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Workshop report: Follow us OFF Facebook – decent alternatives for interacting with citizens

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by Redecentralize.org.

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by Redecentralize.org.

Despite the incessant outcry over social media giants’ disrespect of privacy and unaccountable influence on society, any public sector organisation wanting to reach citizens feels forced to be present on their enormous platforms. But through its presence, an organisation legitimises these platforms’ practices, treats them like public utilities, subjects its content to their opaque filters and ranking, and compels citizens to be on them too — thus further strengthening their dominance. How could we avoid the dilemma of either reaching or respecting citizens?

Redecentralize organised a workshop to address this question. The workshop explored the alternative of decentralised social media, in particular Mastodon, which lets users choose whichever providers and apps they prefer because these can all interoperate via standardised protocols like ActivityPub; the result is a diverse, vendor-neutral, open network (dubbed the Fediverse), analogous to e-mail and the world wide web.

Leading by example in this field is the state ministry of Baden-Württemberg, possibly the first government with an official Mastodon presence. Their head of online communications Jana Höffner told the audience about their motivation and experience. Subsequently, the topic was put in a broader perspective by Marcel Kolaja, Member and Vice-President of the European Parliament (and also on Mastodon). He explained how legislation could require the dominant ‘gatekeeper’ platforms to be interoperable too and emphasised the role of political institutions in ensuring that citizens are not forced to agree to particular terms of service in order to participate in public discussion.

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Workshop report: (Dis)connected future – an immersive simulation

As part of the Summit, Nesta Italia and Impactscool hosted a futures workshop exploring the key design choices for the future internet.

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by Nesta Italia and Impactscool, written by Giacomo Mariotti and Cristina Pozzi.

The NGI Policy Summit was a great opportunity for policymakers, innovators and researchers to come together to start laying out a European vision for the future internet and elaborate the policy interventions and technical solutions that can help get us there.

As part of the Summit, Nesta Italia and Impactscool hosted a futures workshop exploring the key design choices for the future internet. It was a participative and thought-provoking session. Here we take a look at how it went.

Our aims

The discussion about the internet of the future is very complex and it touches on many challenges that our societies are facing today. Topics like Data sovereignty, Safety, Privacy, Sustainability, Fairness, just to name a few, as well as the implications of new technologies such as AI and Blockchain, and areas of concern around them, such as Ethics and Accessibility.

In order to define and build the next generation internet, we need to make a series of design choices guided by the European values we want our internet to radiate. However, moving from principles to implementation is really hard. In fact, we face the added complexity coming from the interaction between all these areas and the trade-offs that design choices force us to make.

Our workshop’s goal was to bring to life some of the difficult decisions and trade-offs we need to consider when we design the internet of the future, in order to help us reflect on the implications and interaction of the choices we make today.

How we did it

The workshop was an immersive simulation about the future in which we asked the participants to make some key choices about the design of the future internet and then deep dived into possible future scenarios emerging from these choices. 

The idea is that it is impossible to know exactly what the future holds, but we can explore different models and be open to many different possibilities, which can help us navigate the future and make more responsible and robust choices today.

In practice, we presented the participants with the following 4 challenges in the form of binary dilemmas and asked them to vote for their preferred choice with a poll:

  1. Data privacy: protection of personal data vs data sharing for the greater good
  2. Algorithms: efficiency vs ethics
  3. Systems: centralisation vs decentralisation
  4. Information: content moderation vs absolute freedom

For each of the 16 combinations of binary choices we prepared a short description of a possible future scenario, which considered the interactions between the four design areas and aimed at encouraging reflection and discussion.

Based on the majority votes we then presented the corresponding future scenario and discussed it with the participants, highlighting the interactions between the choices and exploring how things might have panned out had we chosen a different path.

What emerged

Individual-centric Internet

Data privacyProtection of personal data
84%
Data sharing for the greater good
16%
AlgorithmsEfficiency
41%
Ethics
59%
SystemsCentralisation
12%
Decentralisation
88%
InformationContent moderation
41%
Absolute freedom
59%

The table above summarises the choices made by the participants during the workshop, which led to the following scenario.

Individual-centric Internet

Decentralized and distributed points of access to the internet make it easier for individuals to manage their data and the information they are willing to share online. 

Everything that is shared is protected and can be used only following strict ethical principles. People can communicate without relying on big companies that collect data for profit. Information is totally free and everyone can share anything online with no filters.

Not so one-sided

Interesting perspectives emerged when we asked contrarian opinions on the more one-sided questions, which demonstrated how middle-ground and context-aware solutions are required in most cases when dealing with complex topics as those analysed.

We discussed how certain non-privacy-sensitive data can genuinely contribute to the benefit of society, with minimum concern on the side of the individual if they are shared in anonymised form. Two examples that emerged from the discussion were transport management and research.
In discussing the (de)centralisation debate, we discussed how decentralisation could result in a diffusion of responsibility and lack of accountability. “If everyone’s responsible, nobody is responsible”. We mentioned how this risk could be mitigated thanks to tools like Public-Private-People collaboration and data cooperatives, combined with clear institutional responsibility.

Picture of Toomas Hendrik Ilves
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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.

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