Katja Bego, Principal Researcher, Nesta
September 28, 2020
The internet has changed. While early internet pioneers dreamed of an open, free and decentralised internet, the story of the internet today is mostly a story of loss of control. Just a handful of companies determine what we read, see and buy, where we work and where we live, who we vote for, who we love, and who we are. Many of us feel increasingly uneasy about these developments. We live in a world where new technologies happen to us, rather than for us; a world in which citizens have very little agency to change the rules.
But things do not have to be this way. Despite the growing clamour of voices who wish we could just pull the plug, we believe that the internet is still a force for good. But now more than ever, we must work hard and take decisive action to harness its full potential. Europe has an urgent opportunity to take charge of these efforts through the transformational Next Generation EU post-pandemic recovery plan, which has at its heart the goal to kickstart the green and digital transition, ensuring the long-term sustainability of Europe’s communities and economies. Repairing the internet and preserving the integrity of systems should be a central tenet of these ambitions. In a digital sphere that is becoming increasingly fragmented and contentious — at time of writing, the emergence of a fully-fledged splinternet appears closer than ever — such forward-facing and value-led leadership is vital.
To help give shape to these efforts, we are today releasing a working paper, which sets out a tangible vision for a more democratic, resilient, sustainable, trustworthy and inclusive internet by 2030, and identifies the concrete building blocks — policy interventions and technological solutions — that might help get us there.
This blog provides shorter summary of A Vision for the Future Internet, our in-depth working paper which was developed by Nesta as part of the Horizon2020-funded NGI Forward project. NGI Forward acts as the policy and strategy arm of the European Commission’s flagship Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative, which sets out to build a more human-centric internet by the end of the decade. While the paper does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Commission, it forms part of our project’s overarching recommendations for the NGI and future European internet policy.
1.1 Europe’s role in shaping the future internet
Europe has often been presented as one of the lone powerful voices still championing digital rights and the open internet in an increasingly fragmented digital sphere, a third way between Silicon Valley and Beijing. While this has proven a helpful heuristic to articulate an alternative and strike the right balance between unbridled private sector-led innovation and government oversight, reality is a lot more complex. Much like the world around us, the internet is becoming increasingly chaotic and multipolar, with a multitude of actors, private and public, trying to transpose their own visions for the future onto it.
Amidst these duelling narratives and objectives, the European Union needs to more proactively chart its own path. We must become better at articulating what we want, rather than diagnosing (and retroactively regulating) what we do not want to see. As global tensions rise, countries and companies retreat behind their own walled gardens, and existing economic and political paradigms are challenged as a result of the impacts of the pandemic and the longer-term threats of climate change and inequality, Europe finds itself at an important crossroads.
Driven by fears of falling behind, a growing number of voices in Europe are promoting rash approaches to bolster the bloc’s own industrial strategy: rapidly creating national champions (“picking winners”) and diverting large amounts of funding to support the most hyped technologies, with ethics an afterthought. While it is indeed important that Europe boldly invests in taking the lead in shaping newly emerging industries, this rush to compete should not come at the expense of championing European values, one of our unique strengths.
Conversely, our value-led approach should also not lead to inaction, where the development of ethics frameworks and principles can sometimes get in the way of taking tangible steps forward and building alternatives. We instead advocate for a long-term approach geared towards setting the right conditions for new public-interest innovation to thrive; an approach that aims to embed the values we hold dear into our infrastructure and the next generation of technologies that will form the future backbone of the internet.
From market taker to market shaper
The European Union’s strengths in the digital arena are well known, from our regulatory power — the sheer size of the Single Market and strict standards mean the bloc gets to set global rules, harnessing the so-called Brussels effect — to our reputation as a trustworthy, values-led actor, to the dynamism of our bottom-up innovation ecosystem. These strengths, however, can be used more effectively to not only steer existing markets into a more favourable direction, but also proactively shape the development of new innovation. Internet sovereignty, both on the individual and continental level, can only be achieved through taking charge of the future trajectory of technological development and building our own alternatives.
In this paper we propose a wide-range of interventions that seek to do just this.
- We create the infrastructures for public-interest innovation to thrive. Our ambition should not be to create our own European Google; we need to focus on setting the conditions that prevent the next Google instead. We do this by, for example, proactively building technical systems to underpin a new data economy built on principles of sovereignty and decentralisation of power, and strengthening responsible, accountable business models.
- We empower policymakers from the local level up to take charge of the direction of innovation. For the Next Generation Internet to be a success, it should not just be a top-down, but also a bottom-up initiative. We therefore actively involve policymakers from the city and regional, to the national level and up, and empower them to take shared action, scale successful local interventions and prevent constant reinvention of the wheel, as well as to put their own regulatory and spending clout — for example through public procurement — at the service of strengthening markets for alternatives that serve the public good.
- We promote institutional innovation and new governance models. The unprecedented scale and complexity of the digital economy has meant not all of our existing regulatory and competition frameworks are still fit-for-purpose to respond to the challenges it has brought to the fore. New models, such as more flexible and future-facing anticipatory regulation models and experimentation with more hands-on, independent public bodies could help bolster the internet policy toolbox.
To bring direction and cohesion to all of these efforts, we propose unifying the ambitious objectives of the Next Generation Internet initiative into one single mission, to sit alongside the moonshot missions previously defined by the European Commission under the upcoming Horizon Mission framework. 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.
2. Where are we now: addressing challenges across the stack
For such a mission-based approach to be a success, we need to understand the reality we are operating in, and the possible futures we might be heading towards. The challenges facing the internet today are fast-evolving and incredibly complex. The multilayered, intertwined nature of the global internet means we need a clear picture of how the various slices and layers of the system interact, and understand who the key actors driving developments are.
Before we head into the vision and mission part of this paper, we therefore conduct an in-depth mapping of the current issue landscape. We do this by considering challenges layer-by-layer, reimagining the traditional technology stack as a layered system of both social and technological infrastructures. In this model, these layers are not defined by their importance to making the internet work from a technical point of view, but by the powerful forces driving them. Figure 1 provides an overview of this model, and key issues.
As we explore these challenges, patterns begin to emerge: the self-reinforcing nature of extreme centralisation of power and resources, lack of transparent and effective governance processes, and challenges that come with increased scale and demand. We need to get at the root of these dynamics, and break the vicious circles that perpetuate them.
3. Where do we want to go: five visions for 2030
In this section, we move away from diagnosis, towards a positive vision for what could be by 2030. The COVID-19 crisis has given us an opportunity to press pause and reassess our priorities. During this time of great uncertainty, rapid change and moving goalposts, a coherent and shared European vision can serve to guide otherwise heterogenous policymaking and funding decisions towards a common set of goals and steer Europe’s recovery to meaningfully address the twin challenge of greening and digitally transforming our economy.
It should be noted that this vision — while ambitious and sometimes necessitating a radical rewiring of the internet’s very foundations — is grounded in reality. There is no need to pull the plug and start from scratch. The future we paint can emerge as a product of tangible and realistic interventions. The European Commission, working in collaboration with the European Parliament, Member States, regions and cities, has the competencies and means to act on this vision, harnessing Europe’s regulatory power, global position of trust and existing, strong innovation ecosystem.
Our five visions are built along five pillars: democracy, resilience, sustainability, trust and inclusion, values at the core of many of the most important societal problems we face today. These five pillars were informed by rigorous analysis, combining stakeholder dialogue and robust data-driven analysis conducted by the NGI Forward consortium. The detailed rationale for this selection, as well as a reflection on the trade-offs we face when selecting key values, and the tensions such a prioritisation inevitably brings to the fore, are discussed in more detail in our longform paper.
Each pillar is accompanied by a tangible mission we believe can at least in part be achieved by 2030.
We democratise the internet by giving citizens control over their data and future trajectory of innovation, and create a single market for ethical data use and technology worth 1 trillion Euros by 2030.
Power over the internet is concentrated in too few hands. Citizens should have more ownership over their own personal data and online 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 initiatives that serve the public interest to thrive.
In our vision for 2030, we directly address the root causes setting in motion the current vicious cycle towards ever more centralisation, by opening up access to data, bolstering alternative, fairer business models, and harnessing the true power of the internet as a democratising force.
The European Commission’s Strategy for Data calls for the development of sector-specific data spaces to ensure Europe does not miss the boat on industrial data, like it has with personal data. We however believe there is also still an opportunity to reshape the market for our own valuable information. In our vision, these data spaces are therefore also extended to include Europeans’ personal data, leveraging innovation in online identity and data commons ownership models to ensure we preserve individual privacy and agency.
By issuing every European their own self-sovereign online identity and personal data store (data wallet), citizens can now better understand and control how their data is shared and used, and can provide their personal information across solutions on a case-by-case basis. This model also gives a boost to smaller businesses and those who do not want to rely on indiscriminate data-hoovering as their business model. Where previously only the largest technology companies had access to big quantities of user data, now any solution can tap into this vast, decentralised data lake on equal terms.
Alongside these new technical infrastructures, there is a real need for more proactive, future-facing regulation in the privacy realm, and fit-for-purpose competition policy frameworks that can address the unprecedented accumulation in the digital economy.
Protocols not platforms: interoperable ecosystems
We will strengthen the emerging ecosystem of solutions built on top of this proposed decentralised data commons infrastructure, by using public sector purchasing power to set high standards for interoperability for any solution we fund, and making the rules for data portability and interoperability more concrete through more specific regulation.
We develop a common approach, together with the practitioners community, with regards to interoperability and data portability, which any related R&D project is required to follow as a condition for receiving government funding. With time, we foresee this model could lead to the creation of a whole host of fully-interoperable applications and solutions, preventing lock-in and enabling users to carry their data and online identities with them across apps and tools, which now work together more efficiently.
Collective intelligence and public engagement in shaping technology
The rapid pace of technological development has led to increased fears about its potential negative impacts, from automation-induced mass unemployment to dystopian facial recognition systems. It is therefore no surprise that we see growing opposition to some of these emerging technologies and further digitalisation more generally. In our vision, we see the involvement of citizens in decision-making about the trajectory of innovation as key to not just increase public acceptance of emerging technologies, but also to ensure the connected solutions we develop effectively serve the public good, meet users needs, and avoid potential harms. We will make involving diverse perspectives through public engagement and user testing a key component of any government-funded R&D effort.
Involving a wider range of voices will also allow us to better tap into the expertise of the crowd, harness collective intelligence, and so ultimately produce better, and more creative outcomes. Open-access, open innovation and open science will be the new leitmotif.
Digital democracy and strengthening the open internet
Democratising the internet means ensuring the internet remains open and a place where everyone can have their voice be heard without political interference. It also means being more deliberate about using the tools the internet provides to rejuvenate our democratic institutions. In our vision for 2030, the European Commission leads the way in employing more digital deliberation solutions and online democracy solutions into its own institutional processes, including regular Conferences on the Future of Europe, and promotes the adoption of similar approaches on a local and national level.
We similarly see these tools effectively used to have a collective conversation about the future of the internet itself, allowing local communities to come together and take shared decisions about the role they want digitalisation to play in, for example, shaping their cities and towns.
The European Commission will also play an active role on the world stage preserving the open internet and freedom of speech. One way of doing this is through supporting the development of trustworthy and secure encrypted tools that allow for healthy political conversation and organising, funded through the establishment of a trusted fund inspired by the American Open Technology Fund.
We build internet infrastructure and systems that can withstand environmental, economic and cyber shocks, and strengthen our role as a global champion of good governance and the open internet.
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.
While the internet’s underlying systems have so far held up remarkably well during the COVID-19 crisis amid increased demand, we might not be so lucky next time. Climate change-induced extreme weather events and shocks will become more frequent, and also geopolitical conflict is likely to be a growing source of man-made disruption to systems. We will make substantial strategic investments to improve the internet’s physical infrastructures by updating outdated systems, and design and deploy systems that can withstand these new types of pressure and risk.
To ensure the internet’s underlying systems remain fit for purpose and can withstand rapidly rising demand, we support more proactive systems maintenance and updating of existing protocols and infrastructures, many of which were not initially designed with the future scale and complexity of the internet in mind.
A champion of good governance and the open internet
With signs of splintering and the erection of walled gardens picking up pace around the world, Europe is one of the few remaining powerful voices still championing the open internet (though, it should be recognised, has itself also at times been an actor in furthering fragmentation).
In our vision for 2030, Europe takes a more active role in strengthening global norms and standards in the internet and technology space. This means taking the lead on bolstering global governance rules around cyberconflict, still a worryingly under-governed domain, through the development of a series of international treaties covering cyber conflict and the newly emerging class of cyber weapons. It also means continuing to vocally advocate for multistakeholder approaches in internet governance, and continued open, diverse dialogue to ensure continued interoperability between various global regulatory and standards regimes when trust is at a nadir. Making governance processes more accessible to otherwise underrepresented groups, particularly in the global digital rights and civil society realm, forms another piece of this puzzle.
We see setting high standards for transparency and auditability of technology systems sold within the European Single Market as a further tool for instilling a degree of trust in the global innovation ecosystem. A launch of an independent technology auditing body can make this concrete.
Cyber-resilience and technology sovereignty
We should become more deliberate about protecting critical European infrastructure through stronger regulation for businesses and substantial investments in cyber-security across member states, as well as diversification and, where appropriate, relocalisation of production supply chains.
Achieving technology sovereignty needs to not be a protectionist effort. Rather, we should invest in building open, decentralised infrastructures and common-good resources the rest of the world can benefit from, such as an open European Web Index or a common model for online identity. The leitmotif here is to lay the conditions for new initiatives to thrive on top of, rather than creating new, centralised verticals which themselves will come to dominate the market.
Sovereignty is not just about reducing technological dependencies, but also about building up human capital. We grow Europe’s cybersecurity capacity, and broader technology development base, through an ambitious retraining programme, building skills within organisations and among the general public, as well as recruit more multidisciplinary tech talent within the various layers of government. Building up in-house expertise not only allows governments to develop more robust solutions internally, it has the added benefit of equipping ourselves to better anticipate developments and practice foresight, improving longer-term resilience.
An open-technology revolution
In our vision for 2030, governments across all layers of jurisdiction — from the regional and city level, all the way up to the Commission itself — adopt an open-technology-first approach. This means solutions are built on top of open standards and, where appropriate, open sourced. Taking this kind of approach has many advantages: it can help to create a market for alternative, non-extractive solutions, lead to more robust and adaptable technology, and increases government’s bargaining power, no longer locked into expensive proprietary tools.
We kickstart these efforts by launching a co-owned FOSS and Open Standards fund, which plays a triple role of sharing learnings and best practices among various government bodies, funding and supporting the development of new solutions, and funding the maintenance, updating and continued stress-testing of existing tools.
This FOSS and Open Standards fund can play an important role in normalising the use of open source technology in more formal settings, and help find the open source community another fruitful pathway to funding their work.
We move to a fully circular and carbon-neutral economy for digital technology by 2030, strengthening the joint objectives of Europe’s twin green and digital transition.
Digitalisation has an important role to play in addressing the climate emergency and making the ambitious objectives of the European Green Deal a reality. But we must also not forget about the internet’s own substantial environmental footprint. As a society, more of us than ever before are using the internet, using more devices, and using these devices in ever-more energy intensive ways. While we see this additional connectivity as a great good, it comes at cost. Living within planetary bounds means striking the right balance between these two conflicting forces.
A fully circular economy for digital devices
We set ourselves the goal to create a fully circular economy for digital technology by 2030. Europe will become a global frontrunner in developing greener devices and manufacturing processes, optimising both the lifespan and durability of devices themselves, as well as limit the environmental footprint of their production. We will enforce bold Right to Repair legislation, and take action against planned obsolescence and lack of long-term software support.
By ensuring the sustainability of hardware, the greatest contributor to the internet’s footprint across the value chain, and investment in improving urban mining and recycling processes, we can substantially reduce the internet’s environmental impact and reduce e-waste, the fastest growing source of waste in Europe. We will in the process also contribute to strengthening Europe’s technology sovereignty by reducing supply chain dependencies and reliance on morally questionable and increasingly geopolitically-fraught imports of input resources such as rare earths.
As internet use continues to grow rapidly, the storage and transport of data is accounting for an ever-larger share of global energy supplies. The European Commission has already set itself the goal that all data centres in Europe should be climate-neutral by 2030. We will actively encourage other countries and companies outside of the EU to follow suit. In doing this, we will move away from the language of net-zero, which can be propped up by emissions trading schemes of questionable efficacy, and towards concrete emission reduction targets.
We do not stop there, but also become more conscious about the types and quantities of data we collect. Redeploying the principle of “data minimisation”, as enshrined in the GDPR, in a sustainability context, moves us into a new paradigm where we deliberately reduce the amount of data we keep and store to only those datasets that are actually beneficial, not just to enhance privacy, but to reduce strain on the environment.
Public awareness about the environmental impact of our individual internet consumption remains limited. We therefore popularise an ethos of “conscious connectivity”, where we as consumers become more mindful of our individual digital footprint, aware that an extra hour of video streaming or storing another twenty photos is linked to tangible CO2 emissions.
This increased public awareness can spur a flourishing of green innovation, as technology companies respond to consumer demand for zero-emission lifestyles. The European Commission further seizes on this momentum by increasing investment in green digital innovation by launching a dedicated fund, supporting previously understudied areas such as green search and less energy-intensive machine learning methodologies.
Digital tech and the European Green Deal
By addressing the internet’s substantial environmental footprint, we can now more fully harness the power of digital technology to make the ambitious aims of the European Green Deal and twin transition a reality. In doing so, we can finally move to a future where the ever-elusive smart city — now in ways still a lofty PR promise — will begin to meaningfully and positively transform our urban spaces, supported by advances in technologies such as AI and the hyper-connectivity allowed by 5G and later 6G.
We also recognise that digitalisation is a means, not an end. We therefore become more deliberate in identifying where smart systems and new technologies can truly reduce our environmental footprint, and when non-solutionists solutions might provide the better answer.
We establish a globally known brand for trustworthy and privacy-preserving technology, and play a leadership role in ensuring citizens around the world have access to trustworthy technology, data and information flows.
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, to help prevent further societal fragmentation and polarisation, and ease growing distrust in the geopolitical arena.
A market for trustworthy technology
Leveraging Europe’s respected role as a global regulator of technology, we can become a more proactive developer of trusted solutions. In our vision, “Made in Europe” becomes a stamp of quality, signifying technology that is secure and ethically produced, and embodies principles of privacy-by-design and openness to scrutiny.
To bolster these efforts, a new European-Commission-funded and endorsed auditing body will be launched, which will administer a series of globally-recognised trustmarks, which are given out to European and non-European applications and devices that meet this neutral organisation’s high standards of quality. These trustmarks provide citizens around the world with accessible and reliable information about trustworthy internet alternatives that are currently so hard to find.
We combine this approach by setting our own stringent conditions for security, privacy, interoperability and ethical data use in the technology solutions we as governments, from the city-level up to the supranational, procure and fund. This will help further strengthen the market for responsible tools, which currently often fail to gain traction in the absence of more sustainable business models.
What’s going on under the hood?
As technology, particularly in the realm of algorithmic decision-making and cybersecurity, becomes increasingly opaque and complex, we have to improve our understanding of what is going on ‘under the hood’. That is why our fully independent European auditing body described in the previous bullet, will not just be tasked with administering trustmarks and auditing software and hardware solutions, but also with developing standardised processes for scrutiny in the development phase, and continuous evaluation post-launch, to ensure solutions continue to meet strict conditions. With time, we could imagine such a body could also help reduce geopolitical tensions, as new technology could be scrutinised for potential backdoors.
Saving the news
We cannot have healthy democracies without a robust information and news ecosystem, that helps keep our elected (and unelected) officials to account. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly clear that most news outlets cannot survive using just the current business models available to them in the digital economy.
We should thus find new, novel ways of funding online journalism while ensuring our neutrality as a government — a crucial separation necessary to rebuild public trust. We do this by levying a dedicated Digital Tax on the large platforms, which currently benefit disproportionately from the content produced by the struggling media ecosystem. The proceeds of this tax will in large part be used to fund a dedicated Centre for Innovation in Journalism. This centre will provide funding to trusted online and print media outlets, particularly those covering local or smaller language markets, to help them adapt to the pressures of the digital economy, will spearhead international journalistic collaborations, and support radical experimentation with new pathways to sustainability.
The spread of misinformation and the deliberate undermining of democracy through the internet is unlikely to wane in coming years without meaningful intervention by both governments and the large platforms. The growing sophistication of the fake news toolbox, such as deepfakes, is likely only to worsen the problem.
Beyond addressing wider societal dynamics at the root of some of these issues, such as rising inequality and growing political polarisation, there are also actions we should take that do fall within the remit of this paper. We need to better understand which dynamics have made social media specifically such an effective avenue through which to influence public opinion and spread conspiracies, and proactively devise ways that can counter new forms of manipulation, such as deepfakes. We need to invest in high-quality online journalism, fact-checking and promote more community-led moderation in the online public sphere. But we also need to challenge the big platforms to take more active ownership over countering the harmful speech they facilitate by optimising for engagement and clicks, potentially through more forceful regulation.
Who am I? Fixing online identity
The identity problem is one of the internet’s original sins: whereas interactions in the real world allow us to build our reputation, decide what information about ourselves we share with whom, and establish mutual trust, the internet does not have a universal, portable model that allows us to do so. The European Commission in its most recent plans has called for the development of a trusted online identity for every European — a bold, and important aim.
But for this endeavour to be most effective, we need to strike the right balance between centralisation and decentralisation. We propose that every European resident is issued a self-sovereign online identity and linked personal data store (data wallet), which they themselves control without central oversight – which will help instill trust in the system. But to ensure this decentralised approach is robust, it needs to be paired with the establishment of an independent, government-funded oversight body, which verifies and improves upon the underlying technical backbone, and supports trusted organisations in launching their own services on this infrastructure. Our EDDS framework, as detailed in the longform version of this paper, sets out an ambitious model for such a governance system.
Meaningful consent and collective rights
We need to invest more in the development of new modes for citizens to give meaningful consent to being tracked or subjected to data-driven decision-making tools and systems. Consent models fit for a world where the internet increasingly exists outside of our phones and laptops needs to establish reciprocity in our relationship with smart city solutions and other forms of surveillance and tracking, especially in public spaces and public-service provision contexts. This means both empowering individuals, but also providing communities, such as local neighbourhoods, the collective right to challenge decisions or deployment of new tools.
By 2030, all Europeans can meaningfully access and participate in shaping the internet.
We can make the internet itself more human-centric, democratic and resilient, but if we fail to ensure that all of us have equal access, such an internet would not be inclusive or harness the strength of Europe’s diversity. We therefore set ourselves the mission to remove structural and social barriers to access, ensuring that all Europeans can have affordable or even free access to the internet by 2030, and are empowered to use and shape that internet in a meaningful way.
Access for all
In our vision, we treat the internet as important public infrastructure by giving all Europeans the opportunity to get connected to the internet and by ensuring high-speed, affordable broadband is rolled out across the whole of the Union, also in remote and less economically developed areas. The European Commission and member states can also make a significant contribution to removing the physical barriers to internet access elsewhere in the world by investing in roll-out as part of development efforts, and providing funding for experimentation with technologies that might provide connectivity to otherwise geographically or politically hard-to-reach places.
Societal barriers to access
To bridge the digital divide, we should not just focus on reducing infrastructural barriers to access, but also look at the more pernicious social and economic root causes that prevent large groups of people from fully participating in the digital economy.
We should harness Europe’s full linguistic richness and take the lead on building a multilingual internet, where also those that speak smaller minority languages can participate. We need to set stringent conditions in procurement and funding calls, ensuring new solutions are fully accessible to disabled users, or those who are not as digitally savvy. We need to broaden access to connected devices to those who otherwise cannot afford them, especially given the vital role these have started to play in the post-pandemic world. We must address this digital divide to ensure we do not perpetuate existing inequalities.
Representation and bias
We are not just proactive users of the internet, but also an object to be analysed by connected technologies. Rather than relying on corporate self-governance and an ever-expanding flurry of ethics frameworks, Europe should therefore take the lead in funding and setting real legal standards for responsible AI systems, made more concrete and enforceable by their immediate practical inclusion in procurement and funding processes from the city-level up. We recognise that the way in which data is collected, interpreted and used can perpetuate social inequalities and further power asymmetries, we should thus put in place strict rules for how algorithmic decision-making tools and similar data-reliant systems can be deployed with public service contexts, ensuring these systems are accountable and open to scrutiny, and involve outside stakeholder oversight when used in particularly high-risk environments.
Beyond ensuring algorithmic decision-making does not lead to biased outcomes, we should also enshrine the principle of the Right To Opt Out into law, which gives citizens the right to be excluded from government-led data-driven decision making processes, while simultaneously guaranteeing their views and needs are still being included in the design of services.
A safe space
In our vision, we make the internet a safer place for marginalised and vulnerable groups, who are currently disproportionately often falling victim to online harassment and targeted abuse — an important barrier to access. This requires stricter and more fit-for-purpose legal enforcement, but also the promotion of healthier public discourse and community-led moderation.
We also need to strike the right balance between online safety and preserving our individual privacy. We thus invest in, for example, content filters that are compatible with end-to-end encryption.
Shaping the internet
Many groups are underrepresented in the technology industry, which does not only mean they miss out on lucrative jobs, but also see their unique perspectives go unheard in the technology development phase. We spearhead initiatives that open up skills programmes to marginalised groups, collect more complete data on diversity to improve accountability and to better understand ways in which we can address this disbalance, and favour more representative teams in funding decisions.
Diversity in the development phase of new solutions is not just about bringing a more diverse range of technologists on board, but also about hearing the voices of non-experts, and more multidisciplinary perspectives. Future government-funded technology, particularly tools used in the provision of high-risk public service contexts, should therefore undergo rigorous user testing, looking not just at the direct usability and user-friendliness of solutions, but also at unexpected societal impacts and less well-understood user needs.
4. Concluding words
In this paper, we have set out a tangible and actionable vision for the future, that helps the European Union articulate a compelling story for a more human-centric future, and consider the trade-offs we face on the path there. We intend for this working document to be a starting salvo, and serve as a call to arms for the European Commision, as well as Europe’s internet community, from national and city-level policymakers to civil society, innovators to the general public, to take concerted action to make these ideas a reality.
For the remainder of the NGI Forward project and beyond, we will work on putting the central ideas proposed in this paper into action, and build a network of like-minded organisations and individuals to join us on this mission.