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Reimagining the internet: an event recap

Last Wednesday, we hosted Reimagining the Internet at Nesta, a public evening event on rethinking how the internet works today, and how we could move to more democratic and inclusive internet futures. In this blog, I will try to summarise some of the main ideas discussed during this event (though there were many very interesting nuggets - so if you were an attendee and felt I missed something really important, do please leave a comment).

We can all agree that the internet today isn’t where we want it to be. Perhaps above anything else, the enormous backlash that has followed last week’s Cambridge Analytica revelations shows that the general public does in fact care about issues of privacy and the disproportionate power wielded by tech giants. But now that we finally see a growing public demand for real alternatives and more forceful regulation, we find ourselves scrambling for real alternatives. #DeleteFacebook yes, but where do we go next?

Indeed, despite the backlash, challenging existing dynamics still won’t be easy, and more ethical alternative solutions still find it hard to gain traction. As citizens, particularly European citizens, we find ourselves caught in the crossfire between two dominant internet narratives: the American model, where surveillance capitalism and tech giants reign supreme, and the Chinese model, where most interactions are controlled by the central government. Between big tech and Beijing, where does this leave citizens?  

I believe that Europe now has a very important opportunity to take charge in reinventing the internet, and should articulate a third, citizen-focused alternative. Europe is already a superpower when it comes to regulating the internet (from the GDPR to Vestager) and now is the only sizable bloc left standing when it comes to defending the open internet.

But to take charge means not only to regulate - which, while important, is ultimately reactive - but also to come up with real alternative solutions and an appealing new vision. We were very fortunate to have three excellent speakers that evening (for what turned out to be an even more timely and urgent event than we initially expected!) to give us this kind of provocative vision on what's next for the internet.

The write-ups below contain both elements from each speaker’s respective talk, as well as bits from the Q&A.

Professor John Naughton (Senior Research Fellow at CRASSH, University of Cambridge and Technology Correspondent at the Observer):

Professor Naughton has been a very well known voice and thinker on the internet since the web’s very beginnings (and at the Observer has been very involved with the impressive investigative journalism behind the Cambridge Analytica scoops!). Indeed, during his talk he called himself a “recovering utopian”- the internet’s initial promise has not been met (quite the opposite) and the late internet’s ethos of “Move fast and break things” has indeed left us with broken democracies and fragmenting societies, though the culprits have (so far) walked free.

  • Rather than freedom and openness, we are now left with an internet under corporate and government control, the internet’s original infrastructures weaponised in ways that have allowed a small number of actors to seize power.
  • The power that the internet wields will eventually catch up with itself: the future of the internet is therefore not one of one internet, but one of many internets. In reality, the splinternet is already here: the Great Wall of China is a walled garden of its own with little connection to the global web; countries like Iran and Russia are likely to follow suit. Regulatory fragmentation between, for example, the EU and the US will also play an important role here.
  • This is in many ways also a discussion of values: the West was arrogant to believe that China’s path towards becoming a tech giant and innovative country in its own right would inevitably go hand in hand with democratisation. This was wrong. Technology is inherently political, but it is shaped by the political context it is developed and used in. Value systems will diverge further, leaving Europe with an important task to instill more “European values” into the process. Issues around privacy and ethics resonate more among Europeans, but will inevitably also become the norm elsewhere. We need to “export” those ideas.
  • What we need to do now is to regulate the internet. Particularly the two main beneficiaries of the surveillance capitalism business model, Facebook and Google, need to be reined in. Europe has an important opportunity here though: the European Union, particularly EC Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, is the only real opponent Silicon Valley fears. Europe needs to act upon this power.

Marleen Stikker (Managing Director and Co-Founder, Waag Society): Marleen has similarly been involved with the internet from the very beginning - and has long been an advocate for seeing technology as inherently political, even when it all still seemed like fun and games.

  • Technology is not neutral: techno-fixes cannot solve our social and political issues, nor should we continue to see technology as somehow separate from societies and politics.
  • We need to understand what’s in the box, particularly when it comes to algorithmic decision-making to ensure we don’t perpetuate the same inequalities and biases that already exist in societies today.
  • We need to ensure technology today is more value-driven, and in particular instill European values in our thinking. Technology is not just a means to an end/utilitarian (or a way to get rid of “human inefficiencies”/failure), but also plays a role in how we organise our societies. If the Chinese internet is authoritarian and the American internet hyper-individualistic, the European internet should be a community-focused one, its core aim generating collective societal value.
  • One way of doing this is to reinvent the internet as a commons (as we should do with other elements of our economy, see Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics), with freely available internet infrastructure, open source tools - solutions across the technology stack. While the structures should be collective, our data should not be (or at least, only when we choose it to be). Each citizen should have control over their own personal data through private, decentralised data stores, and should be able to opt-in to share on a case-by-case basis (the DECODE project explores these ideas).
  • The 'Next Generation Internet' should be seen as a public stack: a set of hardware, firmware, protocols all the way up to operating systems, applications and regulation. The internet’s problems do not arise just from one layer or element of the internet - all of them need addressing.
  • Cities are again becoming the chief actors and levels of governance, also when it comes to the internet - with the nation state in retreat. Perhaps the answer for Europe is to reshape itself as a federal state, which empowers cities and communities to take back more power, using internet-enabled tools as one of its main facilitators.

Adam Rang (Chief Evangelist, E-Residency, Government of Estonia): Adam joined us from Estonia to talk about the small, Baltic country’s enormous success and guiding role when it comes to digitising its society and government functions.

  • One particularly powerful alternative model for the internet is Estonia’s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the country was left penniless and far behind when it came to adopting new technologies. This also offered an opportunity, however, as Estonia was able to leapfrog and immediately adopt much newer technologies and infrastructures - allowing the country to become what is often thought to be: the most digitally-advanced society in the world today.
  • Famously, many of Estonia’s government services are available online and don’t require any physical visit to the city hall - from voting, to paying taxes to most other business with the government (all, except for divorce, marriage and buying property). This through an intricate e-ID system, which has now also been made available to foreign entities through the e-Residency scheme (4,000 companies now have an official “online” presence in Estonia, though most are not actually physically based in the country).
  • This type of model is efficient, but also requires significant trust in the “benevolence” of the government: centralising all your data in this way, and relying on the resilience of these systems (particularly in a country under frequent cyber attack!) might seem risky. Adam, however, argued that most European governments actually have access to similar amounts of data, but in those cases we just have far less clarity on how it is stored and what kind of information agencies have access to. Though having one central database might make us feel uneasy, it also means that we can keep our governments accountable (plus, no single government agency can have access to the full dataset on one individual, just relevant information - the Estonian car registry can’t ask for your health data).
  • When it comes to the resilience of this system - might Estonia as a country even continue to survive, given the muscle-flexing of its large neighbour? Adam responded that the E-Estonia data is actually backed-up across several Estonian embassies across the world. This would mean that even if Estonia were to lose its territory, 1.3 million Estonians, and the virtual fabrics of their society could actually continue to exist and be repeated elsewhere. An interesting notion in a world of growing geopolitical tension, and the retreat of the nation state.  

The core theme of this discussion was perhaps the idea of values, and how competing value sets across different cultural contexts will shape the internet in the years to come. The rules of the next wave of technologies, particularly artificial intelligence, haven’t been written yet. But things are crystallising fast. In order for us to benefit as citizens from an inevitably transformative technology like AI, it is of crucial importance that its development happens in an ethical way. And that is why it is so important for us now to push for European values to be at the core of the future internet, and continue to focus on constructing European alternatives.

Staying involved with the NGI initiative

Wednesday’s event was part of the Next Generation Internet initiative, the European Commission’s ambitious new flagship programme which focuses on building a more human-centric and inclusive internet by 2025. To do this, we need to develop both a radical new vision for what the internet could be, as well as fund the alternatives and technologies that could get us there.

To make the NGI a success, we need to involve as many voices as possible from across Europe in the process. That is why we plan to organise many more of these kinds of events all over the continent, and have several other channels through which you can get involved. See the picture below for the various ways you can join us!  


Author

Katja Bego

Katja Bego

Katja Bego

Principal researcher

Katja Bego is a Principal Researcher and data scientist in Nesta’s technology futures and explorations team.

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