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

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

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

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

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

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

NGI vision

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

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

Policy Network

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

Policy Summit 

  • The Members expressed their interest in the NGI Policy Summit, scheduled for September 28 and 29, and all agreed to attend at least some of the sessions. 
  • The Members also expressed the suitability of the summit to both highlight the conclusions of the visions paper, and launch the NGI Policy Network, with this in particular being a good moment to start some of the proposed working groups. 
  • Members recommended we also recruit engaged stakeholders to lead some of these working groups, rather than attempt to organise all of these within the project.
Picture of Toomas Hendrik Ilves
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NGI Policy Summit: Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture of Marleen Stikker
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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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€100,000 fund to trial experimental policy ideas and tools to build a more resilient internet

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

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

Find out more and apply here.

A note on COVID-19

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

Aim of this fund

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

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

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

This fund intends to contribute to doing exactly that.

What are we looking for?

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

What will we offer?

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

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



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Is regulation Europe’s competitive advantage?

Europe could lead the way in creating a regulatory regime that stimulates innovation

Recent high profile events, from the Cambridge Analytica data scandal to drone chaos at London’s Gatwick airport, have thrown regulation back into the spotlight. At a political level it’s becoming a hot topic too, as public unease with technologies like artificial intelligence grows while the global race to dominate the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ heats up.

Once this might have meant a race to the bottom and a cutting of ‘red tape’. Instead, we are seeing a radical shift in both regulatory theory and practice, driven by a greater acceptance that innovation needs to deliver public value and, more practically, the need for regulatory clarity around uncertain novel innovations like autonomous vehicles, drones or cryptocurrencies. ‘Anticipatory regulation’ is becoming a source of huge competitive advantage.

This presents an important opportunity for any government but only a few places are ready to fully exploit it. If Europe can lead the way in creating a regulatory regime that stimulates innovation while protecting and creating value for the public, it will have achieved something neither the US or China are in a position to do.

Europe’s strongest competitive advantage lies in its size, diversity, and commitment to maintaining basic rights and delivering public values. A host of established regulatory institutions also mean it is uniquely placed to capture this opportunity. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for better or worse, has already shown part of Europe’s strength lies in its regulatory leadership.

The tricky question is how: What would it take for European governments and the EU to develop an innovation-enabling regulatory system that protects European rights and delivers public value?

Regulation renewed

Regulatory systems have failed to keep pace with technological change (and other innovations). They increasingly face problems they have no way of dealing with. Platform economies, the growing importance of data, and development of cross-cutting technologies like AI have all deeply disrupted our outdated regulatory frameworks.

However in the last couple of years we have seen an explosion in regulatory innovation. The emergence of new anticipatory regulation practices have started to reshape the role of regulation as a forward-facing, inclusive, proactive and innovation-enabling system. New practices such as the Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) sandbox (and the many other fintech versions worldwide) or the development of various testbeds for autonomous vehicles were at the forefront of this change. More recent developments are supporting even more innovative thinking — the UK government’s £10m Regulators’ Pioneers Fund is the first system-wide attempt to promote the testing of new innovation-enabling regulatory approaches.

Anticipatory regulation in practice

There are four key elements of anticipatory regulation:

#1 Proactive

Engaging innovators and innovation early: this is particularly important when problems and opportunities can scale very quickly. The FCA sandbox or the various innovation hubs regulators have set up are a great example of this in practice. Being proactive is not just about engaging innovations earlier, it is also an opportunity to use regulatory action as a way of driving innovation around a particular strategy or public need. Nesta has found challenge prizes a very effective way to do this: identifying the outcomes you want to achieve and supporting the market to develop innovations that deliver that outcome. For example, we are working with the Solicitors Regulatory Authority to stimulate AI-powered innovations that could serve to widen access to justice, and at the same time inform the regulator’s approach to these new technologies.

#2 Inclusion and collaboration

Where new technologies raise ethical issues with sensitive political implications, the public need to be engaged; as part of a more diverse set of stakeholders, and a more collaborative, co-creation approach (in part to avoid public backlash). Regulators have to leverage the capabilities of businesses, cities and civil society to secure policy goals and build capacity in new areas like data.

#3 Future-facing

Being future-facing is arguably a large part of the success of the Singaporean approach to regulation. While horizon scanning and identifying emerging issues and opportunities is a vital part of this function it must be paired with other foresight and futures approaches to develop resilient, adaptive strategies that can cope with the inherent uncertainty of fast-changing markets.

#4 Experimental

Lastly there is the need for decentralised experimentation in facilitating diverse responses to the regulation of early-stage opportunities and risks where national or global policies or standards are still to be established. Autonomous vehicle development in the US is a good example; lots of states are taking different approaches with a set of general standards being developed at the federal level.

What Europe can do

Europe is in a strong position and can boast a number of particularly interesting and innovative initiatives (see Austria’s approach to autonomous vehicles or the UK’s new regulation strategy) but other nations are in a strong position to challenge its regulatory leadership. China is emerging as a strong contender, particularly in areas like AI and IoT. Singapore arguably still has the most innovative regulatory system and other places are moving quickly to capitalise on the opportunities, for example, Canada’s emerging Centre for Regulatory Innovation.

Building and embedding these anticipatory approaches into national strategies and at the EU level is not an easy task; it requires a very different mindset and way of working. Some bits of Europe are ahead of the game, but for the whole of Europe to benefit it needs a coordinated anticipatory regulation strategy.

A version of this blog was originally published on the sifted.eu site

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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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