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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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Calling in the experts: our roundtable on smartphone lifetimes

We've got some ideas to extend smartphone lifetimes and we invited some experts to put them under the microscope.

Ideas love company, and there comes a point in developing policy recommendations when a discussion with experts will turn good proposals into excellent ones. NGI Forward is exploring ways to extend the useful life of smartphones to reduce their environmental impact and last week we held a roundtable discussion on extending smartphone lifetimes. This is a complex issue with lots of moving parts, which is why we invited experts in a range of fields. We were joined by an impressive array of experts in repair, cybersecurity, software development, sustainability and European policy. Representatives of device makers, mobile networks, security analysts, advocacy groups and the European Commission pulled our suggestions apart and helped us put them back together.

Our focus on smartphones came from our work last year on the environmental impact of the internet as a whole, which culminated in our report: Internet of Waste. The internet and its underlying infrastructure use a significant portion of earth’s resources, consuming 5-9 per cent of global energy supply and creating around 2 per cent of global emissions. And the little black rectangles we carry around in our pockets and bags? They’re some of the biggest contributors. Europeans replace their smartphone on average every two years, and 72 per cent of their lifetime emissions are created before they hit the shelves. As a result, extending the average lifespan of smartphones from two to four years would reduce emissions by 44 per cent. More than half of Europeans expect their smartphone to last for four or more years, so it’s clear there is a market for devices that last longer.

We’d like to see smartphone lifetimes extended to five years by 2030 and our roundtable discussion focused on two areas that could help to contribute.

Short-lived software support

The software on a device needs to be updated regularly to keep it secure and running smoothly. When software updates stop, a device can become unreliable or vulnerable to data breaches. As a result, the lifetime of smartphones can be artificially shortened if a manufacturer stops providing updates before the hardware breaks. Despite the importance of software updates, most smartphones receive them for only two or three years. A 2020 Eurobarometer survey found that 30 per cent of users replaced a smartphone because the performance of the old device had significantly deteriorated, and 19 per cent replaced it because certain applications or software stopped working on the old device, so the influence on device lifetime is clear. 

In our roundtable discussion, we suggested that smartphone makers should be required to provide at least seven years’ software update support. We thought that setting an ambitious target would push manufacturers to think differently about the way they provide software updates, and also drastically reduce the likelihood of artificially shortening device lifetimes. We also suggested that device makers allow users to install alternative operating systems, preferably open source ones, at the end of official support. This would allow the open-source community to create software that runs easily on older devices and receives regular updates indefinitely.

Davide Polverini of the European Commission described the work going into developing legislation for extending smartphone lifetimes, which focuses on the Ecodesign Directive. The Commission is developing vertical regulations that will apply to smartphones and tablets, as well as reviewing the Directive itself to explore how it can be adapted to cover electronics and internet technology. Ugo Vallauri from the Restart Project and Right to Repair Europe pushed for the Commission to be ambitious and agreed that software updates should be provided for far longer than they are currently. Ugo also explained that the practice of serialisation, where manufacturers prevent repair by tying specific parts to a device’s software, is becoming more common.

Our other experts were broadly in support of extending software update periods, especially since analysis by the Fraunhofer Institute shows that the cost of extending updates from two to five years is around €2 per device. However, participants raised concerns that the cost would be greater for smaller device manufacturers, which could further concentrate the market in the larger manufacturers. Device makers are not the only ones that would be affected, since several chips within smartphones need their own software. Any legislation should take this complexity into account, especially in tackling the dominance of Apple and Google, which together control the vast majority of smartphone software. We also discussed the possibility that manufacturers would create a loophole by providing a basic operating system which would be cheap to support for several years, and offer an alternative with more features that could be abandoned sooner.

We discussed the importance of updates being maintained for each component of the device, including those made by other companies, and whether it is possible to separate software and security updates (we decided possibly not). Our experts emphasised the importance of processes being as easy as possible, and the likelihood that users will be reluctant to start over with a new operating system when theirs is no longer supported. We also heard about the idea of code escrows, in which software is released if a company ceases to exist.

Making repair information public

Our second proposal is for manufacturers to publish repair manuals, device schematics and diagnostic tools so that anyone can use them. Pre-pandemic growth in repair cafes and parties demonstrates that consumers are keen to repair their gadgets and keep them going for longer. Despite this popularity, it remains difficult for end users to conduct their own smartphone repairs, so making repair information public could have a significant impact. The information would also be invaluable for research, since the repairability of products could be compared without having to tear each model apart. The French Repairability Index has also demonstrated the possibility of public availability, after Samsung published repair manuals for several of its devices online.

This is different from the Commission’s current approach for products such as electronic displays, which requires only that approved repair professionals can access this information. For TVs and other screens, repairers must either apply to be added to a national register (though no Member State has implemented one to date) or be approved by the manufacturer, which can implement any arduous contract requirements it so desires. Manufacturers can take five working days to approve a repairer and another working day to provide manuals for a specific model. We think these hurdles are likely to push more people to replace their smartphones rather than repairing them – when these devices are so important to our daily lives, each day they’re away for repair creates a serious disincentive.

Our experts debated the risks of this information being available to people that might use it to take advantage of security vulnerabilities. For several of our participants, Samsung’s recent publication of repair manuals for the French repairability index demonstrates that the right incentives can override worries about the information being misused. We also explored how likely consumers are to conduct repairs, what risks of injury they might face, and whether the availability and quality of spare parts was a greater concern. In the end, it appeared to be a chicken-and-egg issue. We can’t know if consumers will take matters into their own hands because the opportunity does not currently exist, and whatever downsides can clearly be overcome if the incentives are in the right place.

What next?

We are incredibly grateful to all our roundtable participants, who created a lively discussion and really got stuck in. Next, I’ll be incorporating their insights into a policy briefing aimed at the European Commission, to lay out the proposals and their potential impact. We’ll publish it on our website in the next few weeks, but feel free to contact me if you’d like to receive a copy of the final briefing.

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The NGI Policy-in-Practice Fund – announcing the grantees

We are very excited to announce the four projects receiving funding from the Next Generation Internet Policy-in-Practice Fund.

We are very excited to announce the four projects receiving funding from the Next Generation Internet Policy-in-Practice Fund

Policymakers and public institutions have more levers at their disposal to spur innovation in the internet space than often thought, and can play a powerful role in shaping new markets for ethical tools. We particularly believe that local experimentation and ecosystem building are vital if we want to make alternative models for the internet actually tangible and gain traction. But finding the funding and space to undertake this type of trial is not always easy – especially if outcomes are uncertain. Through the NGI Policy-in-Practice fund, it has been our aim not only to provide the means to organisations to undertake a number of these trials but also make the case for local trials more generally.

Over the past summer and autumn, we went through a highly competitive applications process, ultimately selecting four ambitious initiatives that embody this vision behind the NGI Policy-in-Practice fund. Each of the projects will receive funding of up to €25,000 to test out their idea on a local level and generate important insights that could help us build a more trustworthy, inclusive and democratic future internet.

In conjunction with this announcement, we have released an interview with each of our grantees, explaining their projects and the important issues they are seeking to address in more detail. You can also find a short summary of each project below. Make sure you register for our newsletter to stay up to date on the progress of each of our grantees, and our other work on the future of the internet.

Interoperability to challenge Big Tech power 

This project is run by a partnership of three organisations: Commons Network and Open Future, based in Amsterdam, Berlin and Warsaw.

This project explores whether the principle of interoperability, the idea that services should be able to work together, and data portability, which would allow users to carry their data with them to new services, can help decentralise power in the digital economy. Currently, we are, as users, often locked into a small number of large platforms. Smaller alternative solutions, particularly those that want to maximise public good rather than optimise for profit, find it hard to compete in this winner-takes-all economy. Can we use interoperability strategically and seize the clout of trusted institutions such as public broadcasters and civil society, to create an ecosystem of fully interoperable and responsible innovation in Europe and beyond?  

Through a series of co-creation workshops, the project will explore how this idea could work in practice, and the role trusted public institutions can play in bringing it to fruition. 

Bridging the Digital Divide through Circular Public Procurement

This project will be run by eReuse, based in Barcelona, with support from the City of Barcelona, the Technical University of Barcelona (UPC) and the global Association for Progressive Communications.

During the pandemic, where homeschooling and remote working have become the norm overnight, bridging the digital divide has become more important than ever. This project is investigating how we can make it easier for public bodies and also the private sector to donate old digital devices, such as laptops and smartphones, to low-income families currently unable to access the internet. 

By extending the lifetime of a device in this way, we are also reducing the environmental footprint of our internet use. Laptops and phones now often end up being recycled, or, worse, binned, long before their actual “useful lifespan” is over, putting further strain on the system. Donating devices could be a simple but effective mechanism for ensuring the circular economy of devices is lengthened.  

The project sets out to do two things: first, it wants to try out this mechanism on a local level and measure its impact through tracking the refurbished devices over time. Second, it wants to make it easier to replicate this model in other places, by creating legal templates that can be inserted in public and private procurement procedures, making it easier for device purchasers to participate in this kind of scheme. The partnership also seeks to solidify the network of refurbishers and recyclers across Europe. The lessons learned from this project can serve as an incredibly useful example for other cities, regions and countries to follow. 

Bringing Human Values to Design Practice

This project will be run by the BBC with support from Designswarm, LSE and the University of Sussex

Many of the digital services we use today, from our favourite news outlet to social media networks, rely on maximising “engagement” as a profit model. A successful service or piece of content is one that generates many clicks, drives further traffic, or generates new paying users. But what if we optimised for human well-being and values instead? 

This project, led by the BBC, seeks to try out a more human-centric focused approach to measuring audience engagement by putting human values at its core. It will do so by putting into practice longer-standing research work on mapping the kinds of values and needs their users care about the most, and developing new design frameworks that would make it easier to actually track these kinds of alternative metrics in a transparent way. 

The project will run a number of design workshops and share its findings through a dedicated website and other outlets to involve the wider community. The learnings and design methodology that will emerge from this work will not just be trialled within the contexts of the project partners, but will also be easily replicable by others interested in taking a more value-led approach. 

Responsible data sharing for emergencies: citizens in control

This project will be run by the Dutch National Police, in partnership with the Dutch Emergency Services Control, the Amsterdam Safety Region and the City of Amsterdam.

In a data economy that is growing ever more complex, giving meaningful consent about what happens to our personal data remains one of the biggest unsolved puzzles. But new online identity models have shown to be a potentially very promising solution, empowering users to share only that information that they want to share with third parties, and sharing that data on their own terms. One way that would allow such a new approach to identity and data sharing to scale would be to bring in government and other trusted institutions to build their own services using these principles. That is exactly what this project seeks to do.  

The project has already laid out all the building blocks of their Data Trust Infrastructure but wants to take it one step further by actually putting this new framework into practice. The project brings together a consortium of Dutch institutional partners to experiment with one first use case, namely the sharing of vital personal data with emergency services in the case of, for example, a fire. The project will not just generate learnings about this specific trial, but will also contribute to the further finetuning of the design of the wider Data Trust Infrastructure, scope further use cases (of which there are many!), and bring on board more interested parties.

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Policy in Practice Fund: Reducing the digital divide by improving the circular economy for devices

Leandro Navarro from eReuse answers a few of our questions to give us some insight into the project and what it will achieve.

We’re introducing each of our four Policy-in-Practice Fund projects with an introductory blog post. Below, Leandro Navarro from eReuse answers a few of our burning questions to give us some insight into the project and what it will achieve. We’re really excited to be working with four groups of incredible innovators and you’ll be hearing a lot more about the projects as they progress. 

Your project is focusing on extending the lives of internet devices. Why is that an important issue to tackle?

The issue of climate change adaptation and mitigation is rapidly becoming more urgent. Digital technologies can help us fight climate change, environmental degradation and pollution. However, at the same time, they add to the problem of pollution and health impacts of the extraction of minerals for components, energy used in their manufacture, and the waste released resulting from improper disposal. A circular consumption model is key: manufacturing fewer devices by extending the lifespan of the existing through reuse ensuring final recycling.

Extending the life of a computer directly benefits its users, the health of people and the planet. It roughly translates into savings of about 30 Kg of greenhouse gasses per year of reuse and a 40-60 per cent reduction in total environmental impact due to extended use. The amount of mining exceeds the weight of the material used in a new smartphone by 260 times: 34 kg of rock is mined for each 129g smartphone. At the same time, by collecting and refurbishing decommissioned computers for second-hand use and ensuring final recycling, we are contributing to a local economy for refurbishment and remanufacturing companies. At the social level, we are bringing computer access to more people and reducing inequality. Public and community reuse programmes save money: in cities like Barcelona, we have seen savings by public administrations beyond €500 per donated and reused device by social organizations supporting homeschooling students without computers during COVID-19 confinement. 

Over 70% of European consumers would like to buy more durable and repairable devices, but this is not reflected in the products available to us. When you buy a lamp you get thousands of hours guaranteed. Why not for digital devices? 

Over the last 3 years, eReuse has collected durability as an open dataset for above 10,000 devices. We have created local ecosystems, that we call circuits, in cities like Barcelona and Madrid with diverse stakeholders, that cooperate to capture, remanufacture and recirculate electronic devices and fight the digital divide. We have helped to improve the procurement of 3,000 devices, with 1,100 recirculated into a second life. During COVID-19, these circuits have proven to be a resilient and effective solution to vulnerable sectors in the access, use and appropriation of digital goods and services. 

What is your ideal vision for how we buy and use internet devices?

With more mobile devices than people on earth and powerful companies keen for us to keep purchasing, the successful implementation of the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) for electronic devices becomes vitally important. Today, most laptops, desktops and mobile phones are prematurely recycled when they become obsolete or depreciated by companies and public administrations. 

When we recycle a device that could be reused we lose computer use-value, we preserve the linear consumption model, which is not only damaging to the planet but also excludes those that cannot afford to always buy the latest products. 

Limiting premature recycling and promoting reuse is not the final solution to our sustainability problem but it is a way forward. Things improve with less device obsolescence and more cradle-to-cradle.

What do you hope to learn from the project, and how would that be useful for policymakers across Europe and beyond?

During the last three years, we have been working together with the Barcelona City Council to develop policies and practices in compliance with legal and operational standard procedures (secure data wipe, remanufacturing and other needs of the reverse supply chain). We have built a circuit based on the cooperation of several actors within an economic compensation system, and together we have traced thousands of computers from the Barcelona city council. We have been inspired by these principles: 

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Don’t recycle prematurely

Explore potential alternative users to give devices a new life

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Organise circular use up front

Plan for a device’s entire lifetime during procurement, including its second life

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Reduce overall consumption

Buy durable, repairable and reusable equipment and consider refurbished

We would like this project to help us to consolidate all the knowledge into agile policy templates, based on existing experiences, to help other policymakers provide value, and to support local initiatives of reuse centres and second use markets, with special attention in supplying devices to the disconnected groups.

How will this project get us one step closer to a fully circular economy for digital devices?

This project will make it easier for public and private organisations to maximise the lifespan of the devices they procure (circular procurement), reuse internally, and finally donate for further social reuse in their community, ensuring final recycling. Extended usage reduces total environmental footprint, that can be assessed through traceability data, and supports people without access to new computers and the internet. To facilitate regional replication we are creating clauses for public procurement contracts, focused on municipalities, to embed reuse in the acquisition, legal templates for computer donation to local social refurbishers and agreements between recipients and refurbishers to commit to accountable reuse and final recycling (e.g. commodate).

How can people get involved and find out more?

Look for and get involved in local initiatives about repair, collect and reuse computer devices no longer used (see repair.eu). Other people can use them, so we extend their lifespan and reduce the market pressure for new devices to be manufactured. Follow our work on eReuse.org and @eReuseOrg. If you are a public or private organisation, get involved in circular public procurement and circular policies, be an active part of nurturing a healthy second-hand market that serves everyone in your community with digital services at the lowest social, economic and environmental cost.

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Policy in Practice Fund: An internet optimised for human values

Lianne Kerlin from the BBC answers a few of our eager questions to give us some insight into the project and what it will achieve.

We’re introducing each of our four Policy-in-Practice Fund projects with an introductory blog post. Below, Lianne Kerlin from the BBC answers a few of our burning questions to give us some insight into the project and what it will achieve. We’re really excited to be working with four groups of incredible innovators and you’ll be hearing a lot more about the projects as they progress. 

At the BBC, we believe that embedding human values into the heart of design practice is fundamental to building a more inclusive, democratic, resilient, trustworthy and sustainable future internet. We are pleased to have received a grant from the NGI Forward’s Policy-in-Practice fund to integrate our innovative work on human values with existing design frameworks so that it can be used by a wider range of practitioners.

What are human values and how do they relate to technology?

The Human Values Framework is based on the needs of users in today’s technology-driven world. It is the result of a research project that examined the link between people’s values, behaviours and needs through a series of workshops, interviews and surveys.

Our work found fourteen indicators of well-being that express fundamental needs. We have constructed a design framework that puts these needs at the centre of innovation and decision making so that products and services can support people in their lives. Values are judgements about what people deem to be necessary, but also represent underlying needs and motivations that drive and shape everyday behaviour, and include elements such as achieving goals, being inspired, pursuing pleasure, and being safe and well.

Some of the human values identified

So what’s the problem with our current approach to tech? 

As well as offering guidance to designers, the framework addresses a fundamental issue with our current approach to measuring the effectiveness of products and services, which is that they are largely concerned with attention metrics such as the number of users or the number of minutes consumed. As a result, any deeper questions of the impact on audience well-being or happiness are not just left unanswered – they are unaskable. 

This approach has serious implications across the online sphere. It means companies compete solely for consumer attention, creating pressure within organisations to increase consumption and adopt attention-grabbing designs that can lead to addictive user behaviour.

How do you see this approach changing in the future, if we get things right?

The framework offers an alternative perspective, one that asks designers to consider the impact of their product on the end-user. In re-framing success, decision-makers can move away from an end goal of consumption into thinking about their intended impact on the people behind the numbers. Using the framework they can consider how to help people live more fulfilled lives, rather than simply gaining their attention.

The framework also recognises the limitations of the current measurement approach and reframes success as the fulfilment of audience values. The framework is about considering what is fundamentally good for people and designing and measuring how they can enable people to explore, to grow or to understand themselves. We believe that having an alternative way to describe success will result in healthy and more sustainable practices.

What do you hope to learn from this project, and how might those learnings be used by others?

Our goal with this project is to take the insights we have developed into design practice and integrate them into existing approaches, specifically the well-known ‘double diamond’ process model, first outlined by the UK Design Council in 2005 and current work connecting user-centered design and agile development. We hope to make measuring the impact on quality of life and wellness part of the normal design cycle for every organisation.

This collaboration is an exciting opportunity to explore how the human values framework can integrate within existing frameworks and practices in all types of industries. We will work with industry experts to learn as many current processes of decision making in order to understand where the human values framework can best align. Our goal is to produce a set of tools, processes and best practice guidelines for embedding the human values framework into existing frameworks.

How can people get involved and find out more?

We will be posting regular updates on our website at www.humanvalues.io which will launch early in 2021 – it currently points to our main page on the BBC R&D website where you can find out about the human values framework. You can also listen to our podcast series.

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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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NGI Policy Summit: Interview with internet pioneer Marleen Stikker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you personally hopeful about the future of the internet?

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

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

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

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

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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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The social promises of the blockchain

Innovation always has a deep impact on society, new processes or technologies can completely transform existing systems and ways of working. But how can we ensure that innovation has a positive impact on today’s society? How can we make sure we achieve the revolutionary promises offered by emerging technologies? How do we identify real opportunities […]

Innovation always has a deep impact on society, new processes or technologies can completely transform existing systems and ways of working. But how can we ensure that innovation has a positive impact on today’s society? How can we make sure we achieve the revolutionary promises offered by emerging technologies? How do we identify real opportunities from hype?

At Nesta Italia, we decided to focus on two technologies that carry great potential : blockchain and artificial intelligence.

Our approach was exploratory, we did not take a precise position on the matter, but decided to study technologies and the benefits they can bring while remaining aware of the great risks that exist.

The popularity of the Blockchain started with cryptocurrencies, digital and decentralized currencies. Through these currencies, it is possible to exchange money around the world over the internet, but the blockchain is more than just the basis for new currencies. It is a technology that allows the creation of a large distributed database for the management of transactions that can be shared between multiple nodes on a network. The database is structured in blocks (containing multiple transactions) that are connected to each other in a network so that each transaction started on the network must be validated by the network itself in the “analysis” of every single block.

Blockchain and others Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT) (blockchain is part of a wider family of technologies called DLT) allow geographically distant parties, or those who have no existing mutual trust, to exchange any kind of digital data on a peer-to-peer platform without the need for trusted third parties or intermediaries. The data could, for example, represent money, insurance policies, contracts, land titles, medical records, birth and marriage certificates, purchase and sale of goods and services, or any other type of transaction or asset that can be translated into digital form.

The benefits of the blockchain

The blockchain should not be considered new technology, but rather a unique combination of other existing technologies such as peer-to-peer networks, cryptographic techniques, consent protocols, and distributed data storage.

The blockchain solves three types of problems:

  • Who’s Who? Blockchains can be used to certify identity through the use of digital signatures. Each user is assigned a set of two digital codes: a “private key” (similar to an account number) and a “public key” (similar to a password) that allows them to easily demonstrate their identity and issue transactions authorized.
  • Who owns what? Blockchains can be used to verify ownership through a technology called “cryptographic hashing”. A cryptographic hash is a piece of data that has been executed through a mathematical function and transformed into a shorter piece of data. In a blockchain, each block contains a hash representation of the data in the previous block
  • What is true? Blockchains can be used to solve the verification problem by making it possible for a group of people to publicly verify that a transaction is true, without the need for a trusted intermediary. In blockchain terminology, this is called “distributed consent”.

The blockchain is still often publicly associated with Bitcoin and concerns about money laundering, tax evasion, fraud or other criminal activities. Beyond the controversies over the potential negative uses of Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology could bring enormous social benefits.

A technology that increases efficiency, reduces costs and promotes transparency can in fact have significant implications for the sectors dedicated to leading social impact. The potential to transform systems and entire infrastructures can allow solutions that previously were not thought to be possible.

Blockchain for Social good initiatives

According to a study by the Center for Social Innovation of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which analyzed 193 organizations that use the blockchain, “Blockchain for Social Good” initiatives are still only just emerging, but are growing.

25% of the analyzed initiatives are concentrated in the healthcare sector, such as Modum.io that keeps track of the temperature conditions of medicine during transport, 13% deal with financial inclusion, such as the startup Aid:tech that has lowered the cost of transactions of remittances between Germany and Serbia, 12% operate in the energy / environmental sector, such as Grid Singularity which is starting a transition towards a new system of distributed energy utilities where energy can be found and distributed in a decentralized way and more efficient.

Overall, 61% of the cataloged initiatives are for profit. The sectors with the most profit-making initiatives are those with the greatest commercial opportunity: energy (94%), health (87%) and financial inclusion (78%). Conversely, the sectors driven by non-profit activities or public funding are those traditionally rooted in non-profit or government activity: philanthropy and donations (76%), democracy & governance (33%).

Governments are also working to test this technology: the Estonian government was one of the first early technology adopters (2008), exploiting technology to improve government services (99% of government services are digital and usable by the platform e-Estonia). These services exploit the distributed ledgers to increase security, efficiency and accessibility (more information here).

Nesta Italia projects

To better understand the potential impacts of this technology, Nesta Italia has undertaken two initiatives:

Blockchain for Social Good Event: on December 15th, 2017 we organized together with the City of Turin and the University of Turin, the first major Italian meeting between internationally and nationally renowned experts focused on exploring the social impact of blockchain technologies. More than 200 participants were present and we involved 20 partners for the realization of the project. During the event, the DG Connect of the European Commission launched the “Blockchains for Social Good Prize“, a € 5 million prize for technological solutions that can demonstrate that they bring an impact to society.

Blockchain for Social Good Learning Academy: a one day academy organized together with DSI, European commission and De-CODE, where we brought together social innovators from all over Europe to discuss how this technology can be used to address the social challenges in Europe and what are the tools to implement the various solutions Blockchain for social good.

Next steps

Blockchain is not just a new technology, it is a new mentality. For Nesta Italia these are the main priorities for the implementation of “blockchain for social good” initiatives:

  • Legal and regulatory framework: The first priority is the resolution of the tensions between GDPR and blockchain. The legal, tax and accounting status of the tokens must also be clarified, along with the rules relating to the exchange of crypto assets and legal money.
  • Focus on research and experimentation: technology is still at an early stage. In-depth studies and practical experiments are needed to test the real benefits they can bring.
  • Public-private partnerships: The pursuit of cutting-edge projects that bring real benefits to users and demonstrate the addition of technology, will have the dual effect of creating an internal market for innovative entrepreneurs and encouraging investors to finance more local projects.
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