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.