny going forward.  

‘Esports diplomacy’ is already shaping international relations – Photo by Sean Do on Unsplash

Whether data is genuinely at risk in these cases may almost be beside the point. If Europe wants to rekindle the public’s trust in data-sharing and the digital economy, its regulators and policymakers will have to become much better at anticipating, understanding and addressing data and takeovers issues in the games industry. 

Playing to win

These problems extend beyond games that function like platforms themselves. Even ‘offline’ titles or online games that don’t quite fit the description of ‘quasi-platform’ tend to be inextricably linked to services that do. Plug-and-play is a thing of the past. In today’s video game economy, players have to interact with external platform providers that distribute games, enable access to additional content, track and broadcast their achievements, connect them to other players across the world and allow eSports enthusiasts to cheer for their favourite pro gamers. 

Fortnite’s success, for example, is enabled by a platform-powered ecosystem that includes, but is not limited to, the developer’s own Epic Games Store, Twitch, Steam, YouTube, Playstation Network, Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Store, and many others. Pending a European antitrust complaint as well as several lawsuits, the iOS App Store and Google Play Store may or may not be added back to that list eventually. Last summer, both Apple and Google pulled Fortnite for breaching store policies when Epic tried to circumvent their in-app purchasing systems, which funnel 30 cents on every dollar made to Cupertino and Mountain View respectively.

Zooming out to the macroeconomic level, the Epic feud becomes just one of the many battles over platformisation, centralisation and anti-competitive practices that are set to define the next decade in gaming. 

The effect of platform economics on games is equally obvious in the context of more open systems like the PC. Digital distribution is well-established and largely driven by bonafide platforms like Valve’s Steam store. It has cut out most of the middlemen and almost completely collapsed the second-hand economy. With packaging, discs, transportation, logistics and brick-and-mortar retailers out of the equation, publishers are seeing more money for their product and consumers get instant access to software from the comfort of their own home. Controversially, however, Steam – operated by a company that only employs around 360 people – takes a 30 per cent cut on every game sold through its platform. Much like Apple and Google, it has become a gatekeeper and quasi-essential infrastructure for PC gamers. 

The list of grievances associated with Steam, and digital distribution more generally, reads eerily familiar to platform critics everywhere: asymmetrical contractual agreements with developers and publishers, unfair trading practices, data mining, targeted advertising, fake reviews and intransparent search algorithms that often dictate whether small-time developers get any consumer exposure at all. But 17 years into its existence, the Steam model is unlikely to change. Policymakers should focus on what’s next.

If you can’t beat them, integrate them: GOG is building a meta-platform to integrate the various gaming platforms and networks – Image: GOG Galaxy

The next big thing

Among the handful of remaining players in digital distribution on PC, a familiar winner-takes-all mentality has taken hold. Would-be competitors need serious financial heft. Perhaps it’s therefore not surprising that Steam’s most serious challengers are backed by some of the world’s most valuable companies: Tencent is going head-to-head, while Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook are all looking to disrupt the digital distribution model in their own ways. 

Europe, as in most other areas of the tech industry, sees itself relegated to the roles of consumer and supporting act. GOG, part of Poland’s CDProjekt Group, provides gamers with a relatively traditional store experience and boasts some laudable principles, such as integration of competitor platforms, DRM-free ownership of software and fairer treatment of developers, but it has so far struggled financially

Tencent’s bid to corner the market comes courtesy of the Epic Games Store which, boosted by a cash injection from the tech giant and soaring Fortnite revenues, launched in late 2018. Intent on carving out a significant piece of the market before it’s too late, the service adopted an aggressive strategy: to lure in potential customers, it has given out at least one free game every week since launch – totalling more than 749 million giveaways in 2020 alone. In addition, Epic has signed a host of expensive exclusivity deals that prevent other distribution platforms from selling popular titles.

Across the Atlantic, perhaps the most serious attempt at shaking up the gaming market comes from Microsoft. Redwood pursues a more ambitious and novel business model than Epic, but at its core, it employs a similarly predatory pricing strategy. By moving its own game catalogue and dozens of licensed titles to the Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft combines a heavily subsidised, monthly subscription model with an opaquely curated selection of games. It also integrates the offering with its Microsoft Store, Xbox Live network and xCloud on-demand gaming service. Not content with limiting its ambitions to just one hardware base, Microsoft provides the service to Xbox consoles, PC and mobile devices, all of which can be covered with a single subscription. If Fortnite is a quasi-platform, Xbox Game Pass is designed to become a hyper-platform, and its strategy raises questions for consumer choice, competition and privacy. 

Service bundling, exclusivity agreements and aggressive pricing are the name of the game for Big Tech – Image: Xbox Game Pass

Whoever emerges victorious from the war over digital distribution, both consumers and innovators will likely suffer in the long term. Players may at first rejoice at the idea of a weekly giveaway or a ‘Netflix for games’, but will eventually find themselves trapped in yet another walled garden. Developers and creatives, in turn, may hope to strike gold through greater and more targeted exposure on a highly centralised platform, but they too will find themselves at the whim of largely unaccountable and self-interested gatekeepers. Smaller competitors will struggle to gain traction or survive, as aggressive pricing strategies will always favour the giants, whose access to consumer data and endless lines of credit enables them to take and hedge long-term risks. 

What’s left to play for?

After more than a decade of platform economics, the dynamics shaping today’s gaming industry are easy enough to spot. Their consequences may not always be predictable, but on balance they are likely to perpetuate the the same inequalities that we observe in the digital economy at large, further centralising power and profits in the hands of fewer market actors. 

The stakes in this new theatre of the ‘Tech Cold War’ are high and, as in other sectors of the digital economy, Europe is at risk of not just losing out economically. In gaming, it could lose in a race for soft power at home and abroad. An overly passive Europe risks becoming a rule-taker, rather than a standard-setter; a captive consumer, rather than an innovator and market-shaper; and, in the parlance of privacy, a data subject, rather than a data controller. Not every excess of the industry will require disruptive, top-down regulation from Brussels. But policymakers across Europe would do well to spend more time reflecting on games and where the medium is headed. 

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Two days to change the internet: the NGI Policy Summit 2020

The Next Generation Internet Policy Summit has gone off with a bang. Find out how it went here.

The Next Generation Internet Policy Summit has gone off with a bang. Organised by Nesta and the City of Amsterdam this September, the Summit brought together participants from all over Europe and beyond to shape a vision for the future internet, moving the conversation on from the diagnosis of past and present challenges to the exploration of practical, concrete solutions. Here are some of the highlights.

100 speakers

33 sessions

650 attendees

45 countries represented

Originally scheduled for the end of June 2020 in Amsterdam, the Summit was rescheduled and reformulated for online participation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday 28th September, the Summit began with a morning of Plenary sessions curated by Nesta and the City of Amsterdam. We made Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning available for our Policy-in-Practice workshop sessions, and then finished on Tuesday afternoon with a further series of plenary sessions to close the Summit.

Together with policymakers, researchers, and representatives from civil society, we looked at some of the most promising policy interventions and technological solutions, forging a path that cities, Member States and the European Union could follow.

A tangible vision and the steps to get there

We stirred the imaginations of our attendees by launching our new working paper to coincide with the Summit: A vision for the future internet, which is packed full of analysis and ideas for how to create a better internet by 2030. With such a broad range of people and issues involved in shaping the internet, it is clear that a coherent vision is required to tie it all together. We want to hear from you with feedback on the paper.

We were also honoured to host a keynote from the European Commission as they set out their post-COVID-19 recovery agenda. Pearse O’Donohue, Director of Future Networks at the Commission, outlined the way that technology and environmentalism must come together in a ‘twin transition’. He described the broader impact of the Next Generation Internet Initiative, and how the Commission’s funding and research are contributing to the creation of an Internet of Humans. Pearse has also written a blog to capture his message.

A transparent approach to AI

The City of Amsterdam’s deputy mayor, Touria Meliani, also launched the world’s first AI registry, co-designed by Amsterdam and the City of Helsinki. This AI registry provides citizens with a powerful tool to understand how algorithms are being used by their local governments to make decisions, putting principles of fairness and accountability into practice. We heard that transparency is a huge issue for the way artificial intelligence and algorithms are being used to make decisions about that data. Deputy Mayor Meliani said: ‘When we say as a city: algorithms are useful for our city, it’s also our responsibility to make sure that people know how they work. People deserve to know how they work. It’s a human right.’

A wide range of topics was discussed during the two days of the summit – not surprisingly, given the broad and interconnected nature of the challenges and opportunities driving the internet’s development today. To make our vision a reality, Europe must mobilise its full ecosystem, with interventions necessary on the local, national and supranational level. We were therefore honoured to feature leading policymakers across all layers of governance, including four MEPs, high-level representatives from the European Commission, a former president, a digital minister, and CTOs of leading digital cities from across the world. Below, we summarise just some of the many insights that emerged during the event. 

Taking control of our data

Clockwise from top-left: Lucy Hedges, Frederike Kaltheuner, Tricia Wang and Charlton McIlwain in our session on Solutions vs. Solutionism.

Today, few would question that the centralisation and hoarding of data – and power – in fewer and fewer hands, gives platforms considerable agency to shape our views on the world, social interactions and economic choices. Tricia Wang challenged attendees to think beyond privacy and consider the impact that widespread data collection has on our personhood, our ability to determine our own life decisions and outcomes. ‘Corporations would rather have us live in the world of privacy, because privacy is something that can be legally mediated and tickboxed,’ she said. ‘At this point, we have so much data tied to who we are, that other people can control our lives through that data, and that threatens our agency, our personhood.’

Yet the role that these systems have in perpetuating societal biases and disproportionately affecting minorities and people of colour is not sufficiently well understood. Charlton McIlwain warned that technology being developed today is just as dangerous for people of colour as the systems used to enact racist policies decades go. He drew a parallel between the practice of redlining and the risks of social media for people protesting against racism. He explained: ‘We often call on technology to help solve problems but when society defines, frames and represents people of colour as the problem, those solutions often do more harm than good.’

And despite the heavy emphasis on business data in Europe’s current data strategy, our speakers called for innovation to empower citizens to take control of their data. In her talk, Sylvie Delacroix called for the establishment of Data Trusts to redress the growing power imbalance between citizens and big tech. ‘We can do better than consent,’ she explained. ‘We also need bottom-up empowerment structures to help people take the reins of their data, rather than constantly being asked to consent to this or that.’

Extending device lifetime

Clockwise from top-left: Bas van Abel, Asim Hussain, Madeleine Gabriel, Anne Currie and Janet Gunter in our session on creating a sustainable digital future.

Our speakers repeatedly stressed the importance of considering the environmental impact of the technology that powers the internet. We heard about the campaign to make it easier to repair our devices, and the push for industry to reduce its reliance on polluting energy sources, stop dirty mining practices and improve waste management processes. In our session on the environment, Janet Gunter called for Europe to put more pressure on manufacturers to create devices that are repairable, so that they last far longer. She said, ‘The precedent has been set with ecodesign regulation for large appliances, but we need ecodesign for smartphones and computers.’

A global approach to inclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic was a hot topic throughout the Summit because it has brought our ambivalent relationship with technology and existing inequalities in our societies into sharp relief. Although we managed to move the event online, for the 10 per cent of EU households without internet access, participating in online life and maintaining access to education, work and public services throughout the pandemic has been far more difficult. In her keynote, Payal Arora started with a call for action: ‘We need to move beyond the concept of inclusion, which necessarily requires excluding ‘bad’ actors such as spammers and trolls. Instead, we need to consider the interconnectedness of everything, and the unintended consequences of changes we might make.’ She called for Europe to set itself ambitious targets for digital inclusion, by employing collaborative problem-solving and including transcultural perspectives. 

A digital identity for all

In our session digital identity, our speakers agreed that it is time for Europe to create a comprehensive bloc-wide identity system that allows people to keep control over their own personal data. Former Estonia President Toomas Hendrik Ilves explained that under the eIDAS directive, 15-20 per cent of EU citizens have used a digital ID scheme in their home country, which is a number low enough to prevent genuine investment from public institutions. Only mandatory digital IDs can create the change seen in Estonia. ‘Europe isn’t being held back by technology to build its own ambitious identity infrastructures,’ he said. ‘It is all about political will.’

Europe’s role

Clockwise from top-left: Axel Voss MEP, Anu Bradford, Bill Thompson, Thomas Zerdick and Mara Balestrini

By and large, speakers expressed a strong desire for Europe to provide alternative models to the perceived tech superpowers in Beijing and Silicon Valley, without emulating their approaches or contributing to the further fragmentation of the internet. In our session on what Europe should do in the next decade, Anu Bradford said:  ‘I think that American techno-libertarianism has shown its limit in terms of how we regulate the internet, and we certainly have concerns if the Chinese digital authoritarianism would spread globally. Europe needs to be more than a regulator, but also build our own alternatives. We need to play defence, but also begin to play offence,’ she argued. 

Europe will have to support these developments with significant investment alongside smart regulation and governance to create an internet that is fit for the future. To make our vision a reality, speakers agreed that Europe must be bold in its approach and mobilise its full ecosystem, with interventions necessary on the local, national and supranational level. 

A manifesto for change

We thoroughly enjoyed the discussions that arose during the Summit, and want them to have a lasting effect. Over the coming months, we’ll be exploring these ideas in our work to guide the European Commission’s policy approach to the future internet. 

Our resounding and heartfelt thanks go to everyone that contributed to the Summit. And as always, if you like what you hear, get in touch with us – we are always interested in hearing from new contacts and collaborating on issues that affect the future internet.

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Minutes: NGI Forward Advisory Board meeting (22/07/20)

NGI Forward's advisory board held its inaugural meeting in late July, discussing the project's priorities and ambitions. To promote transparency, we publish written summaries of our meetings.

NGI Forward’s advisory board held its inaugural meeting on 22 July to discuss the project’s current priorities and future ambitions. The membership of our advisory board represents a broad community of internet experts and practitioners. Going forward, it will meet twice a year to provide the project with support, constructive criticism and guidance. To promote transparency, we publish summaries of our meetings. You can learn more about our board here.

Present: Pablo Aragón, Harry Armstrong, Mara Balestrini, Ger Baron, Katja Bego, Martin Bohle, Markus Droemann, Inger Paus, Katarzyna Śledziewska, Louis Stupple-Harris, Sander van der Waal, Marco Zappalorto

Not present: Ian Forrester (excused), Simon Morrison (excused), Marleen Stikker (excused)

Summary: On 22 July, NGI Forward’s advisory board held a two-hour video conference for its inaugural meeting. The agenda was designed to provide board members with an overview of the project, its place within the NGI ecosystem, its goals and current priorities. In particular, we discussed progress made and future ambitions across a series of activities that broadly fall under NGI Forward’s ecosystem-building objective, especially the delivery of an NGI vision paper and policy network. We also collected feedback on the role of the advisory board itself in supporting these activities and agreed a follow-up meeting to assess should be held within six months to assess progress against the project activities discussed. Board members provided detailed and constructive comments on each, which are summarised in bulleted form below. 

NGI vision

In this first part of the meeting, the project provided an overview of the main messages of the upcoming vision paper NGI Forward will release soon, 

  • Members agreed that the NGI vision should work towards concrete actions and alternatives,  rather than framing the issues in a reactive way. It’s necessary to clarify that the NGI is about reclaiming the internet in a European way, without furthering the dynamics moving us towards a splinternet, or  or supporting needlessly fatalistic narratives about reinventing the internet from scratch, or pulling the plug altogether. 
  • Members highlighted the risk that bad practices from big tech companies overshadow the possibilities of doing good through internet technology. The NGI vision should capture this by weaving more optimistic narratives and rewarding those who do the right thing.
  • Members argued that an NGI vision should also promote open standards, practical solutions, inclusion and bottom-up action, and should empower a wide net of stakeholders to play their role in bringing about this vision.
  • Members highlighted the challenge of balancing the NGI’s human-centred and value-based proposition with Europe’s otherwise more economically-driven Digital Single Market narrative. However, bridging that gap may also present a unique opportunity for the project and wider initiative to speak to policymakers who are caught in between both approaches. The story of this vision needs to be sufficiently inclusive to appeal to policymakers and other stakeholders across the political spectrum.
  • Members asked to be provided with an early draft of the vision before it’s published, and generally would like to be involved in the dissemination and future finetuning of the NGI vision.
  • Members expressed some language around data justice and bias was not as explicitly mentioned in the summary slides on the visions paper, and that, given the importance of these topics, the project should consider featuring these more prominently. 

Policy Network

  • NGI Forward presented a short paper on the objectives and design of a potential NGI Policy Network, which would serve as a coalition for change towards a more democratic, sustainable, trustworthy, resilient and inclusive internet by 2030. The proposed network would bring together organisations and individuals with shared ambitions through policy-relevant research and public affairs work. It would serve to avoid the duplication of efforts and the proliferation of competing, often similar, solutions to universal challenges from organisations that operate in different local contexts or represent different stakeholder and practitioner communities. It should aim to make the NGI more inclusive and provide a mechanism for bottom-up contributions to NGI-relevant research and policy work.
  • Members welcomed the idea of a community of communities that would serve to break down silos between different discourses and provide for knowledge-sharing at a practical level. 
  • Members highlighted that many actors in this space have a capacity problem and need to see a clear incentive for joining. 
  • Members similarly highlighted the risk of setting up a policy network that duplicates the work of similar, already existing groups. 
  • The network should have very clear objectives and identify areas of mutual interest that are underserved by other groups. At the same time, it should develop good links between these existing networks to widen its impact.
  • Members also spoke of the risk of setting up another project or network that cannot be sustainably continued after the end of NGI Forward’s funding period, often a problem for H2020-funded initiatives. The goal should be to create a structure that lasts after the end of the project, and could potentially be carried forward by its members. There should be a continuity or succession plan in place before the network is launched. 
  • Similarly, members suggested the network should be open to European project consortia to share their own project outputs and deliverables so as to ensure follow-up by others after the end of their respective grant periods.
  • Members argued that the project’s ambitions for enabling a bottom-up approach will require the network, and the project more generally, to target local governments and communities or institutions that otherwise have limited exposure to these topics and translate NGI ideas from EU jargon into more useful terminology, methods and tools.
  • Another potential selling point is to help public sector organisations who are actively looking for value-aligned alternatives and more ethical ways of organising the digitalisation of their services. 
  • Members highlighted in particular the need to target non-English-speaking audiences, and recommended that the project seek ways to translate outputs, and reflect Europe’s geographical diversity in, for example, the NGI Policy Summit programme.
  • Members agreed that there was a need for practical insights, and tangible, solutions-oriented policy ideas, but less desire for another discussion forum to discuss high-level principles for the future of the internet. One idea put forward was to brand the coalition a ‘Policy and Practice’ Network. 
  • Members suggested that the network could pursue more formal agreements between organisations, e.g. memoranda of understanding. Members said that the network would need visibility in places where policymakers go, such as the OECD and WEF. 
  • Members argued that we should consider setting clear responsibilities and deadlines for participants to ensure engagement and partners following through with commitments. On the other hand, we should be realistic about how much time and resource potential partners could invest in another network. 

Policy Summit 

  • The Members expressed their interest in the NGI Policy Summit, scheduled for September 28 and 29, and all agreed to attend at least some of the sessions. 
  • The Members also expressed the suitability of the summit to both highlight the conclusions of the visions paper, and launch the NGI Policy Network, with this in particular being a good moment to start some of the proposed working groups. 
  • Members recommended we also recruit engaged stakeholders to lead some of these working groups, rather than attempt to organise all of these within the project.
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€100,000 fund to trial experimental policy ideas and tools to build a more resilient internet

NGI Forward is offering grants of up to €25,000 to ideas that could help empower governments to build a more resilient internet and tackle today's major challenges

We are excited to announce that NGI Forward is launching the Policy-in-Practice fund, offering grants of up to €25,000 to ideas for an experimental policy intervention or practical tool that could help empower governments to build a better internet. The fund will support projects to trial bold new solutions at a local level.

Find out more and apply here.

A note on COVID-19

The internet has proven to be an invaluable resource for many communities, including the most vulnerable, during COVID-19. Therefore NGI Forward feels an even greater responsibility to progress its efforts to build a more inclusive and trustworthy internet that works for everyone. In light of this, Nesta and NGI Forward have decided to go ahead with launching this fund as previously planned. Though trials do not need to solve a problem related to COVID-19 directly, ideas that actively engage with the new reality each of us is operating in will be looked on favourably.

Aim of this fund

The internet can be a force for positive change in the world. But not enough is being done to tap into the great, ever-expanding potential of connected technologies. From the internet’s underlying infrastructure to the gatekeepers that decide what content is shared, power over the internet is increasingly centralised. A small number of players, representing a fraction of the world’s population and diversity, are incentivised to protect their position through behaviour that has a long-term negative impact on social trust and cohesion, competition and innovation. This means that fewer and fewer people are able to reap the full benefits of the digital economy. Fewer still believe that it works in their interest.

There is consensus that a serious and co-ordinated response is needed to remedy the internet’s many problems, yet the tools to take effective action are not yet available. Some of these challenges require top-down interventions on the global or national level. But to make the NGI Forward a success, more action at the local level and the mobilisation of the whole innovation ecosystem is needed.

One of the key goals of the NGI Forward project is therefore to provide a platform for policymakers, innovators and civil society to join forces and collaborate on key digital issues through collective action, knowledge-sharing and joint investment in new solutions.

This fund intends to contribute to doing exactly that.

What are we looking for?

The NGI Policy-in-Practice initiative is looking to fund a minimum of four trials that put into practice a vision for a more inclusive, resilient, democratic, sustainable and trustworthy future internet. This will be achieved by experimenting with concrete solutions in local communities, and ensuring that insights from these trials can be shared or scaled across the NGI network.

What will we offer?

Recipients of the grants can also benefit from additional support from Nesta including guidance on effective project design, pathways to impact and communication of final results, as well as the sharing of findings among the wider NGI community.

If you’re interested in learning more or applying, click here.



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How collective intelligence can help tackle major challenges…

...and build a better internet along the way!

It’s hard to imagine what our social response to a public health challenge at the scale of COVID-19 would have looked like just ten or fifteen years ago – in a world without sophisticated tools for remote working, diversified digital economies, and social networking opportunities. 

Today, we see frontline doctors self-organising through social media to share diagnostic and treatment advice, DIY communities sharing open source solutions to help bolster supplies of ventilators and face masks, and the transition of many businesses to a physically distributed and temporally asynchronous workforce model.

The common enabler of all these activities is the internet. Recent years have seen innovation across all of its layers – from infrastructure to data rights – resulting in an unprecedented capacity for people to work together, share skills and pool information to understand how the world around them is changing and respond to challenges. This enhanced capacity is known as collective intelligence (CI)

The internet certainly needs fixing – from the polarising effect of social media on political discourse to the internet’s perpetual concentration of wealth and power and its poorly understood impact on the environment. But turning to the future, it’s equally clear that there is great promise in the ability of emerging technologies, new governance models and infrastructure protocols to enable entirely new forms of collective intelligence that can help us solve complex problems and change our lives for the better. 

Based on examples from Nesta’s recent report, The Future of Minds & Machines, this blog shows how an internet based on five core values can serve to combine distributed human and machine intelligence in new ways and help Europe become more than the sum of its parts. 

We have been mapping projects that bring Artificial Intelligence and Collective Intelligence together.
Source: nesta.org.uk

Resilience

Resilience is a core value for the future internet. It means secure infrastructure and the right balance between centralisation and decentralisation. But it also means that connected technologies should enable us to better respond to external challenges. Online community networks that can be tapped into and mobilised quickly are already an important part of the 21st century humanitarian response. 

Both Amnesty International and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap have global communities of volunteers, numbering in the thousands, who participate in distributed micromapping efforts to trace features like building and roads on satellite images. These online microtasking platforms help charities and aid agencies understand how conflicts and environmental disasters affect different regions around the world, enabling them to make more informed decisions about distribution of resources and support. 

More recently, these platforms have started to incorporate elements of artificial intelligence to support the efforts of volunteers. One such initiative, MapWithAI, helps digital humanitarians to prioritise where to apply their skills to make mapping more efficient overall. 

The internet also enables and sustains distinct communities of practice, like these groups of humanitarian volunteers, allowing individuals with similar interests to find each other. This social and digital infrastructure may prove invaluable in times of crises, when there is a need to tap into a diversity of skills and ideas to meet unexpected challenges. 

In the future, collective intelligence may also help improve our ability to cooperate and share resources in, such as food and energy, effectively between and within groups. At Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design (CCID), we are supporting research that asks whether different levels of social connectivity within and between overlapping social groups on an online platform can improve coordination in response to collective crises. Experiments like this one, will help us to understand how the internet can be organised to support more collectively intelligent and resilient behaviours. 

Inclusiveness

The need to consider a diversity of information, opinions and ideas is a key factor in the success of any collective intelligence initiative. This is true for small group interactions – which have been shown to require cognitive diversity of participants to improve problem solving, creativity and learning – as well as large-scale initiatives such as crowd predictions, where individuals making mistakes in slightly different ways ensures that the collective estimate holds. If we want to address challenges facing the whole of society, we need solutions designed for everyone.

One example of collective intelligence improving inclusiveness – while also taking an inclusive-by-design approach – is Mozilla’s Common Voice project, which uses an accessible online platform to crowdsource the world’s largest open dataset of diverse voice recordings, spanning different languages, demographic backgrounds and accents. 

The Common Voice project crowdsources diverse voices, accents and underrepresented languages

Ensuring diversity of contributions is not easy. It requires a deliberate effort to involve individuals with rare knowledge, such as members of indigenous cultures or speakers of unusual dialects. But a future internet built around an inclusive innovation ecosystem, products that are inclusive-by-design, and fundamental rights for the individual – rather than a closed system built around surveillance and exploitation – will make it easier for projects like Common Voice to become the norm. 

Democracy

The future internet should have the ambition to protect democratic institutions and give political agency to all – but it should also itself be an expression of democratic values. That means designing for more meaningful bottom-up engagement of citizens, addressing asymmetric power relationships in the digital economy and creating spaces for different voices to be heard. 

Both national and local governments worldwide are starting to appreciate the opportunities that the internet and collective intelligence offer in terms of helping them to better understand the views of their citizens. Parliaments from Brazil to Taiwan are inviting citizens to contribute to the legislative process, while cities like Brussels and Paris are asking their residents to help prioritise spending through participatory budgeting. The EU is also preparing a Conference on the Future Europe to engage citizens at scale in thinking about the future of the bloc, an effort that could be enhanced and facilitated through CI-based approaches like participatory futures. These types of activities can help engage a greater variety of individuals in political decision-making and redefine the relationships between politicians and the constituents they serve. 

Unfortunately, some citizen engagement initiatives are still driven by tech-solutionism without a clear market need, rather than the careful design of participation processes that make the most of the collective contributions of citizens. Even when digital democracy projects start out with the best intentions politicians can struggle to make sense of this new source of insight, which risks valuable ideas being overlooked and diminished trust in democratic processes. 

There are signs that this is changing. For example, the collective intelligence platform Citizen Lab is trying to optimise the channels of communications and interpretation between citizens and politicians. It has started to apply natural language processing algorithms to help organise and identify themes in the ideas that citizens contribute using its platform, helping public servants to make better use of them. Citizen Lab is used by city administrations in more than 20 countries across Europe and offers a glimpse of how Europe can set an example of democratic collective intelligence enabled by the infrastructure of the internet.

Trust

A closely related challenge for the internet today is the continued erosion of trust – trust in the veracity of information, trust between citizens online, and trust in public institutions. The internet of the future will have to find ways of dealing with challenges like digital identities and the safety of our everyday online interactions. But perhaps most importantly, the internet must be able to tackle the problems of information overload and misinformation through systems that optimise for fact-based and balanced exchanges, rather than outrage and division.

We have seen some of the dangers of fake news manifest as part of the response to COVID-19. At a time when receiving accurate public health messaging and government communications are a matter of life and death, the cacophony of information on the internet can make it hard for individuals to distinguish the signal from the noise. 

Undoubtedly, part of the solution to effectively navigate his new infosphere will require new forms of public private partnerships. By working with media and technology giants like Facebook and Twitter, governments and health agencies worldwide have started to curb some of the negative effects of misinformation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But the commitment to a trustworthy internet is a long-term investment. It will not only rely on the actions of policy makers and industry to develop recognisable trustmarks, but also on a more literate citizenry that is better able to spot suspicious materials and flag concerns. 

A tweet by the UK Government warning about misinformation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many existing fact checking projects already already use crowdsourcing at different stages of the verification processes. For example, the company Factmata is developing a technology that will draw on specialist communities of more than 2000 trained experts to help them assess the trustworthiness of online content. However, crowdsourced solutions can be vulnerable to issues of bias, polarisation and gaming and will need to be consolidated by complementary sources of intelligence such as expert validation or entirely new AI tools that can help to mitigate against the effects of social bias.

Sustainability

Undoubtedly, some of our biggest challenges are yet to come. But the internet holds untapped potential for us to build awareness for the interdependency of our social and natural environments. We need to champion models that put the digital economy at the service of creating a more sustainable planet and combating climate change, while also remaining conscious of the environmental footprint these systems have in their own right.

Citizen science is a distinct family of collective intelligence methods where volunteers collect data, make observations or perform analyses that helps to advance scientific knowledge. Citizen science projects have proliferated over the last 20 years, in large part due to the internet. For example, the most popular online citizen science platform, Zooniverse, hosts over 50 different scientific projects and has attracted over 1 million contributors. 

A large proportion of citizen science projects focus on the environment and ecology, helping to engage members of the public outside of traditional academia with issues such as biodiversity, air quality and pollution of waterways. iNaturalist is an online social network that brings together nature lovers to keep track of different species of plants and animals worldwide. The platform supports learning within a passionate community and creates a unique open data source that can be used by scientists and conservation agencies. 

Beyond the direct use of citizen generated data for environmental monitoring and tracking of progress towards the sustainable development goals, online citizen science and community monitoring projects can lead to increased awareness of sustainability issues and longer term pro-environmental behavioural change and for those involved.

Building the Next Generation Internet – with and for collective intelligence

To enable next-generation collective intelligence, Europe needs to look beyond ‘just AI’ and invest in increasingly smarter ways of connecting people, information and skills, and facilitating interactions on digital platforms. The continued proliferation of data infrastructures, public and private sector data sharing and the emergence of the Internet of Things will play an equally important part in enhancing and scaling up collective human intelligence. Yet, for this technological progress to have a transformative and positive impact on society, it will have to be put in the service of furthering fundamental values. Collective intelligence has the opportunity to be both a key driver and beneficiary of a more inclusive, resilient, democratic, sustainable and trustworthy internet. 

At this moment of global deceleration, we suggest it is time to take stock of old trajectories for the internet to set out on a new course, one that allows us to make the most of the diverse collective intelligence that we have within society to become better at solving complex problems. The decisions we make today will help us to shape the society of the future. 

Aleks is a Senior Researcher and Project Manager for Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design (CCID). The CCID conducts research and develops resources to help innovators understand how they can harness collective intelligence to solve problems. Our latest report, The Future of Minds & Machines mapped the various ways that AI is helping to enhance and scale the problem solving abilities of groups. It is available for download on the Nesta website, where you can also explore 20 case studies of AI & CI in practice.

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