During the first weeks of lockdown earlier this year, there was still a sense of hope that, despite the calamity and uncertainty of the crisis, the pandemic could offer us an unexpected but valuable opportunity to rebuild our societies (and the digital economy) to be fairer, more democratic and resilient to shocks. But as we find ourselves settling into yet another lockdown here in the United Kingdom, with cases again peaking in much of Europe and beyond, this initial spirit of renewal has all but disappeared. Fractious elections in the United States show that our societies remain divided and that we’ll have to continue to grapple with the impact technology plays in fuelling this polarisation. Challenges like the climate crisis, rising inequality and mounting geopolitical conflict seem more daunting than ever and instil a sense that the possible futures ahead of us are narrowing, our remaining options only grim.
But since I first reflected on possible post-COVID futures for the internet in early May, there have also been many reasons to be cheerful. The European Commission has announced its ambitious Next Generation Europe recovery plans, which aim to kickstart the twin green and digital transition across the continent and beyond. At time of writing, a vaccine appears near. US elections outcomes suggest a fresh start for international collaboration and a new wave of major world economies have since signed on to net-zero targets by 2050. But to channel some of the momentum these examples offer in a positive direction, we need to know what kind of future we want to see and chart out pathways to get there.
Looking at the internet’s ecosystem in particular, now is the time to look beyond diagnosis, and focus on concrete remedies that can help us build a democratic, resilient, sustainable, trustworthy and inclusive internet within the next decade.
The challenges we face on the internet today are complex and manifold, often so interlinked and mutually reinforcing that treating them in isolation would do little to solve our woes. From the infrastructure level up to the way the internet is rewiring our public spaces, we need to understand the underlying currents that drive these dynamics.
Three basic mega-dynamics appear to be at the root of many of our issues, all three of which have come to a head during the current COVID-19 crisis:
1 - More centralisation
Power over the internet is concentrated in the hands of only very few actors, who increasingly control what we read and see. We are living in a winner-takes-all digital economy, where the tendency is that we always end up with a small number of winners across layers of the system, leaving the rest of us behind – particularly those already excluded in the digital divide. This trend is unlikely to buckle without serious intervention; centralisation begets centralisation: those who currently dominate are also best able to seize on the next important technologies, such as AI, to also ensure they stay so powerful in the future.
2 - More fragmentation
COVID-19 has accelerated a global trend towards deglobalisation, decoupling and tech chauvinism a long time in the making. We risk seeing the internet fall apart into a number of sovereign parts, a splinternet, if we do not strengthen global governance systems and reinstil trust between the most powerful actors.
3 - More things
More of us are using the internet than ever before, on average using more devices per person, and using those devices in ever more energy-intensive ways (an hour of streaming Netflix takes a lot more energy than an hour of reading Wikipedia). This increased connectivity is a great good, but also comes at a significant environmental cost. Information overload similarly threatens the resilience of our societies and democracies – and pushes our shared attention span to its limit.
Breaking through these harmful, self-perpetuating trends is no easy task. But we believe Europe is particularly well-equipped to take the lead in doing so, though it must become more forceful in its approach.
The European Union’s strengths in the digital arena are well known, from its 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 its reputation as a trustworthy, values-led actor, to the dynamism of Europe’s bottom-up innovation ecosystem. These strengths, however, should be put more proactively at the service of creating new systems and solutions. 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 tangible alternatives.
We propose a large number of possible interventions in a new vision white paper we are releasing as part of the NGI Forward project, which can be roughly categorised into three strands:
Europe’s ambition should not be to create its own European Google; we need to focus on setting the conditions that prevent the next Google instead. We can do this by, for example, leveraging new data governance models and online identity systems to democratise access to data and give citizens more control over what happens to their own personal data. This can help level the playing field in the digital economy, as new initiatives can tap into common decentralised data lakes, rather than create their own extractive and insecure proprietary data hoards.
New modes of governance
Europe should promote institutional innovation and new governance models to help restore trust. 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. Further politicisation of technological innovation risks breaking down existing governance frameworks altogether. Creating an independent open technology body, which can promote open standards and technologies globally, and bring trust through auditing existing solutions, can be one way of doing that.
Living within planetary (and cognitive) bounds
Increased connectivity has an important role to play in combatting climate change and reducing inequalities. But for the internet to play that role, we must reduce its own environmental footprint through increasing the longevity of underlying systems and instilling an ethos of 'data minimisation' across the value chain. What do we really need to keep? This idea of 'conscious connectivity' will not just help reduce the internet’s own footprint, but also support us to become more deliberate about treating digitisation as a means, not an end.
Europe has a powerful opportunity to take charge of shaping a better future internet, and must not let the opportunity offered by Next Generation Europe and the new political wind slip.
This blog summarises some of the points discussed in detail in the newly released A Vision For The Future Internet. Our new working paper, released by the Nesta-led NGI Forward project, sets out an ambitious vision for a more democratic, resilient, sustainable, trustworthy and inclusive internet by 2030. This working paper does three things: it takes a holistic view of the challenges we face on the internet today, considering dynamics across the full internet stack. It then sets out what a tangible better future might look like, looking at five specific pillars: democracy, resilience, sustainability, trust and inclusion.
Finally, to help us get closer towards those visions, we need to mobilise Europe’s innovation ecosystem and pull the right policy and technology levers – we do this by introducing a number of concrete missions that we believe the Commission should adopt. Now is the time to look beyond diagnosis and focus on concrete remedies.
Recommendations in this paper will continue to be fine-tuned and explored in more depth over the next year. If you are interested in joining up efforts, please get in touch.