The future of the internet

Public infrastructure designed to protect shared values

At the twenty-second ECP Annual Congress on 14 November, Marleen Stikker, Valerie Frissen, Kees Neggers and Michiel Steltman discussed the future of the internet. Although all four highlighted serious current problems with the internet, they are optimistic about the future. Providing that we start thinking of the internet in terms of a public infrastructure designed to reflect the shared values that underpin our society.

The internet has done a lot for us, both economically and socially. However, it's the product of a bygone era. At its conception in 1969 -- fifty years ago, now -- and during its early development, no one could have envisaged the way it's used today. Little or no thought was given to questions such as security and privacy. Never mind real-time applications, such as video or Skype. And no one had any cause to worry about the internet's commercialisation by Big Tech corporations, such as Facebook and Google. With science journalist Bennie Mols in the chair, the future of the internet was debated by a panel consisting of Kees Neggers (internet pioneer and former Director of SURFnet), Marleen Stikker (CEO and co-founder of Waag), Michiel Steltman (CEO of Digital Infrastructure Netherlands) and Valerie Frissen (Professor of Digital Technology and Social Change and CEO of SIDN Fund).

Condition of the present-day internet

Before considering the future of the internet, it's important to assess the condition of the internet today, fifty years on from creation of the ARPANET. Of the four panel members, internet pioneer Kees Neggers has easily the longest involvement with the internet's development, stretching back to the early seventies. His pithy assessment is, "The internet's a fantastic accident." Neggers believes that the internet has become a vital infrastructure, but that we've failed to adapt it quickly enough to new forms of mass use. His assertion relates mainly to the technical infrastructure on which all our internet applications run. Valerie Frissen expands on Neggers' appraisal: "The internet is indeed a fantastic accident, in both technical and social terms." However, the internet's social role has been neglected in her view. "And I'm not talking merely about indulgent neglect. I think we're guilty of careless neglect." Marleen Stikker takes a similar view, a view summed up by the title of a book she's authored, which comes out at the end of November: Het internet is stuk − Maar we kunnen het repareren (The internet is broken - But we can repair it). What Stikker sees as broken is public confidence in the internet. Many of the actors involved in the internet's development over the last few decades haven't always subscribed to public values: the things that matter to people as citizens, as opposed to people as consumers. As a consumer, you may think it's great that Facebook is free, but for a citizen of a democratic society, it's undesirable that Facebook has acquired so much power built on citizens' data obtained at no cost. "Technology is created by people," asserts Stikker, "and that implies that it incorporates values. We should focus much more on that side of things." Only Michiel Steltman is inclined to stress the positive aspects of the internet's current condition. "The internet's doing incredibly well," he says. "Despite all its limitations and the lack of trust, billions of transactions are performed every day, for example." Nevertheless, he too acknowledges that the internet is under stress. Stress imposed on the one hand by the power of the Big Tech corporations and on the other by interference with internet freedoms by authoritarian regimes.

Looking to the future

Given the panellists' assessment of the internet's current condition, what should be done to improve its health going forward? Technically speaking, Neggers believes that the answer is gradual reform, starting with vital infrastructures such as those operated by banks and energy companies. "We have a duty to come up with alternatives," he observes. "Neither the technical nor the social challenges are insurmountable. And, where there's a will, there's a way. Start by creating better vital infrastructure and gradually build a new internet beneath the existing one." Frissen makes the point that technical and socio-political remedies go hand in hand. "In SIDN's Dutch-language video about the internet's first fifty years, internet pioneer Erik Huizer said that the internet's original design reflected certain fundamental principles: it had to be open, free and accessible to all. We have to ask ourselves whether those principles are still being followed and what the implications are for society." Stikker too favours correcting the balance between universal participation and security. "Governments have tended to shy away from strict regulation of the internet, except maybe where intellectual property is concerned." However, Steltman fears that excessive regulation would inhibit innovation. He therefore favours modes of regulation designed specifically for the internet: "Multistakeholder regulation, where the business community is properly represented." The Netherlands leads the way on such regulatory mechanisms, according to Steltman. "A proposal is on the table regarding internet sovereignty, which one may reasonably liken to Grotius's seminal work Mare Librum, the basis for international law guaranteeing that the high seas remain free for trade. The Netherlands can lead the way with a multistakeholder approach. Poldering on steroids, if you like." "Poldering -- sharing responsibility, as our ancestors did to reclaim land from the sea -- sounds very attractive," responds Neggers. "However, exhaustive consultation is holding us back. Sometimes decisive action is required. Nation states feel insecure and are taking steps to protect themselves. I don't see how we can create a global community while some states are seeking to isolate themselves." If we've learnt anything in the last fifty years, Frissen suggests, it's that the internet should be subject to greater control. "You have to regulate algorithms, markets and data sovereignty. Belief in the basic concept of a free and open internet doesn't imply that you have to allow a Wild West culture to prevail. Fortunately, Europe seems increasingly willing to act as a third power between the neoliberal US and authoritarian China." Stikker points to an initiative through which Europe is explicitly seeking to make good the internet's current shortcomings: the Next Generation Internet Programme. The programme addresses key issues such as data sovereignty and online identity. Stikker also wants to see efforts to devise and create alternative applications in fields currently dominated by the Big Tech corporations in the US. "Let's invest in positive developments. Some existing applications extract value, in the form of energy and data, for example. We should be moving towards production that upholds public values." She also believes that governments shouldn't allow themselves to become dependent on commercial software providers. The government must always be able to require suppliers to respect certain core public values. "It's vital that we don't despair of our ability to bring about change," adds Frissen. "There's lots we can do. In my role as CEO of SIDN Fund, for example, I can support people developing new applications. And the EU clearly recognises the importance of regulation. However, it's equally important to empower end users: the data proletariat, if you want to adopt a little Marxist terminology." Back in 1994, Stikker was at the birth of the Digital City, an initiative that played a central role in making the Dutch public aware of the internet. Before the Digital City, it was largely only academic institutions that were connected to the net. However, government support for the initiative was short-lived, Stikker recalls. "After the Digital City, absolutely nothing was invested in the internet's public role. Commercial interests have prevailed ever since. We need to get back to thinking of the internet more as a public resource, albeit with commercial extensions."

Education and digital literacy

Technically speaking, solutions are available for creating a better internet infrastructure. And our panellists favour increased regulation to protect public values. But can private citizens also play a role in resolving the internet's current problems? According to Neggers, progress has to start with education. "Children should be taught to make responsible use of the vast capabilities of internet technology," he says. "At the moment, the landscape is controlled by big corporations. We need to empower citizens to look after themselves." In response, Steltman points out that we are apt to say one thing and do another. We'll assert the importance of privacy, for example, then carelessly give away personal data via social media. "We need protecting against our own foolishness," he says. "We don't always act in accordance with the principles we believe in. People need enough knowledge and experience to address that." Where education is concerned, Stikker doesn't subscribe to the school of thought that we need more tech-workers and that everyone should learn to program. "Responsible use of technology isn't simply a question of technical knowledge; far from it," she argues. "You also have to understand what technology does to people." At the moment, various bodies in the Netherlands are working on technology strategies, including the AI strategy. Stikker wants to see such strategies designed on an interdisciplinary basis from the outset, which is rarely the case at present. "I envisage a sort of car wash to assure interdisciplinary technology development. All developments have to pass through the car wash along the way. A sort of design lab; I like that idea!"

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