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Workshop report: Ethnography and the internet – collective intelligence insights for digital policy

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by NGI Atlantic, written by Amelia Hassoun, Leonie Schulte and Kate J. Sim.

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by Edgeryders, written by Amelia Hassoun, Leonie Schulte and Kate J. Sim.

The EdgeRyders NGI Ethnography Team is dedicated to responding to three core, intersecting questions: when people talk about the future of the internet, what are their key concerns and desires? What issues do they face, and what solutions do they imagine? And how can we, as ethnographers, visualise and analyse these topics in a way that meaningfully contributes to ongoing debates and policy-making?

At the 2020 NGI Policy Summit, we demonstrated how we responded to these questions through digital ethnographic methods and qualitative coding. 

As digital ethnographers, we participate in and observe online interaction on EdgeRyders’ open source community platform, engaging with community members as they share their insights on issues from artificial intelligence, to environmental tech, to technology solutions for the COVID-19 pandemic.

We also code all posted content through Open Ethnographer; an open source coding tool that enables us to perform inductive, interpretive analysis of written online content. In practice, this means that we apply tags to portions of digital text produced by community members in a way that captures the semantic content of online interactional moments. This coding process yields a broader Social Semantic Network (SSN) of codes that allows us to gain a large-scale view of emerging salient topics, while being able to zoom in to actionable subsets of conversation. 

We visualise and navigate this ethnographic data using the data visualisation tool, Graph Ryder, which adds a quantitative layer atop our qualitative approach to data collection. Graph Ryder gives us a visualisation of all generated codes, allowing us to trace co-occurrences between codes and see code clusters, which show us what concepts community members are associating with each other. This approach shows us who is talking to each other, and about what topics, across the entire platform. During our workshop, we invited attendees to explore Graph Ryder with us. Here are some examples we used: 

We find interesting co-occurrences when filtering the graph to k=4. For those unfamiliar with our tool, Graph Ryder, this means that we are looking at connections between codes that have been mentioned together by community members at least four times. 

At this level, we can see some broad themes emerging as we look at the graph as a whole. We can then zoom in on a code like “privacy”, an extremely central node in the conversation among community members. This code is linked to other codes like “personal data”, “trade-offs”, “cost”, “surveillance” and “decision-making”. These connections, in turn, create an illustrative network of privacy concerns articulated by the community: around smart cities and human rights, covid-19 and contact tracing, trade-offs and decision-making. A salient theme is the question of how to weigh up privacy trade-offs, in order to make optimal decisions about one’s own data privacy. What does it cost? There is uncertainty around how extensive surveillance is, and a distrust of the information that one is given about these technologies, which makes making quality decisions about these issues difficult for community members.

Social Semantic Network Analysis combines qualitative research at scale with participatory design: we can, thus, dynamically address what people know, what they are trying to do and what they need. It also affords us a great deal of foresight, meaning we can look towards the future and identify what might be brewing on the horizon. 

So, how does this method allow us to inform policy? The digital ethnographic approach means we are continuously engaging with a broad range of individuals and communities across Europe; from activists to tech practitioners and academics, among many others. This gives us unique access to viewpoints and experiences that we can, in turn, explore in greater detail.  This approach combines the richness of everyday life details gained through ethnographic research with the “big picture” vantage point of network science. Our inductive approach to community interaction means we remain open to novelty: allowing us to address problems as they emerge, without having to define what those problems are from the outset.

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Workshop report: Privacy and trust: trends in experiments in EU-US research and innovation

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by NGI Atlantic.

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by NGI Atlantic, written by Sara Pittonet Gaiarin and Jim Clarke.

Bridging EU-US research on Next Generation Internet: about NGIatlantic.eu

NGIatlantic.eu is one of the growing family of the Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative’s Research and Innovation (RIA) projects, whose goal is to collectively build a human-centric internet based on the values held dear by European citizens, such as privacy, trust, fairness and inclusiveness. At the same time, the NGI initiative is designed to make sure that there are significant internationalisation activities, including collaborations between EU and United States’ NGI-related activities in order to generate major impacts at both a Pan-European and transatlantic level. Within the above backdrop, from January 2020 through June 2022, NGIatlantic.eu will fund 3rd party EU-based researchers and innovators in carrying out NGI-related experiments, in collaboration with US research teams, throughout regular open calls. In its first open call, running between 1st April and 29th May 2020, six projects have been selected for funding, in areas primary related to EU – US collaboration on privacy and trust enhancing technologies and decentralised data governance by leveraging AI, blockchain, 5G, big data and IoT technologies.

Trends in experiments in EU-US research and innovation

Organising a session during the NGI Policy Summit 2020 was an ideal opportunity to provide policymakers with an overview of the major trends and trajectories in EU – US research collaboration and context for NGI-related policy developments in the present and future. Three of the selected NGIatlantic.eu projects were given an opportunity to pitch their experiments, present their initial results and how these would contribute to ongoing policy dialogues in the EU and US.

Decentralized data governance

George C. Polyzos, Director, Mobile Multimedia Laboratory, Athens University of Economics and Business, presented the “Self-Certifying Names for Named Data Networking” project, whose solution builds on the emerging paradigm of Decentralized Identifiers (DIDs), a new form of self-sovereign identification under standardization by W3C in Name Data Networking (NDN). He was followed by Berat Senel, Research Engineer at PlanetLab Europe, EdgeNet, Laboratoire d’Informatique de Paris 6 (LIP6), who introduced the CacheCash Experiment, leveraging on the Content Delivery Network (CDN) technology that provides a service in which interested users run caches, and they are incentivised to participate by receiving a crypto-currency (Cachecoin) in exchange for serving content to other users.

Privacy and Trust Enabling Data Marketplace for Sustainable Supply Chains 

Moving to the privacy and trust topics, Tomaz Levak, Managing Director at Trace Labs Ltd. introduced the “Food Data Marketplace” (FDM) project, which is fostering new economic models for sustainable food supply chains based on data and employing privacy-by-design approach to enable farmers and cooperatives to regain control of their data, give it a price tag, and sell it to interested partners in the supply chain. Last but not least, the NGIatlantic.eu project also took the opportunity to showcase the Twinning Lab, an on-line space for researchers, innovators and start-ups to establish complementary partnerships with transatlantic actors to address NGI challenges, and to present their future activities and opportunities for the NGI communities.
The project also highlighted their 3rd Open Call , which will open on 1st December 2020.

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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: What your face reveals – the story of HowNormalAmI.eu

At the Next Generation Internet Summit, Dutch media artist Tijmen Schep revealed his latest work - an online interactive documentary called 'How Normal Am I?'.

The NGI Policy Summit hosted a series of policy-in-practice workshops, and below is a report of the session held by Tijmen Schep.

At the Next Generation Internet Summit, Dutch media artist Tijmen Schep revealed his latest work – an online interactive documentary called ‘How Normal Am I?‘. It explains how face recognition technology is increasingly used in the world around us, for example when dating website tinder gives all its users a beauty score to match people who are about equally attractive. Besides just telling us about it, the project also allows people to experience this for themselves. Through your webcam, you will be judged on your beauty, age, gender, body mass index (BMI), and your facial expressions. You’ll even be given a life expectancy score, so you’ll know how long you have left to live.

The project has sparked the imagination – and perhaps a little feeling of dread – in many people, as not even two weeks later the documentary has been ‘watched’ over 100.000 times.

At the Summit, Tijmen offered a unique insight into the ‘making of’ of this project. In his presentation, he talked about the ethical conundrums of building a BMI prediction algorithm that is based on photos from arrest records, and that uses science that has been debunked. The presentation generated a lot of questions and was positively received by those who visited the summit.

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Two days to change the internet: the NGI Policy Summit 2020

The Next Generation Internet Policy Summit has gone off with a bang. Find out how it went here.

The Next Generation Internet Policy Summit has gone off with a bang. Organised by Nesta and the City of Amsterdam this September, the Summit brought together participants from all over Europe and beyond to shape a vision for the future internet, moving the conversation on from the diagnosis of past and present challenges to the exploration of practical, concrete solutions. Here are some of the highlights.

100 speakers

33 sessions

650 attendees

45 countries represented

Originally scheduled for the end of June 2020 in Amsterdam, the Summit was rescheduled and reformulated for online participation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday 28th September, the Summit began with a morning of Plenary sessions curated by Nesta and the City of Amsterdam. We made Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning available for our Policy-in-Practice workshop sessions, and then finished on Tuesday afternoon with a further series of plenary sessions to close the Summit.

Together with policymakers, researchers, and representatives from civil society, we looked at some of the most promising policy interventions and technological solutions, forging a path that cities, Member States and the European Union could follow.

A tangible vision and the steps to get there

We stirred the imaginations of our attendees by launching our new working paper to coincide with the Summit: A vision for the future internet, which is packed full of analysis and ideas for how to create a better internet by 2030. With such a broad range of people and issues involved in shaping the internet, it is clear that a coherent vision is required to tie it all together. We want to hear from you with feedback on the paper.

We were also honoured to host a keynote from the European Commission as they set out their post-COVID-19 recovery agenda. Pearse O’Donohue, Director of Future Networks at the Commission, outlined the way that technology and environmentalism must come together in a ‘twin transition’. He described the broader impact of the Next Generation Internet Initiative, and how the Commission’s funding and research are contributing to the creation of an Internet of Humans. Pearse has also written a blog to capture his message.

A transparent approach to AI

The City of Amsterdam’s deputy mayor, Touria Meliani, also launched the world’s first AI registry, co-designed by Amsterdam and the City of Helsinki. This AI registry provides citizens with a powerful tool to understand how algorithms are being used by their local governments to make decisions, putting principles of fairness and accountability into practice. We heard that transparency is a huge issue for the way artificial intelligence and algorithms are being used to make decisions about that data. Deputy Mayor Meliani said: ‘When we say as a city: algorithms are useful for our city, it’s also our responsibility to make sure that people know how they work. People deserve to know how they work. It’s a human right.’

A wide range of topics was discussed during the two days of the summit – not surprisingly, given the broad and interconnected nature of the challenges and opportunities driving the internet’s development today. To make our vision a reality, Europe must mobilise its full ecosystem, with interventions necessary on the local, national and supranational level. We were therefore honoured to feature leading policymakers across all layers of governance, including four MEPs, high-level representatives from the European Commission, a former president, a digital minister, and CTOs of leading digital cities from across the world. Below, we summarise just some of the many insights that emerged during the event. 

Taking control of our data

Clockwise from top-left: Lucy Hedges, Frederike Kaltheuner, Tricia Wang and Charlton McIlwain in our session on Solutions vs. Solutionism.

Today, few would question that the centralisation and hoarding of data – and power – in fewer and fewer hands, gives platforms considerable agency to shape our views on the world, social interactions and economic choices. Tricia Wang challenged attendees to think beyond privacy and consider the impact that widespread data collection has on our personhood, our ability to determine our own life decisions and outcomes. ‘Corporations would rather have us live in the world of privacy, because privacy is something that can be legally mediated and tickboxed,’ she said. ‘At this point, we have so much data tied to who we are, that other people can control our lives through that data, and that threatens our agency, our personhood.’

Yet the role that these systems have in perpetuating societal biases and disproportionately affecting minorities and people of colour is not sufficiently well understood. Charlton McIlwain warned that technology being developed today is just as dangerous for people of colour as the systems used to enact racist policies decades go. He drew a parallel between the practice of redlining and the risks of social media for people protesting against racism. He explained: ‘We often call on technology to help solve problems but when society defines, frames and represents people of colour as the problem, those solutions often do more harm than good.’

And despite the heavy emphasis on business data in Europe’s current data strategy, our speakers called for innovation to empower citizens to take control of their data. In her talk, Sylvie Delacroix called for the establishment of Data Trusts to redress the growing power imbalance between citizens and big tech. ‘We can do better than consent,’ she explained. ‘We also need bottom-up empowerment structures to help people take the reins of their data, rather than constantly being asked to consent to this or that.’

Extending device lifetime

Clockwise from top-left: Bas van Abel, Asim Hussain, Madeleine Gabriel, Anne Currie and Janet Gunter in our session on creating a sustainable digital future.

Our speakers repeatedly stressed the importance of considering the environmental impact of the technology that powers the internet. We heard about the campaign to make it easier to repair our devices, and the push for industry to reduce its reliance on polluting energy sources, stop dirty mining practices and improve waste management processes. In our session on the environment, Janet Gunter called for Europe to put more pressure on manufacturers to create devices that are repairable, so that they last far longer. She said, ‘The precedent has been set with ecodesign regulation for large appliances, but we need ecodesign for smartphones and computers.’

A global approach to inclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic was a hot topic throughout the Summit because it has brought our ambivalent relationship with technology and existing inequalities in our societies into sharp relief. Although we managed to move the event online, for the 10 per cent of EU households without internet access, participating in online life and maintaining access to education, work and public services throughout the pandemic has been far more difficult. In her keynote, Payal Arora started with a call for action: ‘We need to move beyond the concept of inclusion, which necessarily requires excluding ‘bad’ actors such as spammers and trolls. Instead, we need to consider the interconnectedness of everything, and the unintended consequences of changes we might make.’ She called for Europe to set itself ambitious targets for digital inclusion, by employing collaborative problem-solving and including transcultural perspectives. 

A digital identity for all

In our session digital identity, our speakers agreed that it is time for Europe to create a comprehensive bloc-wide identity system that allows people to keep control over their own personal data. Former Estonia President Toomas Hendrik Ilves explained that under the eIDAS directive, 15-20 per cent of EU citizens have used a digital ID scheme in their home country, which is a number low enough to prevent genuine investment from public institutions. Only mandatory digital IDs can create the change seen in Estonia. ‘Europe isn’t being held back by technology to build its own ambitious identity infrastructures,’ he said. ‘It is all about political will.’

Europe’s role

Clockwise from top-left: Axel Voss MEP, Anu Bradford, Bill Thompson, Thomas Zerdick and Mara Balestrini

By and large, speakers expressed a strong desire for Europe to provide alternative models to the perceived tech superpowers in Beijing and Silicon Valley, without emulating their approaches or contributing to the further fragmentation of the internet. In our session on what Europe should do in the next decade, Anu Bradford said:  ‘I think that American techno-libertarianism has shown its limit in terms of how we regulate the internet, and we certainly have concerns if the Chinese digital authoritarianism would spread globally. Europe needs to be more than a regulator, but also build our own alternatives. We need to play defence, but also begin to play offence,’ she argued. 

Europe will have to support these developments with significant investment alongside smart regulation and governance to create an internet that is fit for the future. To make our vision a reality, speakers agreed that Europe must be bold in its approach and mobilise its full ecosystem, with interventions necessary on the local, national and supranational level. 

A manifesto for change

We thoroughly enjoyed the discussions that arose during the Summit, and want them to have a lasting effect. Over the coming months, we’ll be exploring these ideas in our work to guide the European Commission’s policy approach to the future internet. 

Our resounding and heartfelt thanks go to everyone that contributed to the Summit. And as always, if you like what you hear, get in touch with us – we are always interested in hearing from new contacts and collaborating on issues that affect the future internet.

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Pearse O’Donohue: reaching an internet of trust

I was thrilled to address this year’s Next Generation Internet Policy Summit on behalf of the NGI Initiative, addressing key issues for the future of the internet and our digital economy and society.

Abridged from a speech given by Pearse at the NGI Policy Summit.

I was thrilled to address this year’s Next Generation Internet Policy Summit on behalf of the NGI Initiative, addressing key issues for the future of the internet and our digital economy and society. It made perfect sense to discuss these issues with the City of Amsterdam, not least because over the centuries, the Netherlands has shown a strong willingness to expand the frontier of human knowledge, from pioneering new trade routes in the 16th and 17th centuries to positioning itself at the forefront of the internet and the start-up scene. 

The NGI Policy Summit brought together vibrant communities of tech-innovators and policy makers from all over Europe. These communities embody the spirit of NGI, precisely a place where different perspectives and competencies, from policy to technology development, from civil society to industry, meet to deliver on the vision of a human-centric and sustainable internet. 

The COVID-19 crisis has had enormous impacts on our society, economy and way of life, showing how dependent our society is on the digital technologies and infrastructures and, in particular, the central role that internet now plays in our lives: for remote working, for homeschooling, for remote healthcare and simply for maintaining interpersonal communication. Internet and digital technologies will thus be one of the main pillars to build the recovery upon. 

The Commission’s ambitious €750bn recovery plan, the Next Generation EU, clearly focuses on the ‘twin transition’: the green and the digital transitions will support the EU economy as a whole, make it fit for the challenges of the next decades and able to face future crises. The topics that we debated at the Summit – such as connectivity, data, artificial intelligence, a secure European eID and digital inclusion – are among the main priorities for the digital part of the Recovery and Resilience Facility.

As the internet expands and permeates our daily lives, it must become safer, more open, more respectful of individuals and it must deliver more to the citizens and society. The Next Generation Internet initiative, with its community of innovators supported through research and innovation funding, has already started building the blocks for a more human-centric internet. In the first 18 months of operation, thousands of start-ups, open-source developers, researchers and innovators have already replied to our calls for proposals. We are providing seed funding to more than 500 innovators to develop technologies in key areas like security and privacy-enhancing technologies, decentralised data governance, or self-sovereign identities.

The aim is to achieve ‘An Internet of Trust’: a trustworthy digital environment, built on a more resilient, sustainable, and decentralised internet architecture, to empower end-users with more control over their data and their digital identity, and to enable new social and business models respecting European values.

One of the goals of NGI is to turn the rights bestowed by the General Data Protection Regulation into a reality for EU citizens. We do it by developing new systems and technologies that allow people to control the use of their personal data. At the Summit, we also presented the six winners of the Prize on Blockchains for Social Good, who apply decentralised solutions to address key sustainability challenges. We are also funding concrete tools to increase the privacy of internet end-users – with innovators devising new ways to manage passwords, encrypt emails, secure online collaboration, or improve internet traffic protocols.

Linked to data sovereignty and privacy is the question of building a user-centric digital identity. What we see today is that large online platforms accounts are increasingly used to prove identity and access online services, including public services. This has several drawbacks including significant privacy concerns and long-term competition risks; lack of proper identity verification; and lower quality services for European citizens, as governments and businesses are missing digital means of obtaining verified information. The NGI initiative supports the development of platform-independent, standardised eID technologies and services that allow for trustworthy verification of identity such as proof-of-age, and are under the full control of the end-users.

While the pandemic was spreading, so did a number of applications and software designed to help us fight it. The conceptual design of these solutions varied greatly, from centralised to decentralised, from open source to proprietary software. NGI launched the Emergency Tech Review Facility, which allowed different solutions to be compared in terms of design, code, effectiveness, usability and implications for the users’ privacy and security.

Our work on data and digital identity shows how much, in the internet era, technology development goes hand in hand with policy and regulatory development. This is why, one year ago, we launched the NGI Policy Lab, which provides a platform for policymakers, civil society actors and innovators to come together and collaborate on key digital issues by sharing learnings, exploring new solutions together and taking action. The NGI Policy Summit is a key part of this dialogue, and we are also running a series of pilot experiments to trial new policy approaches to build a better internet. We will experiment with concrete solutions in local communities, and share the insights across the NGI community.

Our vision for an Internet of Humans is gaining traction. In Europe, we are clear on the internet we want: we want an internet that is trustworthy, that is open, and that contributes to a more sustainable and inclusive society. We are working on implementing this vision: with the right regulatory framework and investment incentives. This must be a joint endeavour, involving the whole internet community: researchers and innovators, civil society, businesses and policy makers together. We will need the collective vision and the engagement of all of you who are present today to deliver on our mission to build a better internet – in line with EU values – in the coming digital decade.

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Think you don’t have anything to hide online? Think again, says Katja Bego from Nesta

As part of an international campaign to lift the lid on data privacy violations, The Privacy Collective is asking some of the UK’s leading experts why online privacy matters…

Katja Bego is the principal researcher and data scientist at Nesta, a UK-based innovation foundation, and leads its work on the European Commission’s Next Generation Internet initiative. She’s also part of the BBC Women Expert programme, supporting emerging female voices in STEM fields. Here, she talks about the vision for a more democratic, inclusive internet, whether the public are being let down by governments meant to protect us from profit-making corporations, and why we need to make a stand now.

Why does online privacy matter?

Online privacy can be a lot of things. It’s being able to use the internet in the way that was intended, without our interactions being used against us in some way, or being manipulated in a way that impacts our behaviours. You might know that if you use social media, it’s collecting your data. But there’s a whole infrastructure, companies you’ve never heard of, that exist behind that. And even for the experts, it’s not easy to engage with anymore. I’m also concerned about the scale. There are a handful of very large companies that have access to enormous data lakes with information on billions of people within it. Even if a company doesn’t currently intend to use that badly, it’s the kind of political and economic power that comes with having access to so much data, which is very worrisome.

People might think, ‘oh I have nothing to hide, this can’t harm me’. But if you think about the A Level results debate from a couple of weeks ago, and the harm that algorithmic decision making systems can do, you can begin to understand what the impact can be. Imagine all of these systems being used more and more in the background, without us being aware of it at all.

Can you tell me about your work with Nesta and the Next Generation Internet initiative?

I work in Nesta’s technology futures team. So we look a lot at the impact of emerging technologies on society – both how new solutions and new innovation can be used for good but also how the impact of new technologies like artificial intelligence can also have negative impacts. I lead our work on the Next Generation Internet project, which is a European Commission funded programme with a vision to build a more human centric, democratic, inclusive internet by 2030. Our role is to help them come up with a strategy and policy agenda and to identify opportunities (both on the policy and technology sides) that might help us achieve that goal.

A more human centric, democratic inclusive internet sounds great! What does that look like in practice and how do we get there?

A more democratic internet is where, as citizens more of us can benefit from the internet – so small businesses can meaningfully compete in the digital economy and get access to data in an ethical way, and that we as citizens get to have more agency over what happens to our personal data and understand what’s being shown to us and why. We want an internet that’s not just dominated by a handful of large companies. One where interesting innovation can be better used to benefit society, rather than just maximise profits for a small group of very powerful actors.

How we get there is a difficult question. It definitely requires a lot of proactive policymaking and interventions – at a European level, a national level and also a city level. But we’re also thinking about how we can move this discussion beyond the regulation. Are there different ways that we can share data, avoiding these huge centralised data lakes held by companies, for example? I think democratising access to data is very important.

There are a handful of very large companies that have access to enormous data lakes with information on billions of people within it. Even if a company doesn’t currently intend to use that badly, it’s the kind of political and economic power that comes with having access to so much data, which is very worrisome.

How aware do you think the British public are about this need to take data privacy seriously?

Awareness has definitely been rising in recent years – an obvious anchor point is the Cambridge Analytica revelations. I think the interest has recently rekindled during the coronavirus pandemic as well, and we’ve had all of these public debates about things like contact tracing, and other privacy debates. But really, the big problem is that, while people might be aware of these issues, the alternatives aren’t really there. It’s not very reasonable to ask an average user to move over to systems that do prioritise privacy but are often, unfortunately, quite hard to use. We ought to be thinking a lot more about how we can enable people to just be on the internet, anonymously. Or even if not anonymously, at least to have some agency or understanding about what’s happening with their data.

With Covid-19, on the one hand, we’ve seen a lot of governments quickly deploying very invasive systems, and there’s generally been public acceptance of that. At least at the start of events, the public mood was we’d rather fight Covid, we’d rather save lives, restart the economy, etc, with the privacy consequences left to the side. It’s only when things start to settle, that we’ll really start to see the nature of some of these surveillance tools. But on the other hand, I would not have expected at the start of 2020 that we would have such a public debate about this. I hope we’ll be able to make these debates more mainstream when it comes to government technology and data use.

Are we being let down by the powers that are meant to protect us against data manipulation, particularly by commercial companies?

I don’t think it’s an easy task. First of all, because of the pace of development and the complexity of a lot of the systems, it’s very hard to design good regulation for this. By the time you’ve thought of all the steps, a lot of the context has already changed.

But on top of that, you do see an enforcement problem. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) does have the provisions and protections in place that could address a lot of the issues that we see today, but we’re still figuring out how enforcement works and who’s responsible for it (and in what way)? But I do think that despite that complexity, we are seeing a lot more attention on this than in recent years.

Finally, for people who understand that their data is being collected and don’t see a problem with that, why should they care about this?

It’s two things – it’s what’s already happening, which is probably a lot scarier than what people think, but it’s also the long tail of what could happen in the future. It’s almost impossible to challenge those systems because they’re not transparent. So we might think that we’re being shown an article or product just randomly, but if that is suddenly happening thousands of times a day, every time you use the internet, influencing your shopping behaviour … those systems start to take our autonomy away. By allowing ourselves to be tracked like this, we do create the infrastructure that would allow this to happen in many different ways. So, even if you think you might not have anything to hide today, who knows what social and political norms will look like in the future? If we don’t put the right regulations in place now, we may open ourselves up to the increasing risk of an individual or an organisation taking advantage.

This article originally appeared on The Privacy Collective here.

Woman climbing mountain with European flag
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Working Paper: A vision for the future internet

Read our new working paper, setting out NGI Forward's ambitious vision for the future of the internet.

To coincide with the Next Generation Internet (NGI) Policy Summit on 28 and 29 September, we are launching a working paper and kick-starting a discussion about the policy vision and roadmap we want to set for the Next Generation Internet.

The European Commission’s ambitious Next Generation EU recovery plan aims to not just kickstart economic growth and boost employment, but also
use this moment as an opportunity to catalyse the digital and green twin transition.

The internet and its supporting technologies will be instrumental in making these efforts a success, but we cannot harness its full power unless we solve the underlying, systemic issues currently holding it back.

That is why, in this working paper, we set out an ambitious vision and mission framework to create a more democratic, resilient, sustainable, trustworthy and inclusive internet by 2030.

There is no single silver bullet solution that can help resolve all the challenges presented by connected technologies and the digital economy. Instead, we need a wide variety of interventions to reach our objectives, targeting issues across all layers of the internet’s power stack — from its underlying physical infrastructures to the ways in which information flows through the system and impacts our societies.

Challenges across the layers of our power stack model

We propose unifying the ambitious objectives of the Next Generation Internet initiative into one single mission, to sit alongside the ambitious missions previously defined by the European Commission.

Taking such a mission-based approach will empower policymakers and the public sector to take a holistic view, articulate a compelling European story, and mobilise the right actors in Europe’s diverse technology ecosystem to bring about the changes we want to see.

We focus our efforts on five key pillars: 

Democracy: Power over the internet is concentrated in too few hands. Citizens should have more ownership over their own personal data and identity, and a real voice in the development of new innovation. Building a more democratic internet also means levelling the playing field in the digital economy, allowing more actors to meaningfully compete, and public-interest initiatives to thrive. 

Resilience: A human-centric internet also needs to be resilient in order to ensure the continued reliability and sustainability of its networks and social infrastructures. Mounting cyberthreats, climate shocks and rising demand impact different layers of the system, and require renovation and more secure processes to remain robust. 

Sustainability: If we want the internet and related digital technologies to play a role in solving the climate emergency and further the objectives of the European Green Deal, we need to ensure we minimise their own environmental footprint and advance the circular digital economy. 

Trust: From reading an article on social media to making an online payment — trust in and on the internet is vital if we want to make most of its promise. Europe needs more trustworthy models for online interactions, reliable information, data-sharing and identity management, as well as helping to ease growing distrust in the geopolitical arena. 

Inclusion: The internet needs to be accessible to all. This means removing economic and infrastructural barriers to access, but also the development of a flourishing multilingual internet, where services are available and safe to use for underrepresented communities.

You can download the full report here:

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Building a greener internet

How can Europe play a leading role in building a more sustainable internet?

When we think of emerging technology and sustainability, the images that come to mind usually include futuristic cities, made clean, green and perfectly efficient through the magic of algorithms and digital services.

But this utopian vision of a fully connected future comes at a potentially dystopian environmental cost. Many of our daily activities damage the environment. Thirty minutes of video streaming emits between 28 and 57g of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) and binging on a 10-hour series could use the same energy as charging a smartphone 145 times. A group video conference on Zoom creates 4.5g of CO2e for each participant in an hour-long call, so a company of fifty employees each participating in two hours of video calls every working day creates as many emissions as the burning of 50kg of coal each year. 

In 2018, the internet used between five and nine per cent of global energy generated – more than global aviation. Ten years from now, it could account for as much as 23 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon and energy provision aren’t the only issues at play. With the emergence of smart cities and a 5G-enabled Internet of Things, we are adding billions of low-cost new devices and sensors to our lives and built environments, embedding increasingly sophisticated electronics into our roads, buildings and appliances. How can we be sure that the benefits they deliver aren’t outweighed by their own environmental footprint – from the resources and servicing they require to the waste they produce?

Of course, thinking about the link between sustainability and technology isn’t new. The European Union recently set itself the goal of recovering from the pandemic in a way that supports both its green and digital ambitions. For policymakers across the continent, managing this so-called ‘twin transition’ is set to become one of the defining challenges of the next decade. The UK, as an R&D powerhouse with the desire to become a zero-emission economy, should take notice. The twin transition should be embraced as an opportunity, rather than a challenge, to demonstrate our leadership and ability to innovate.

It is only through a more conscious approach to connectivity that we will succeed in reconciling our green and digital aims. We have identified four principles that will help us get a handle on the environmental impact of the digital economy, and could make Europe the global standard-bearer for sustainable and ethical internet technology: 

  1. Because of the universal nature of this challenge and its potential to create significant knock-on effects, we must integrate sustainability thinking into all areas of internet-related policy, from GDPR enforcement to media regulation and competition law. 
  2. We have to improve the design of technologies by setting standards and regulating where necessary to encourage hardware producers and software developers to align their ambitions for sustainability and innovation. 
  3. Consumers need to be informed about the impact of their purchases and empowered to live their digital lives more sustainably and consciously. 
  4. Finally, we should incentivise positive change and create markets for more sustainable alternatives through tools like procurement, investment and taxation. 

To illustrate how these principles can apply to very different contexts, it is useful to take a look at the lifecycle of an internet device, from beginning to end to beginning:

Extracting natural resources

The internet is made up of physical infrastructure, from our smartphones, laptops, wearables and voice assistants to the core networks and cabling that connect our homes. Producing these tools requires a staggering variety of materials, many of which are extracted from the ground in less developed countries under conditions that threaten both local communities and the environment. Smartphones, for example, can contain upwards to 62 different elements, with the materials in each iPhone requiring the mining of more than 34kg of raw ores. Not only is the amount of energy required in these processes significant – they often involve the use of poisonous chemicals. We urgently need new and sustainable sources for the most difficult to source materials, and promising research shows we could extract many of these from recycled electronics. We can also reduce the global impact of mining by tightening up socio-environmental regulations and investigating mining opportunities within Europe.

Supply chains and importing

Once the metals, minerals and other materials that form the basis of our internet hardware are extracted, they are processed and shaped into components in several stages by a complex web of companies located across the world. An iPhone, for example, contains parts from over 200 suppliers. These supply chains are notoriously opaque. Manufacturers often don’t know exactly where a part or its materials have originated, nor do they know how sustainable their production processes are. By the time a device reaches a shop or online store, up to 95 per cent of its lifetime greenhouse gas emissions have already been created. We cannot meaningfully tackle the environmental footprint of these devices unless we have common European standards for supply chain transparency and mandatory reporting requirements that bind upstream and downstream companies looking to sell into European markets. 

Marketing and purchasing

As soon as our devices arrive in store, they fly off the shelves at astonishing rates – 200 million smartphones are sold each year in Europe alone. We replace our smartphones roughly every two years, often before they are broken, despite the opportunity to save £100 per year by keeping an old device running. Three quarters of Europeans are willing to spend more on products and services if they are environmentally friendly. We need to educate and empower consumers so they can choose devices that last longer and are easier to repair and upgrade. That starts with giving them clear and visible information about the environmental impact of their devices at the point of purchase. Local governments, public sector organisations and infrastructure providers also spend significant sums on connected devices and internet hardware. If we channel their purchasing power through green procurement rules, sustainability assessments and better guidance, we can make a real difference and create markets for manufacturers that design for sustainability and longevity.

Use and services

All of our clicks, calls and content are sent buzzing through the internet’s physical infrastructure, made up of wireless base stations, cables, switches and servers. The data we send and receive travels through data centres, large warehouses full of servers that need huge amounts of energy to power and cool them. Our data consumption is increasing quickly, and even today these systems are powered in large part by fossil fuels because they are cheaper or more readily available. Data centres across the globe used around 416 TWh per year, or about 3 per cent of global electricity supply in 2019, which is nearly 40 per cent more than the consumption of the entire United Kingdom.

According to some estimates, a single email creates around 4g of carbon dioxide. Unaware of the impact of our actions, we send roughly 300 billion emails per day, creating 1.2 million tonnes of emissions every twenty-four hours. That, quite literally, makes spam and marketing emails litter. We could make it easier for consumers to switch from services that still rely on fossil fuels and nudge tech or data companies into adopting greener energy sources and cutting back on unnecessary data-hoarding as per the GDPR’s data minimisation principle. Working with industry, we should develop standards to demonstrate and improve the energy efficiency of websites, software and services. Major platforms could lower the resolution of video content, remove auto-play functions or give users the option to listen to audio without video. Search engines and online stores could do more to identify and promote green results.

Distributed services such as the blockchain also contribute significantly to carbon emissions, with each Bitcoin transaction creating a staggering 287kg of CO2 is emitted for each single Bitcoin transaction, equivalent to around 800,000 VISA card transactions. In Iceland, Bitcoin mining is projected to soon use more energy than the country’s residents. We need to get ahead of these technologies so we can contribute to more environmentally friendly designs.

Extending lifetime

Anyone hoping to extend the life of their internet device when it breaks will come up against some serious hurdles. Repair manuals and spare parts are rarely made available to end users, and manufacturers often threaten tinkerers with draconian warranty conditions. This makes repair expensive and pushes us towards buying a new device. The fragility of modern device designs, with their edge-to-edge glass screens, adds to this trend. Our devices should and could last longer. They ought to receive software updates for longer, and be upgradeable. Modular designs such as the Fairphone have shown that this is possible. We can educate consumers about the repairability of their devices at the point of purchase, and ensure the long-term availability and accessibility of repair manuals, tools and parts to make fixing devices a viable alternative again. We also need legislation to give users the Right to Repair their devices and encourage manufacturers to design products that can have their lives extended.

Managing waste

When our internet devices break or become too slow to run the latest apps, we usually replace them. But that’s not the end of the story. The designs of our devices make them incredibly difficult to recycle, with minuscule parts soldered and glued into place. As in the early stages of a device’s lifecycle, we again rely on less developed countries to do our dirty work: 1.3 million tonnes of undocumented goods are exported from the EU each year, and in the UK as much as 80 per cent of electronic waste recycling is shipped to emerging and developing countries. Working in dire conditions, low-paid workers will disassemble the device for its valuable components, but many parts will be lost, and those that can be reused will be subjected to acid and chemical treatments that are prone to leaking into the environment. We need a Europe-wide takeback scheme and financial incentives for manufacturers to make devices easier to recycle when they are no longer repairable. 

Today we launch a new report that explores the many effects the internet has on the environment and sets out a series of recommendations that policymakers, businesses and consumers should consider to grasp the opportunities presented by the green and digital twin transition and make Europe a leader in sustainable internet technologies. This report is part of our work leading NGI Forward, the strategy and policy arm of the European Commission’s flagship Next Generation Internet initiative, which seeks to build a more democratic, inclusive, resilient, sustainable and trustworthy internet by 2030. We hope that it sparks a new conversation about a common European approach to the internet that will support the twin green and digital transitions necessary to recovery from the pandemic. There is a huge amount that we can do to create positive change in this area but we must act now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

NGI vision

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

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

Policy Network

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

Policy Summit 

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