The Next Generation Internet:
While early internet pioneers dreamed of an internet that would be open, free and decentralised, 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; the average person has very little agency to change things within the current political and economic parameters.
The concentration of power over the internet – from the infrastructure level, up to who owns the data and the impact of digital platforms on our societies – in the hands of just a small number of companies, means few truly benefit from the growing digital economy. With ownership so centralised, the rest of us have little say about many of the developments driving the internet today, and possibly even less about what we want its future to look like.
But while we see emerging consensus that serious action to help remedy some of these issues is long overdue, we still lack some of the tools to take effective action. Instead, we find ourselves stuck between two dominant narratives: the increasingly monopolistic tech giants of Silicon Valley on the one hand, and a newly emerging Chinese model, where the government is in control.
But things don’t have to be this way. Between Big Tech and Beijing, can we come up with a third narrative, where citizens and communities are in control and can determine their own future?
We believe that Europe now has an important opportunity to do just that through the Next Generation Internet initiative, the European Commission’s ambitious new flagship programme, which is seeking to build a more inclusive, resilient and democratic future internet by the end of the next decade. The NGI sets out how to create an internet underpinned by European values, such as openness, inclusiveness, privacy, cooperation and protection of data, and focuses on championing initiatives that create solutions for the public good and put in place the kinds of regulations protecting our rights online that are currently sorely missing.
Europe has proven a strong actor on the global stage when it comes to regulating some of these key challenges surrounding the internet (think for example of the GDPR, or Margrethe Vestager’s curbing of Big Tech power). Harnessing the Brussels Effect (given the sheer size of the European Union’s internal market, the stricter standards Europe sets tend to become the global norm) allows Europe to operate as the global leader on the regulatory front, but also on the more local level do we see important developments. Think for example of the ambitious DECODE project in Amsterdam and Barcelona, which wants to give citizens sovereignty over their own data.
A key challenge however remains is to bring coherence to all these interesting developments going on. We see policymakers and grassroots groups continuously reinventing the wheel, putting resources into the development of alternative, human-centric tools or launching new programmes, instead of linking up with existing efforts. This is not only wasteful, but also means that it is hard for any one solution to truly gain traction: it is much harder for one community to continue to use and maintain an open source tool that it is for, say, forty communities doing this together.
Similarly, given the sheer size of some of the actors now wielding the most power over the internet, taking action on the local level on issues can be hard. Take the example of some larger cities, which have tried to make a fist against the large sharing economy companies threatening the livability of their respective city centres. These efforts have only proven truly successful when multiple cities worked together, together pushing for stricter rules and company policy changes. Giving local and national policymakers the tools to take effective shared action can be an incredibly powerful mechanism through which to effect change.
The vision behind the NGI’s Policy Lab is thus to provide a platform for policymakers and civil society actors to come together and to more effectively collaborate on key digital issues by taking collective action, sharing learnings and funding new solutions together.
Now is the moment to come up with bold policy interventions, both in the form of targeted regulation of key problem areas and ambitious innovation policy, promoting the development of the kinds of human-centric alternatives we so need. All these efforts need to come at the service of realising a new strategic vision for Europe in the technology space, by thinking together about the kind of internet we want to see, and to help build the technologies and solutions we would need to get there.