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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: Interoperability with a Purpose

Sophie Bloemen and Thomas de Groot from Commons Network, and Paul Keller and Alek Tarkowski from Open Future, answer a few of our questions to give us some insight into their project and what it will achieve.

We’re introducing each of our four Policy-in-Practice Fund projects with an introductory blog post. Below, Sophie Bloemen and Thomas de Groot from Commons Network, and Paul Keller and Alek Tarkowski from Open Future, answer a few of our burning questions to give us some insight into their 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. 

Can you explain to us what you mean by interoperability, and why you think interoperability could be an effective tool to counter centralisation of power in the digital economy?

Simply put, interoperability is the ability of systems to work together and to exchange data easily. In policy circles today, the term is mostly used as a solution to the structurally unhealthy dominance of a small number of extremely large platform intermediaries that is increasingly being understood to be unhealthy, both socially and politically speaking.

In the case of Facebook, for instance, introducing interoperability would mean that a user could connect with Facebook users, interact with them and with the content that they share or produce, without using Facebook. This would be possible because, thanks to interoperability, other services could connect with the Facebook infrastructure.

This scenario is often presented as a way of creating a more level playing field for competing services (who would have access to Facebook’s user base). In the same vein, proponents of interoperability argue for an ecosystem of messaging services where messages can be exchanged across services. This is also the basis of the most recent antitrust case by the US government against Facebook. At the very core, these are arguments in favour of individual freedom of choice and to empower competitors in the market. We call this approach competitive interoperability.

While this would clearly be a step in the right direction (the Digital Markets Act proposed by the European Commission at the end of last year contains a first baby step, that would require “gatekeeper platforms” to allow interoperability for ancillary services that they offer but not for their main services) it is equally clear that competitive interoperability will not substantially change the nature of the online environment. Increasing choice between different services designed to extract value from our online activities may feel better than being forced to use a single service, but it does not guarantee that the exploitative relationship between service providers and their users will change. We cannot predict the effects of increased market competition on the control of individual users over their data. In fact, allowing users to take their data from one service to another comes with a whole raft of largely unresolved personal data protection issues.

We see interoperability as a design principle that has the potential to build a more decentralised infrastructure that enables individual self-determination in the online environment. We propose to call this type of interoperability generative interoperability.

So, even though there are limits on this particular idea of interoperability, this does not mean that the concept itself has no use. Instead, we say that it needs to be envisaged with a different purpose in mind: building a different kind of online environment that answers to the needs of public institutions and civic communities, instead of ‘improving markets’. We see interoperability as a design principle that has the potential to build a more decentralised infrastructure that enables individual self-determination in the online environment. We propose to call this type of interoperability generative interoperability.

What question are you specifically trying to answer with this research? And why is it important?

In our view, the purpose of generative interoperability must be to enable what we call an Interoperable Public Civic Ecosystem. And we are exploring what such an ecosystem would encompass, together with our partners. We know that a public civic ecosystem has the potential to provide an alternative digital public space that is supported by public institutions (public broadcasters, universities and other educational institutions, libraries and other cultural heritage institutions) and civic- and commons-based initiatives. Can such an ecosystem allow public institutions and civic initiatives to route around the gatekeepers of the commercial internet, without becoming disconnected from their audiences and communities? Can it facilitate meaningful interaction outside the sphere of digital platform capitalism?

This experiment is part of the Shared Digital Europe agenda. Could you tell us a bit more about that agenda?

Shared Digital Europe is a broad coalition of thinkers, activists, policymakers and civil society. Two years ago we launched a new framework to guide policymakers and civil society organisations involved with digital policymaking in the direction of a more equitable and democratic digital environment, where basic liberties and rights are protected, where strong public institutions function in the public interest, and where people have a say in how their digital environment functions.

We established four guiding principles that can be applied to all layers of the digital space, from the physical networking infrastructure to the applications and services running on top of the infrastructure and networking stack. And they can also be applied to the social, economic or political aspects of society undergoing digital transformation. They are: 

  • Enable Self-Determination, 
  • Cultivate the Commons, 
  • Decentralise Infrastructure and 
  • Empower Public Institutions.

Now with this new project, we are saying that interoperability should primarily be understood to enable interactions between public institutions, civic initiatives and their audiences, without the intermediation of the now dominant platforms. Seen in this light the purpose of interoperability is not to increase competition among platform intermediaries, but to contribute to building public infrastructures that lessen the dependence of our societies on these intermediaries. Instead of relying on private companies to provide infrastructures in the digital space that they can shape according to their business model needs, we must finally start to build public infrastructures that are designed to respond to civic and public values underpinning democratic societies. In building these infrastructures a strong commitment to universal interoperability based on open standards and protocols can serve as an insurance policy against re-centralisation and the emergence of dominant intermediaries.

These public infrastructures do not emerge by themselves; they are the product of political and societal will. In the European Union, the political climate seems ripe for creating such a commitment. As evidenced by the current flurry of regulation aimed at the digital space, the European Commission has clearly embraced the view that Europe needs to set its own rules for the digital space. But if we want to see real systemic change we must not limit ourselves in regulating private companies (via baby steps towards competitive interoperability and other types of regulation) but we must also invest in interoperable digital public infrastructures that empower public institutions and civil institutions. If European policymakers are serious about building the next generation internet they will need to see themselves as ecosystem-builders instead of market regulators. Understanding interoperability as a generative principle will be an important step towards this objective.

How can people get involved and find out more?

People can reach out to us through our Twitter account: @SharedDigitalEU, they can write to us via email at hello@shared-digital.eu, or they can stay in touch through our newsletter, which we send out a couple of times per year.

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

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

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

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

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

Our aims

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

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

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

How we did it

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

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

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

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

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

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

What emerged

Individual-centric Internet

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

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

Individual-centric Internet

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

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

Not so one-sided

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

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

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Workshop report: People, not experiments – why cities must end biometric surveillance

We debated the use of facial recognition in cities with the policymakers and law enforcement officials who actually use it.

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by European Digital Rights (EDRi), which was originally published on the EDRi website.

We debated the use of facial recognition in cities with the policymakers and law enforcement officials who actually use it. The discussion got to the heart of EDRi’s warnings that biometric surveillance puts limits on everyone’s rights and freedoms, amplifies discrimination, and treats all of us as experimental test subjects. This techno-driven democratic vacuum must be stopped.

From seriously flawed live trials of facial recognition by London’s Metropolitan police force, to unlawful biometric surveillance in French schools, to secretive roll outs of facial recognition which have been used against protesters in Serbia: creepy mass surveillance by governments and private companies, using people’s sensitive face and body data, is on the rise across Europe. Yet according to a 2020 survey by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, 80% of Europeans are against sharing their face data with authorities.

On 28 September, EDRi participated in a debate at the NGI Policy Summit on “Biometrics and facial recognition in cities” alongside policymakers and police officers who have authorised the use of the tech in their cities. EDRi explained that public facial recognition, and similar systems which use other parts of our bodies like our eyes or the way we walk, are so intrusive as to be inherently disproportionate under European human rights law. The ensuing discussion revealed many of the reasons why public biometric surveillance poses such a threat to our societies:

• Cities are not adequately considering risks of discrimination: according to research by WebRoots Democracy, black, brown and Muslim communities in the UK are disproportionately over-policed. With the introduction of facial recognition in multiple UK cities, minoritised communities are now having their biometric data surveilled at much higher rates. In one example from the research, the London Metropolitan Police failed to carry out an equality impact assessment before using facial recognition at the Notting Hill carnival – an event which famously celebrates black and Afro-Carribean culture – despite knowing the sensitivity of the tech and the foreseeable risks of discrimination. The research also showed that whilst marginalised communities are the most likely to have police tech deployed against them, they are also the ones that are the least consulted about it.

• Legal checks and safeguards are being ignored: according to the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of London, the London Metropolitan Police has been on “a journey” of learning, and understand that some of their past deployments of facial recognition did not have proper safeguards. Yet under data protection law, authorities must conduct an analysis of fundamental rights impacts before they deploy a technology. And it’s not just London that has treated fundamental rights safeguards as an afterthought when deploying biometric surveillance. Courts and data protection authorities have had to step in to stop unlawful deployments of biometric surveillance in Sweden, Poland, France, and Wales (UK) due to a lack of checks and safeguards.

• Failure to put fundamental rights first: the London CTO and the Dutch police explained that facial recognition in cities is necessary for catching serious criminals and keeping people safe. In London, the police have focused on ethics, transparency and “user voice”. In Amsterdam, the police have focused on “supporting the safety of people and the security of their goods” and have justified the use of facial recognition by the fact that it is already prevalent in society. Crime prevention and public safety are legitimate public policy goals: but the level of the threat to everyone’s fundamental rights posed by biometric mass surveillance in public spaces means that vague and general justifications are just not sufficient. Having fundamental rights means that those rights cannot be reduced unless there is a really strong justification for doing so.

• The public are being treated as experimental test subjects: across these examples, it is clear that members of the public are being used as subjects in high-stakes experiments which can have real-life impacts on their freedom, access to public services, and sense of security. Police forces and authorities are using biometric systems as a way to learn and to develop their capabilities. In doing so, they are not only failing their human rights obligations, but are also violating people’s dignity by treating them as learning opportunities rather than as individual humans deserving of respect and dignity.

The debate highlighted the worrying patterns of a lack of transparency and consideration for fundamental rights in current deployments of facial recognition, and other public biometric surveillance, happening all across Europe. The European Commission has recently started to consider how technology can reinforce structural racism, and to think about whether biometric mass surveillance is compatible with democratic societies. But at the same time, they are bankrolling projects like horrifyingly dystopian iBorderCTRL. EDRi’s position is clear: if we care about fundamental rights, our only option is to stop the regulatory whack-a-mole, and permanently ban biometric mass surveillance.

Picture of Toomas Hendrik Ilves
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NGI Policy Summit: Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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