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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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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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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