The following interview was conducted for Finding Ctrl, our compendium of visions for the future of the internet.
What are the main aims of the Next Generation Internet initiative?
The European Commission launched the NGI initiative about 3 years ago, in 2016. The aim is to invest in technologies for the internet of tomorrow, an “internet of humans”.
What we want is an internet that serves us better both individually and collectively and that respects fundamental values like privacy, security, and inclusion. With digital gaining more importance, we need to make sure that everyone has proper access to the internet, which is not the case today. We also want a more decentralised internet than the one we see today, with big players controlling key markets and access to the end users.
We will invest €250m in the last three years of Horizon 2020, the European research and innovation programme. We will invest in a variety of internet relevant technologies, including artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, virtual reality, accessibility, multilingualism, but also core internet technologies like search, privacy-enhancing technologies, or blockchain. We have earmarked €75m to directly fund individual internet innovators and help them develop their ideas and come up with new pieces of software, new protocols, new services that improve the experience of the end users. Anyone with ideas – a researcher, a startup, a social innovator – can apply and get financial support, following a competitive process.
Beyond Horizon 2020, NGI is an intervention area in the next research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe. It’s really an initiative for the next ten years.
What are Europe’s strengths when it comes to building this human-centric internet?
One key strength is our regulatory framework. Of course everyone’s heard about the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but there are other pieces of equally important legislation, on cybersecurity, net neutrality, free flow of non-personal data, or platforms. We have built a comprehensive regulatory framework in the area of digital, which I think is a strength. This is a framework that allows us to implement a number of core values for Europeans, such as the protection of privacy, online security, or ensuring openness to innovation.
We now need to invest in the technologies, which will allow us to implement this regulatory framework. It’s good to have rules, but it’s important to have the tools to implement them. GDPR, for example, sets a number of rights like consent or portability of data, but then you need the tools to implement these rights in a simple, user-friendly way. This is what we are going to do in NGI. We are going to develop the technologies which allow us to implement these rights and in general our values, our vision of the internet.
But does Europe have any weaknesses or blind spots?
When you look at the level of investment in digital technologies in the world, it is clear that there are two regions of the world that really invest a lot: the US and China. If you combine public and private investments, we are clearly underweight, and this is something we need to improve. That’s why the Commission is very ambitious in its proposal for investment in digital in the next budget of the EU. This will also require more coordination between European and national investment, and between public and private investment.
Another weakness, something where I’m sure we can do better, is helping European start-ups grow. These are the companies that will build the digital platforms and services of tomorrow. In the first generation of the internet, there were not so many European companies that made it to become global players. But it doesn’t mean that it has to be the same in the next generation. The next generation of the internet will cover many more sectors. It will cover, for example, transport and cities, the digitisation of industry, or the health sector. Europe can build on its industrial strengths in these sectors to build the digital platforms of tomorrow, like industrial data spaces or a health Cloud.
How do you strike a balance between regulation and innovation?
We try to be economical in terms of digital regulation. Regulation should really address enduring problems. For example, there was a long lasting problem with misuse of personal data, which is why the EU came up with GDPR. There is also a clear problem with security on the internet. This is why we have a number of legislative but also non-legislative measures to improve cybersecurity in Europe.
Once the rules are in place, you need the technologies to implement them, to make them real. So for example, following GDPR, there are now a lot of companies who are developing new technologies to allow people to better control their personal data, like for example personal data spaces. Personal data spaces allow individuals to decide to whom they give their personal data, for what purpose, and allow them to pull their data from one platform to the other. We will invest in such technologies in NGI.
So regulation and innovation do not need to be opposed, they need to be combined, and this is what we’re trying to do with NGI.
How can ordinary people get involved and get their voices heard? What role do citizens have in building the internet of tomorrow?
That’s a very important part of the NGI initiative. It’s very important that we build a community behind the initiative, and that community has to be as broad as possible. It has to be a community which gathers the innovators, the internet service providers, the governments, and also the citizens and the civil society. We organised public consultations and direct meetings with various stakeholders in the conception phase of the initiative in order to build up our vision of an internet of humans and we will continue to do so. Citizens in particular are the ones who should tell us what internet they want, what problems they see, what the opportunities are. This is a collective intelligence exercise.
As policymakers we take policy measures to ensure functioning digital markets but we also need to think about the behaviour of the citizens, what skills and behaviours they need to acquire in the digital sphere. For example, you see a lot of problems with online disinformation being spread around the web. One part of the response is with the platforms, which have to put in place the detection and removal mechanisms to avoid that. But there’s still one part of the response which is with the end users themselves. They also need to avoid spreading false information. To help them, governments, but also online service providers, need to do more: educate the end-users, raise their awareness, or flag dubious content to help everyone adopt a responsible behaviour online.
In an ideal world, in 2030, what would the internet look like as a result of this project? Do you have any predictions?
If you look at people who made such predictions ten years ago, I’m sure that they would be proven wrong today! So I will be slightly conservative in my predictions.
I think artificial intelligence will be much more widespread in the internet of tomorrow. Since I am a digital optimist, I think it will be for the best. I’m sure for example there will be artificial intelligence assistants that will help people connect to the internet and use its vast and today mostly untapped resources and that will assist people in their life in general. This is particularly important in an ageing society like Europe. I think AI assistants can really help people remain connected and autonomous.
Of course, for that bright future of AI to happen we need to think now about where we need to invest, which ethical issues we need to solve, what new skills people need to acquire to work together with AI. This is something we are working on currently at the European Commission. This is a clear political priority.
I also think that the internet is going to be much more physical. Today the internet is basically on your phone and your computer and it’s largely virtual. In ten years’ time, I think the internet will be really everywhere with the Internet of Things. So a lot of objects will be connected and have AI capabilities. For example, cars will be much more autonomous. There will be smart homes, smart cities, smart factories. I think the internet is going to take a new dimension in the physical world, which of course supposes that we invest in all these technologies and that we make sure that security is ensured.
Lastly, I really hope that the internet in ten years’ time will be more decentralised, so people will have more opportunity to interact and transact directly with each other, in a fully secure manner.
Overall, do you believe the web and the internet have had a positive or negative influence on society?
I am a digital optimist! I think it had a positive influence.
If you think about how you work for example, everything has changed with the internet. Every business processes have been changed. It has also completely changed the way we inform ourselves. We go on the internet when we want to find information. There is real quality content there; you can go to the most prestigious university website, and they have online courses available. You can be someone in an underdeveloped region in the world and have access to the online courses of the best universities in the world.
And the internet has made the world smaller. You can keep in touch with more people, everywhere and in real-time. This is very positive. Connecting people is really what the internet is about. And frankly, I think it’s only the beginning.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can find more interviews and ideas in Finding Ctrl, our compendium of visions for the future internet.