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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Making sense of the COVID-19 information maze with text-mining

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it an ‘infodemic’, flooding society with myriads of conflicting ideas and opinions. To help cut through the noise, we applied some of our data tools to map recent developments and understand how technology is being used and discussed during the crisis.

Register to attend our webinar to discuss this research, Wednesday 3rd June 2020 at 5 PM CEST

We want these insights to be as useful as possible and are keen to adapt and analyse the data in different ways to answer your burning questions. We invite you to join us in a webinar to discuss our methods and results, and exchange ideas about the most pressing tech challenges.

You can also view our full analysis at https://covid.delabapps.eu

Trending terms in news articles from our analysis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it an ‘infodemic’, flooding society with myriads of conflicting ideas and opinions. To help cut through the noise, we applied some of our data tools to map recent developments and understand how technology is being used and discussed during the crisis.

As part of NGI Forward’s work to create data-driven insights on social and regulatory challenges related to emerging technologies, we have developed various data-science tools to analyse trends in the evolution of Internet technology. In our previous studies, we focused on such areas as the content crisis in social media, regulating tech giants or cybersecurity.

Now we have opened our toolbox and mapped recent developments in the fight against COVID-19, to bring some clarity to how the crisis is evolving. We concentrated on four major areas:

  • Online tech news
  • Open-source projects at Github
  • Discussions on Reddit
  • Scientific papers

Mixed feelings on COVID tech in the news

First, we examined trends in 11 respected online news sources, such as the Guardian, Reuters or Politico. Based on the changes in the frequency of terms, we identified trending keywords related to COVID-19 and the world of technology. This enabled us to focus on key issues such as contact-tracing, unemployment or misinformation in the following sections of the analysis.

Next, we analysed terms that are frequently used together, or co-occurring, (e.g. “contact-tracing” and “central server”) to see how technology was associated with different aspects of the crisis.  We also measured the sentiment of the paragraphs containing these word pairs to understand whether coverage of COVID technology issues is positive, negative or neutral. As an example, we identified the key actors, initiatives and challenges related to contact-tracing, focusing on EU-wide projects such as PEPP-PT. 

The table below shows terms co-occurring with ‘contact-tracing’, ranked based on sentiment scores. DP-3T and TraceTogether are more associated with positive sentiments, while discussion of privacy and mission creep show that there are  concerns about the implementation of these systems.

Mapping the COVID tech ecosystem

Alongside this specific analysis, we have also mapped articles based on their vocabulary and topic. You can explore the main areas of technology news with characteristic words in these interactive visualisations.

The map below shows the clusters of news articles covering specific technologies and tech companies.

Throughout the crisis, numerous programmers have devoted their time to developing open-source tools to support the fight against COVID-19. We collected COVID-19-focused projects from Github, the software platform where much of this development is taking place, to examine various trends about location, aim and technology. You can find an overview of the top 50 most influential repositories on our analysis page. Perhaps you will be inspired to get involved!

The map below shows the number of Github projects related to COVID-19 in the week commencing 20th April 2020.

Tracking changes in social media

Looking next to social media, we examined activity on Reddit to uncover relevant changes. By analysing the text of posts and comments, we discovered a surge in discussions related to the job market, mental health and remote work. Our analysis also provides insight into the changing perception of lockdown measures and growing lockdown fatigue.

The graph below shows a sharp increase in Reddit discussions about unemployment in the latter half of March 2020.

Social science counts the consequences

Finally, we also examined trends in scientific journal articles related to COVID-19. Analysing articles from the social sciences gives us a broader picture than news articles, and we found increasing discussion of the immediate consequences of the pandemic and lockdown. The trending words range from health-related (pneumonia, infectious, epidemiology) ones to more common for social sciences: economic recession, policy or GDP. 

The word cloud below shows some of the most common terms in social science articles relating to COVID-19.

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How collective intelligence can help tackle major challenges…

...and build a better internet along the way!

It’s hard to imagine what our social response to a public health challenge at the scale of COVID-19 would have looked like just ten or fifteen years ago – in a world without sophisticated tools for remote working, diversified digital economies, and social networking opportunities. 

Today, we see frontline doctors self-organising through social media to share diagnostic and treatment advice, DIY communities sharing open source solutions to help bolster supplies of ventilators and face masks, and the transition of many businesses to a physically distributed and temporally asynchronous workforce model.

The common enabler of all these activities is the internet. Recent years have seen innovation across all of its layers – from infrastructure to data rights – resulting in an unprecedented capacity for people to work together, share skills and pool information to understand how the world around them is changing and respond to challenges. This enhanced capacity is known as collective intelligence (CI)

The internet certainly needs fixing – from the polarising effect of social media on political discourse to the internet’s perpetual concentration of wealth and power and its poorly understood impact on the environment. But turning to the future, it’s equally clear that there is great promise in the ability of emerging technologies, new governance models and infrastructure protocols to enable entirely new forms of collective intelligence that can help us solve complex problems and change our lives for the better. 

Based on examples from Nesta’s recent report, The Future of Minds & Machines, this blog shows how an internet based on five core values can serve to combine distributed human and machine intelligence in new ways and help Europe become more than the sum of its parts. 

We have been mapping projects that bring Artificial Intelligence and Collective Intelligence together.
Source: nesta.org.uk

Resilience

Resilience is a core value for the future internet. It means secure infrastructure and the right balance between centralisation and decentralisation. But it also means that connected technologies should enable us to better respond to external challenges. Online community networks that can be tapped into and mobilised quickly are already an important part of the 21st century humanitarian response. 

Both Amnesty International and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap have global communities of volunteers, numbering in the thousands, who participate in distributed micromapping efforts to trace features like building and roads on satellite images. These online microtasking platforms help charities and aid agencies understand how conflicts and environmental disasters affect different regions around the world, enabling them to make more informed decisions about distribution of resources and support. 

More recently, these platforms have started to incorporate elements of artificial intelligence to support the efforts of volunteers. One such initiative, MapWithAI, helps digital humanitarians to prioritise where to apply their skills to make mapping more efficient overall. 

The internet also enables and sustains distinct communities of practice, like these groups of humanitarian volunteers, allowing individuals with similar interests to find each other. This social and digital infrastructure may prove invaluable in times of crises, when there is a need to tap into a diversity of skills and ideas to meet unexpected challenges. 

In the future, collective intelligence may also help improve our ability to cooperate and share resources in, such as food and energy, effectively between and within groups. At Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design (CCID), we are supporting research that asks whether different levels of social connectivity within and between overlapping social groups on an online platform can improve coordination in response to collective crises. Experiments like this one, will help us to understand how the internet can be organised to support more collectively intelligent and resilient behaviours. 

Inclusiveness

The need to consider a diversity of information, opinions and ideas is a key factor in the success of any collective intelligence initiative. This is true for small group interactions – which have been shown to require cognitive diversity of participants to improve problem solving, creativity and learning – as well as large-scale initiatives such as crowd predictions, where individuals making mistakes in slightly different ways ensures that the collective estimate holds. If we want to address challenges facing the whole of society, we need solutions designed for everyone.

One example of collective intelligence improving inclusiveness – while also taking an inclusive-by-design approach – is Mozilla’s Common Voice project, which uses an accessible online platform to crowdsource the world’s largest open dataset of diverse voice recordings, spanning different languages, demographic backgrounds and accents. 

The Common Voice project crowdsources diverse voices, accents and underrepresented languages

Ensuring diversity of contributions is not easy. It requires a deliberate effort to involve individuals with rare knowledge, such as members of indigenous cultures or speakers of unusual dialects. But a future internet built around an inclusive innovation ecosystem, products that are inclusive-by-design, and fundamental rights for the individual – rather than a closed system built around surveillance and exploitation – will make it easier for projects like Common Voice to become the norm. 

Democracy

The future internet should have the ambition to protect democratic institutions and give political agency to all – but it should also itself be an expression of democratic values. That means designing for more meaningful bottom-up engagement of citizens, addressing asymmetric power relationships in the digital economy and creating spaces for different voices to be heard. 

Both national and local governments worldwide are starting to appreciate the opportunities that the internet and collective intelligence offer in terms of helping them to better understand the views of their citizens. Parliaments from Brazil to Taiwan are inviting citizens to contribute to the legislative process, while cities like Brussels and Paris are asking their residents to help prioritise spending through participatory budgeting. The EU is also preparing a Conference on the Future Europe to engage citizens at scale in thinking about the future of the bloc, an effort that could be enhanced and facilitated through CI-based approaches like participatory futures. These types of activities can help engage a greater variety of individuals in political decision-making and redefine the relationships between politicians and the constituents they serve. 

Unfortunately, some citizen engagement initiatives are still driven by tech-solutionism without a clear market need, rather than the careful design of participation processes that make the most of the collective contributions of citizens. Even when digital democracy projects start out with the best intentions politicians can struggle to make sense of this new source of insight, which risks valuable ideas being overlooked and diminished trust in democratic processes. 

There are signs that this is changing. For example, the collective intelligence platform Citizen Lab is trying to optimise the channels of communications and interpretation between citizens and politicians. It has started to apply natural language processing algorithms to help organise and identify themes in the ideas that citizens contribute using its platform, helping public servants to make better use of them. Citizen Lab is used by city administrations in more than 20 countries across Europe and offers a glimpse of how Europe can set an example of democratic collective intelligence enabled by the infrastructure of the internet.

Trust

A closely related challenge for the internet today is the continued erosion of trust – trust in the veracity of information, trust between citizens online, and trust in public institutions. The internet of the future will have to find ways of dealing with challenges like digital identities and the safety of our everyday online interactions. But perhaps most importantly, the internet must be able to tackle the problems of information overload and misinformation through systems that optimise for fact-based and balanced exchanges, rather than outrage and division.

We have seen some of the dangers of fake news manifest as part of the response to COVID-19. At a time when receiving accurate public health messaging and government communications are a matter of life and death, the cacophony of information on the internet can make it hard for individuals to distinguish the signal from the noise. 

Undoubtedly, part of the solution to effectively navigate his new infosphere will require new forms of public private partnerships. By working with media and technology giants like Facebook and Twitter, governments and health agencies worldwide have started to curb some of the negative effects of misinformation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But the commitment to a trustworthy internet is a long-term investment. It will not only rely on the actions of policy makers and industry to develop recognisable trustmarks, but also on a more literate citizenry that is better able to spot suspicious materials and flag concerns. 

A tweet by the UK Government warning about misinformation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many existing fact checking projects already already use crowdsourcing at different stages of the verification processes. For example, the company Factmata is developing a technology that will draw on specialist communities of more than 2000 trained experts to help them assess the trustworthiness of online content. However, crowdsourced solutions can be vulnerable to issues of bias, polarisation and gaming and will need to be consolidated by complementary sources of intelligence such as expert validation or entirely new AI tools that can help to mitigate against the effects of social bias.

Sustainability

Undoubtedly, some of our biggest challenges are yet to come. But the internet holds untapped potential for us to build awareness for the interdependency of our social and natural environments. We need to champion models that put the digital economy at the service of creating a more sustainable planet and combating climate change, while also remaining conscious of the environmental footprint these systems have in their own right.

Citizen science is a distinct family of collective intelligence methods where volunteers collect data, make observations or perform analyses that helps to advance scientific knowledge. Citizen science projects have proliferated over the last 20 years, in large part due to the internet. For example, the most popular online citizen science platform, Zooniverse, hosts over 50 different scientific projects and has attracted over 1 million contributors. 

A large proportion of citizen science projects focus on the environment and ecology, helping to engage members of the public outside of traditional academia with issues such as biodiversity, air quality and pollution of waterways. iNaturalist is an online social network that brings together nature lovers to keep track of different species of plants and animals worldwide. The platform supports learning within a passionate community and creates a unique open data source that can be used by scientists and conservation agencies. 

Beyond the direct use of citizen generated data for environmental monitoring and tracking of progress towards the sustainable development goals, online citizen science and community monitoring projects can lead to increased awareness of sustainability issues and longer term pro-environmental behavioural change and for those involved.

Building the Next Generation Internet – with and for collective intelligence

To enable next-generation collective intelligence, Europe needs to look beyond ‘just AI’ and invest in increasingly smarter ways of connecting people, information and skills, and facilitating interactions on digital platforms. The continued proliferation of data infrastructures, public and private sector data sharing and the emergence of the Internet of Things will play an equally important part in enhancing and scaling up collective human intelligence. Yet, for this technological progress to have a transformative and positive impact on society, it will have to be put in the service of furthering fundamental values. Collective intelligence has the opportunity to be both a key driver and beneficiary of a more inclusive, resilient, democratic, sustainable and trustworthy internet. 

At this moment of global deceleration, we suggest it is time to take stock of old trajectories for the internet to set out on a new course, one that allows us to make the most of the diverse collective intelligence that we have within society to become better at solving complex problems. The decisions we make today will help us to shape the society of the future. 

Aleks is a Senior Researcher and Project Manager for Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design (CCID). The CCID conducts research and develops resources to help innovators understand how they can harness collective intelligence to solve problems. Our latest report, The Future of Minds & Machines mapped the various ways that AI is helping to enhance and scale the problem solving abilities of groups. It is available for download on the Nesta website, where you can also explore 20 case studies of AI & CI in practice.

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Exploring an NGI Trustmark

Trustmarks are a well-established mechanism which help consumers make more informed decisions about the goods and services they buy. We all know the fairtrade stamp on our bananas, trust environmental certifications, and value Better Business Bureau stickers. Where we haven’t seen the trustmark used much yet, or at least not very effectively, is within the […]

Trustmarks are a well-established mechanism which help consumers make more informed decisions about the goods and services they buy. We all know the fairtrade stamp on our bananas, trust environmental certifications, and value Better Business Bureau stickers. Where we haven’t seen the trustmark used much yet, or at least not very effectively, is within the space of responsible technology and software. 

After a series of highly public scandals which have put in question the trustworthiness of the technology and tools we rely on (from privacy violations and data misuse to large data breaches), there is a rising demand among the general public for ethical, responsible alternatives. It is however not always easy for consumers to find these alternatives, partially due to a lack of easy-to-understand and -find information (among a deluge of apps, how do we know which ones are most careful with handling our data, for example?), but also because of the lack of maturity of the marketplace for these types of tools to begin with (few have been able to gain real traction).

Trustmarks could help solve these issues. A stamp of quality for products that, for example, follow high security standards, do not track and sell the data of their users or use ethical production processes, could make it easier for consumers to pick out these tools in a crowded marketplace, and simultaneously raise awareness about how some of these values are not embodied by many of today’s most popular tools. Furthermore, a trustmark could support the creation of an ecosystem and market around ethical tools, which can struggle as being “responsible” often means compromising on user friendliness, effective marketing and above all profitability. 

Exploring the Trustmark idea in the digital space

On September 25 2019, the NGI Forward held a short workshop on trustmarks as part of the NGI Forum, the Next Generation Internet’s flagship community event. This document outlines the key messages and take-aways from this workshop. 

In this small workshop we brought 16 participants together to explore trustmarks in more depth, and examine their potential value and how they could be practically employed. Before trustmarks can be put to the test, there are a lot of open questions left to be answered. In this workshop, we surfaced many of the key issues that still need to be resolved and different potential solutions. 

Many of the participants in the workshop reported already being involved in the development of some sort of digital trustmark. There are a number of trustmark type initiatives emerging in areas such as the responsible use of data, Internet of Things (IoT) and cyber security. For example the Trustable Technology Mark (https://trustabletech.org/) developed for IoT devices or Sitra’s work on the concept of a ‘Fair data label’ to inform consumers about services’ compliance with basic principles and standards of data protection and reuse. Many of these initiatives are asking the same kinds of questions the workshop set out to explore, how could a trustmark for internet related products or services provide value, what factors make a trustmark a success and which areas should a trustmark cover? Many of these projects have already faced some key challenges, which are explored more below. 

How could a trustmark be useful? 

The main benefit of the trustmark model is the opportunity to empower consumers to make informed decisions about the product or services they are using and it also helps companies to prove their products or services are ‘trustworthy’. It is clear that consumers increasingly have trust issues around the digital products and services that they use, whether those be privacy concerns or potential harms emerging from automated algorithm- based decision making (such as targeted ads or curated social media news streams). Trustmarks may also be able to add additional value, not just for consumers but also for companies and the EU’s drive to make the next generation internet (NGI) more ‘human-centric’.

Trustmarks could help create a market for responsibly created, trustworthy products. This could help encourage the creation of more products and services that compete with existing business models that are largely based on data exploitation and monetisation, and offer a ‘responsible’ alternative. Trustmarks could also help further raise awareness among consumers of the many issues digital products and services can create.  At the same time a new market for responsible, trustworthy products, services and business models may help embed ‘human-centric’ values into the next generation of innovations. Introducing greater transparency around products, services or business models is one of the central ways trustmarks could help facilitate this change. Trustmarks could also improve trust in the digital economy, a critical step in making the most of the digital economy and providing improved private and public services.  

Challenges:

Scope

Successful existing trustmarks cover a wide range of things, from adherence to health and safety standards to ethical business practices. They often focus on one area rather than covering every element that may benefit from indicating ‘trustworthiness’.  A narrower focus can help with consumer engagement as it is easier to convey a single idea over several different metrics outlining many different aspects of what a ‘good’ product is. However, too narrow a focus may not cover all necessary issues, thereby giving consumers a false impression of trustworthiness of the overall solution. This difficult balancing act around getting the scope and remit of a trustmarks right, is particularly challenging for digital and internet products as the issues we have seen emerge around them are so multifaceted. Data collection and use, cybersecurity, accessibility, physical elements of a product, hardware and software etc. Could a useful comprehensive NGI trustmark be created that covers anything from a social media picture app, an IoT sensor to AI algorithms? 

To identify some of the important areas an NGI trustmark could cover, workshop participants focused on individual high-level issues, such as sustainability or responsible data use, rather than attempting to construct a comprehensive trustmark, which the group both agreed would not be particularly useful, nor viable to debate in the short time available for the workshop. 

However even focusing on narrower areas identified many different open questions and concerns that merit further exploration. Participants found there were differing needs, risks and norms across sectors and verticals, for example retail and health, which meant that standards for “good” would likely differ significantly across solutions and applications. 

Metrics and evaluation

For trustmarks to work, we require reliable and easily transferable ways to measure and evaluate how well a product, service or business model meets the relevant requirements. For some areas discussed during the workshop, for example CO2 consumption or energy use as part of sustainability, it would be fairly easy to develop appropriate metrics (particularly as there are already other product trustmarks that do this), but for other, perhaps more subjective, areas like data handling, bias and discrimination, or ethical practice developing such metrics is much more difficult and fuzzy. 

Assessment may also be hampered by two additional factors;

  1. Software is continuously being updated and changed. How can we make sure that after repeated tweaks, products or services still meet the trustmark’s basic requirements? Is it viable for any governance system to oversee such a vast, rapidly changing landscape? 
  2. ‘Black box’ systems, which generally refer to complex AI algorithms in this context, limit the ability to be open and transparent. We may not know what the system is doing or how it achieves the outputs it creates. Alternative metrics may be required in these instances (for example focusing on data handling or data sources), or the trustmark could focus only on explainable systems. 

Another related question around how the trustmark works is whether it is used to define a set of minimum requirements or it is used to identify ‘best practice’. Minimum standards make it easier for more companies or products to acquire a trustmark, but also mean that the solutions championed do not necessarily push the bar for good behaviour. Minimum standards might even reward bad behaviour in some cases, where companies are encouraged to only do the bare minimum. 

Governance model

How to govern trustmarks is one of the biggest challenges in making them a success. Building trust in a trustmark requires the involvement of well-respected institutions, and, as many participants noted, can be very expensive. Especially the auditing and review of solutions, is an open question. 

The digital landscape is vast: if demand from the private sector for the trustmark increases, this could potentially involve hundreds of thousands of companies. There are many ways of doing assessments, either through self assessment or auditing by an independent auditing body (often the outcome is somewhere in between the two). Participants indicated that the focus should be more on independent self-assessment to avoid false self-reporting. However this creates other challenges in terms of resourcing and ability. Any governing body with assessment responsibilities would need to be resourced appropriately to carry out its functions. In light of the growth of the digital economy and ongoing auditing needs as software is updated this may be significant. This raises the question of how the trustmark would be paid for. If it is paid for by companies who apply it may put additional barriers in the way of smaller companies, startups or free, open source software. 

The governance of the trustmark also needs to be tied to a trusted organisation itself, in order to help strengthen support and credibility of the trustmark. Participants felt that the European Commission was in a strong position to play this kind of role. Participants also indicated that many initiatives have stalled or failed to come to fruition due to a lack of funding or support from a larger independent institution. 

Business models and consumers

A trustmark’s success will be heavily dependant on how effectively it can help disrupt entrenched business models and create a market for alternative, responsible companies. This will be particularly difficult in the data economy where many different companies have vested interests and lobbyists will play an influential role. 

Perhaps most important of all however is consumer engagement. If consumers are apathetic about an NGI related trustmark then it will never achieve any of the potential goals set out above. Workshop participants did not consider this to be a big challenge however, as many polls and public engagement exercises have already demonstrated the public’s interest in areas like privacy, data use and sustainability concerns. Trustmarks can be used in several ways, identifying potential impacts on the user or environment, a way to educate consumers or through eliciting a ‘feel good’ response (eg fairtrade approach).

Themes

Participants also brought up a variety of other important topics trustmarks could potentially be used for: 

  • Sustainability: The sustainability of the internet itself, software and hardware are becoming a topic of ever greater salience, though public awareness about the large environmental footprint of many of their connected devices and internet use remains limited. One possible way of encouraging technology companies to adopt more sustainable ways would be to design a trustmark around these issues (which could everything from CO2 emissions from data centres, energy efficiency, ability to recycle a device, etc.). 
  • Privacy and data use: Trustmarks could be given out to companies whose tools handle their users’ data in a particularly secure way, allow for data portability, otherwise make valuable datasets available to third parties in a responsible way, or use particularly transparent models for consent, to name just some examples of concrete interventions we could evaluate on in this realm. 
  • Cybersecurity: Also cybersecurity is often touted as a potential focus of a trustmark, particularly in the Internet of Things space. Has a solution of device successfully undergone a security audit? How transparent is the company about cyber breaches and underlying vulnerabilities? How securely do they store users’ data? Though this is an interesting area, lack of transparency might make it hard in practice to certify tools. 
  • AI ethics: Using trustmarks to formalise AI ethics principles in specific tools often came up as a possible application. Could we give trustmarks to solutions that offer transparency about the inner-workings of their algorithms? Make serious efforts to reduce bias? Subjectivity and lack of agreement about what “ethical” means, will require intensive efforts to build a coalition around this topic. 
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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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