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Eight goals for a human-centric internet

As part of the European Commission’s Next Generation Internet initiative, the NGI Forward consortium aims to set out a vision for a more human-centric internet. This blog identifies eight key objectives that can get us there and inform our policy and technology research.

In recent decades, there has been a revolution in the development of internet technologies across a wide range of fields, and all indications are that the technological progress is continuing at a rapid pace. These breakthroughs undoubtedly have a profound impact on society, and while they present significant opportunities, there are also complex dilemmas and challenges emerging around these new technologies.

Currently, the development of the internet technologies of the future is centralised around a few internet giants in near-monopoly positions on the global data market and, without an adequate response, humans risk losing control to data-driven, non-human-centric business models. It is the goal of the Next Generation Internet initiative and NGI Forward to secure progressive development of internet technologies and policy that support the development of a more human-centric evolution of the Internet.

A mixed method approach to identify emerging challenges

Insights into emerging technologies and their corresponding challenges and opportunities can be of great value for European policy-makers in this process. Understanding these emerging challenge areas will allow policy-makers to become involved in shaping internet development early on to embed more human-centric values.

Following some of our previous work to map out future internet challenges, the NGI Forward consortium have identified a new set of eight key topics that we believe will be central in developing a more democratic, inclusive and resilient Next Generation Internet. These topics will help inform the NGI’s policy and technology research agenda going forward.

To identify the most pressing issues facing the internet today – and tomorrow – we employed a mixed method approach that includes computational social science methods and expert workshops. In the first phase, DELab at the University of Warsaw collected qualitative data from technology news articles and academic working papers to identify trending keywords related to the Internet in the broader public and research community respectively. In the second phase, DATALAB from Aarhus University organised an expert workshop with leading stakeholders in the internet research community to help narrow down the areas of focus and verify or adjust the topics. Lastly, DATALAB synthesized the results to select eight key topics for the NGI.

The chosen topics are not tied to any one technology to prevent them falling out of relevance in the coming years. They are broadly interpretable and solution-agnostic so as to avoid us jumping to simplistic conclusions or specific solutions too quickly. The rapid technological development in recent decades demonstrates that focusing on specific tools and technology may render topics obsolete within just a few years, while societal challenges are more likely to remain relevant and allow the EU to focus on a wider range of solutions beyond a predetermined technology.

1. Trustworthy Information Flows

It is widely recognised that trustworthy information flows are essential for healthy democracies, but with social media and the Internet, content can spread much faster and in less moderated ways, challenging traditional information flows. The problem of online mis- and disinformation – often referred to as fake news – has evolved from a journalistic concern to one of the most urgent democratic issues in recent years. Despite major attention from the media, academia and governments, an effective solution is still not available. Coupled with other issues such as governmental censorship and large-scale content moderation by online platforms, information flows are changing rapidly, and further research is needed to explore different solutions that are sustainable and consider often conflicting values.

2. Decentralised Power on the Internet

The Internet was originally designed to be open and decentralised. But the de facto internet of today is controlled by a handful of giant companies with virtual monopoly control, acting as gatekeepers by enforcing policies on their users. However, visions for a more decentralised Internet are gaining traction – an Internet where humans can communicate without relying on big companies that collect data for profit. Some concepts for a decentralised Internet utilize distributed web and blockchain technologies to yield a more open and accessible Internet, while others focus on empowering people to publish and own content on the web outside centralised social media platforms. More research is needed into these solutions, both technical and socio-technical.

3. Personal Data Control

Recent revelations including the Cambridge Analytica scandal have made clear the lack of control we have over our own data, and the sheer amount of data collected online has created a major privacy concern. New approaches to privacy and data rights are needed to realise the societal and environmental potential of big data to connect diverse information and conduct rapid analysis – such as data sovereignty, data portability, and collective data rights. Achieving this will require research into the ways policymakers can fit these new concepts into existing data regulation frameworks in a way that offers individuals better control and authority, and builds public trust and engagement.

4. Sustainable and Climate-friendly Internet

The environmental impact of the Internet is enormous and growing rapidly. Each activity online comes with a small price in terms of carbon emissions and with over half the global population now online, this adds up. According to some estimates, the global carbon footprint of the Internet and the systems supporting it amounts to about 3.7 percent of the total carbon emissions, similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally. As the Internet expands into new territory, it is estimated that the carbon footprint of the global internet technologies will double by 2025. Indeed, sustainability should be a bigger priority, and further insights are needed into how emissions could be controlled, how awareness of the environmental impact of the Internet can be raised, and how internet technologies can be utilized in the fight against climate change.

5. Safer Online Environments

People increasingly experience the internet as a hostile space. Cyberviolence in many shapes and forms is a growing concern, and it has a significant impact on an increasing number of people, LGBTQ+, ethnic minorities, women and children in particular. It will be vital for a more human-centric Internet to build safe online environments. For this to happen, a range of issues needs to be taken into consideration, including the role of social media providers and the protection of free expression. At the same time, solutions need to be investigated, such as effective moderation or containment procedures, creating useful aid for victims of cyberviolence and enabling law enforcement to take action against offenders.

6. An Inclusive Internet

The Internet offers a potential for inclusiveness in a global and diverse community, but if access is not evenly distributed, the Internet will deepen inequality. Half of the population of the world is still offline, urban areas are better connected than rural, and those that are connected in advanced ways may not be in a position to realise the full potential of the Internet to improve their lives and mitigate against critical issues. Many disabled people also are excluded from using online information and services, so inclusive infrastructures and tools are needed to remove barriers and create an inclusive and accessible Internet for all.

7. Competitive European Ecosystems

Today, the Internet is dominated by two narratives that give little agency to users: the American model, ruled by capitalist market powers with internet giants harvesting massive amounts of personal data to shape human behaviour, and the Chinese model characterised by mass surveillance and government control of the internet. These narratives cannot go unchallenged, and growth and innovation in the European tech industry without acquisitions from the U.S. and China-based companies is needed to support a competing narrative adhering to European values. This requires further research into possible policy and regulatory initiatives that can increase Europe’s competitiveness in the technology sector.

8. Ethical Internet Technology

Recent examples, such as Google’s censored search engine developed for the Chinese market (‘Project Dragonfly’), instances of algorithmic bias in criminal cases, racially targeted ads and “differential” pricing, and the use of Facebook data for voter manipulation, have shown that the Silicon Valley attitude of ‘moving fast and breaking things’ has failed. With the rapid development of new technologies in the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, further research is needed in order to develop targeted ethical frameworks for the development and implementation of new technologies.

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Data science tools for technology mapping

Technological developments play an important role in shaping virtually all aspects of life, from work and leisure to democracy and social cohesion. As technologies like AI grow in importance, and impact, even small issues can create huge challenges: from algorithmic biases to the collection of personal data, negative externalities can easily reach a critical scale. […]

Technological developments play an important role in shaping virtually all aspects of life, from work and leisure to democracy and social cohesion. As technologies like AI grow in importance, and impact, even small issues can create huge challenges: from algorithmic biases to the collection of personal data, negative externalities can easily reach a critical scale. In such a face changing environment it can be incredibly difficult to stay up to data and informed. Governments and policy-making in particular find it difficult to manage the lag between technological developments and policy or regulatory responses. New approaches and data driven techniques can help. 

To identify important internet related social challenges and emerging technologies, our team have developed various text-mining tools (that you can implement and explore yourselves here). In this blog post, we provide a brief overview of the potential uses of this methodology and examples of the work we’ve done so far as part of the Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative (more examples can be seen in the Datalab section of the website).

The approach

Our text mining analysis is based on a novel dataset of technology news articles. Using web-scraping tools we have collected more than 213 thousand articles. The sources include 14 major English-language technology websites from the US, EU and Australia. The same approach could be applied to different input text data, we have also been experimenting with academic papers and social media sources. 

We combined three methods: the analysis of term frequencies, co-occurrences and sentiment analysis. 

First, we highlight emerging topics based on the analysis of term frequencies: we identify the terms that have an increasing average frequency over time. Next, we explore the connections between terms, e.g. between emerging social issues and technologies using co-occurrence analysis. The analysis of co-occurrences enables us to find which emerging terms were most often mentioned together in the same article, hence finding most relevant pairs of expressions. In the case of technology news, this is a good way to surface how the technology is being applied, or connections to regulatory issues. In order to track public perception of different issues and identify relevant positive and negative views we also perform sentiment analysis. 

Figures 1. and 2. summarise the most trending technology related terms. These figures provide a high level map of the most important technology news from the previous years.

Figure 1. Umbrella topics and identified keywords: Emerging technologies

Figure 2. Umbrella topics and identified keywords: Relevant social challenges


Case study: AI and ML

Figure 3. presents the terms related to such expressions as “facial recognition” or “AI ethics”. The co-occurrences provide rich details on the social issues related to AI and ML algorithms: while AI can lead to new innovations and be helpful in various recent challenges (e.g. tackling fake news), these algorithms often work in a non-transparent way (“black box”), may be prone to biases, or implemented for questionable purposes (“killer robots”).

Algorithms have been at the centre of recent controversies, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, or the implementation of facial recognition at the Berlin Südkreuz station. Another example is project Maven, a cooperation between Pentagon and Google to implement AI algorithms for the identification of people on drone footage. The involvement of Google in the military usage of AI stirred intensive debate, including the protest of Google employees. The backlash in the company led to Google’s resignation from further cooperation with the Department of Defence, e.g. in the JEDI project (Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure). Therefore, the ethical usage of AI is a key point of public debate. The co-occurrences enable us to identify crucial institutions (Pentagon, Google’s Advanced Technology External Advisory Council), persons (academics Jonathan Zittrain and Joanna Bryson) and companies (Byton – Chinese electric car producer, AI start-ups Doxel, Clarifai etc) as well. 

Facial recognition is used as a case study for the sentiment analysis (Figure 4.) The analysis shows the monthly average sentiment of articles on facial recognition on a scale of -1 to 1. At the beginning of the explored time period, the articles on facial recognition were initially rather positive (compound score: 0.22), “voice assistant” and “AI technology” being the most positive connotations), with a significant decline at the end of 2017, possibly due to the increase in events reporting on the questionable usage of the technology. 

On the one hand, this technology can be seen as a convenient tool for tagging photos in the social media or authorising mobile payments in a secure way. However, we observe growing privacy concerns around facial recognition applications in the marketing industry and law enforcement. 

Figure 3. Co-occurrence analysis for AI and ML
Figure 4. Sentiments analysis: facial recognition

Table 1. Co-occurrences with most positive and negative sentiments

Most positiveMost negative
voice assistant border guards
ai technologyautonomous weapons
ai research project maven
edge computing big brother
ai startup racial bias

New interactive book bringing together a collection of essays, interviews, short stories and artworks by more than 30 contributors from 15 different countries and five continents reflecting on the internet’s past and future

Finding ctrl: visions for the future internet

  1. https://www.politico.eu/article/berlin-big-brother-state-surveillance-facial-recognition-technology/
  2. https://www.theverge.com/2019/2/4/18211155/google-microworkers-maven-ai-train-pentagon-pay-salary
  3. https://www.zdnet.com/article/google-heres-why-were-pulling-out-of-pentagons-10bn-jedi-cloud-race/
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/feb/15/how-taylor-swift-showed-us-the-scary-future-of-facial-recognition
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Can Cities Be Guardians of Digital Rights?

Everybody who’s professionally involved in technology in cities and communities agrees that the debate on digital rights has moved beyond the implementation of smart technologies. The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) turned ‘Privacy’ into a hot topic, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal catapulted the debate on ethical use of data high up the political […]

Everybody who’s professionally involved in technology in cities and communities agrees that the debate on digital rights has moved beyond the implementation of smart technologies. The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) turned ‘Privacy’ into a hot topic, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal catapulted the debate on ethical use of data high up the political agenda.

As a result of this global politicisation of digital affairs, local councils are increasingly becoming aware of their political power to decide and shape the digital development of their cities. For example, 5G infrastructures are not a matter of ‘neutral smart city efficiency’; city councils across the world – the closest democratic representatives of citizens – have a choice how and which data can be collected and by whom.

Policy making in the Digital Public Space

Approaching local governments as ‘caretakers’ for their citizens, some common approaches between the represented cities emerge, and local governments are taking action. Local governments exist to regulate the use of collective resources and public space. We see that our physical public space is digitising. The question that emerges for cities is: How should local governments make policies for the digital public space?

When physical and digital public space are blending – bridges equipped with sensors, public squares offering free WIFI access –  local governments have a key role to set the terms and conditions for their city to flourish digitally.

It is nearly impossible for citizens to opt-out of digital tracking when using public spaces in cities. Therefore, it is crucial to know what happens with their data after it has been collected, or in which framework commercial re-use, privacy and benefits are managed.

Privacy considerations might slow down the possibilities for digital industries to innovate, but privacy and innovation are not mutually exclusive. A common understanding and implementation of privacy and ethics could level the playing field. Cities are welcoming a strong Europe to develop a fair digital marketplace, based on equality of opportunities for competitors and consumers/citizens.

To achieve a level-playing field, four key actions for local governments to take are:

1.Explaining Digital Rights

Citizens have to understand that they have digital rights. Often, digital rights are not clear, or expressed in language that’s difficult to grasp. Amsterdam and Barcelona took the initiative and have started a cities coalition to define clear digital rights for everyone.

2. Using Procurement to Enforce Digital Rights

Local governments can use their procurement frameworks to enforce data privacy. With their ‘data sovereignty’ programme, Barcelona has already demonstrated the effectiveness of procurement when it comes to guaranteeing data sovereignty. For example, data collected in assignment of the local government in public space will become available to share in a ‘data commons’.

With an annual budget of €2.1 Billion for procurement, cities like Amsterdam can guide the market rather than following it.

3. Regulating digital markets that impact public space

In digital markets, the interaction between consumers, workers and platforms generated new ways to organize, domains like mobility in cities and set new challenges for city governments: What is the role of public transport when people who can afford it are using car services? How can  data and insights collected by platforms become available to policymakers, citizens and interest groups?

In order to guarantee a fair marketplace and equal society, cities need to regulate digital markets when they are impacting public space and the lives of their residents. Collaboration with national and international authorities is needed to create a digital single market. Cities are also looking to counteract the information asymmetry between (local) governments and global digital platforms. This asymmetry influences how local governments can implement and enforce policies.

4. Be Transparent

Citizens are demanding solutions and clarity from their local government. Cities have to be transparent about how they are using data collected in public spaces. There are several ways to achieve transparency. The City of Porto, for example, is providing an application where citizens can see check where IoT devices or cameras are installed and for what purposes, when it was decided to install them or who has approved it. The application also allows citizens to ask questions about the device or report new devices to the municipality.

Following these four actions, it becomes clear that municipalities have to involve citizens to manage concerns, demands and technical possibilities. To define next steps, cities need a deeper understanding of privacy concerns of citizens and the assumptions and expectations of technical partners.

Citizens Demand Clarity About Their Data

There is no such thing as a digital invisibility cloak. But are there alternatives for digital business models based on the collection of personal data?

There are concepts being developed to give more control to citizens, users or visitors over their data. One of them is Solid, a project promoted by Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web. Additionally, several EU-sponsored projects like DECODEhave aimed to create scalable open source solutions that respect the digital rights of citizens.

One of the more tangible efforts is the recently launched the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights. New York, Amsterdam and Barcelona founded the coalition, which is supported, among others by UN Habitat, Open & Agile Smart Cities. More than 50 cities have already joined this alliance to create a framework where policies, best practices and technical solutions can be developed, implemented and shared. The goal is to set a common baseline where the basic securities that we can expect in the street finds its equivalent in the digital public sphere.

Bart Rosseau, Chief Data Officer, City of Ghent, and Tamas Erkelens, Programme Manager Data Innovation, City of Amsterdam, who are co-leading the working group on Digital Rights within Open & Agile Smart Cities (OASC).

This blog was originally published on the Open and Agile Smart city website

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