NGI Forward: Building the future internet and returning personal data to citizens

19/05/2021, por Angel

NGI Forward: Building the future internet and returning personal data to citizens

Katja Bego

Principal Researcher and data scientist at Nesta’s technology futures and explorations team and project lead of NGI Forward


Empodera.org chats with Katja Bego, Principal Researcher at Nesta and project lead of the NGI Forward project. Katja leads the European Commission-funded EU Engineroom and NGI Forward projects, tasked with helping shape the funding and research agenda of the Next Generation Internet initiative, the European Union’s ambitious new flagship programme seeking to build a more democratic, inclusive and resilient future internet by 2025. Her work primarily focuses on studying the impact of emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence on our societies, and thinking about how these new innovations can be harnessed for social good and benefit all. Katja previously worked as a data scientist in the private sector and as a researcher at the MIT Media Lab. She holds a degree in economics and political science from Wellesley College in the United States, and is originally from Amsterdam in the Netherlands.


Hi Katja, first of all thank you for joining us and for sharing your experience. Tell us about the project Next Generation Internet Policy Lab: ¿How was it born and how are you shaping the common strategy on the future of the Internet? 

The Next Generation Internet is the European Commission’s ambitious initiative to build a more democratic, inclusive and trustworthy internet by 2030. An incredibly important goal in a time when the Internet has come to play an increasingly important role in shaping our societies, economies and global order.

The NGI Forward project, which started in 2019, is helping the European Commission to set out a tangible vision for what such a future internet should look like. How can we make sure we decentralise power in the digital economy, and allow all of us to benefit from the Internet? As a project, we help identify the building blocks from new technologies but, particularly also, social innovation and policy interventions, that can help make this vision a reality. We also convene an ecosystem of like minded organisations across the continent to be part of this mission. 


“There is no single silver-bullet solution that can solve all of the Internet’s problems. This is why we need to involve a broad community and take a comprehensive, full-system view when it comes to trying to inspire real change”


NGI Forward is made up of a consortium of seven partners from all over Europe, led by Nesta in the UK. We all care deeply about building a better future Internet, but approach these topics from a range of different angles – from policy change to data-driven research to understand emerging trends, to building grassroots communities: I believe that combining such a diverse set of approaches is necessary for solving the problems we see on the Internet itself. There is no single silver-bullet solution that can solve all of the Internet’s problems. This is why we need to involve a broad community and take a comprehensive, full-system view when it comes to trying to inspire real change.

 

As an expert Data Scientist, can you tell us how can we move towards Data Sovereignty? How can we fight against data concentration in the hands of just a few key players? 

This is one of the biggest challenges on the Internet today and not one we can easily solve. Power is concentrated in the hands of just a few increasingly monopolistic actors. The current nature of the business models underpinning the digital economy, which reward accruing more and more data, means they are only likely to grow more powerful in years to come. 

Within NGI Forward we are trying to challenge this dynamic by exploring new ways which can allow citizens to take back control over what happens to their own personal data, and making it easier for new solutions to compete. We believe that through rethinking how the digital economy works and implementing new governance models, particularly in the data space (think of new exciting developments around data commons and data trusts) we can open up and build more trust around data sharing. With most of the online services we rely on now, behind walled gardens and mediated by powerful platforms, we need to re-establish “public space” on the Internet and move to a more open model. By building public interest data-sharing infrastructures, we might just be able to do that. 

Of course, solutions on the technology and governance side need to go together with interventions on the regulatory side. Europe, and a growing number of other governments around the world, are showing more ambition in trying to curb big tech power. This has proven difficult to do, but I have high hopes for what the coming years will bring in this regard.

 

How can disruptive and decentralized technologies help achieve the goal of a more democratic and inclusive Internet? 

I don’t think technology alone is the answer to many of the problems we see on the Internet today – problems often driven by economic and political dynamics rather than by technological ones. However, that does not mean that technologies that can help decentralise power don’t have an important role to play.

I am particularly excited about developments around self-sovereign identities, which allow users a much larger say in what aspects of their own identity they share with who. Also new data sharing models, such as data trusts and personal data stores, allow users or trusted intermediaries to determine what happens with our own data, rather than hand it all over to unaccountable large platforms.  


“New data sharing models, like data trusts and personal data stores, allow users to determine what happens with their own data”

 

What is the European Commission policy for the future of the Internet? How does the Internet we want work?

Our work on NGI Forward is quite independent from the work of the European Commission itself, and does not necessarily reflect their opinions. However, the EU is currently doing a lot of incredibly impactful work in the digital policy realm, which is likely to shape Europe’s, and to some degree the world’s, digital agenda for at least the next years to come. At the end of 2020, the Commission launched the trifecta of the Digital Services Act (DSA), Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Data Governance Act (DGA), three incredibly important pieces of legislation that will shape Europe’s competition policy, and, for example, the ways in which Europeans can share data.


There is also a lot happening on the innovation front. As part of the large COVID-19 recovery fund package, Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen has announced the Commission’s ambition to kickstart the twin digital and green transitions. At least 20 percent of the recovery funds need to support initiatives that promote digitalization in Europe, and there is a lot of funding available to support R&D initiatives exploring digital technologies to support the ambitions of the European Green Deal. This is a big opportunity for Europe, but we must also make sure that these investments also support the public good and protect European values.


“Striving for sovereignty could be a way of having more of a say about how potentially dangerous technology, such as facial recognition technology, is developed, and ensuring European values are respected in the process”


Indeed, a third strand of the European Commission’s current work in the digital space is focused on helping restore digital sovereignty. It is the Commission’s, as well as many Member States’, ambition to build more technology in Europe itself. In part, this is of course about economics and geopolitics: in a time of increased tension about, for example, supply chains, not building technology (or having access to underlying resources and production processes) is seen as an unacceptable risk. But striving for sovereignty could also be a way of having more of a say about how potentially dangerous technology, such as facial recognition technology, is developed, and ensuring European values are respected in the process.

 

¿Can you share with us some of the projects you are working on right now and the results you are getting?

We are working on quite a wide range of topics within the Internet space within the project- it is such a broad area! We have recently released a white paper, which sets out our vision for the future internet, which takes a comprehensive look at the internet as a whole and tries to understand where we can have most of an impact through our interventions. 

We are currently also doing a lot of work on the sustainability of the internet. Connectivity can play an important role in helping achieve the objectives of the European Green Deal, but we must also not forget about the internet’s own rapidly growing environmental footprint. Anyone can view our report The Internet of Waste.

We are also looking at new data governance models, such as data commons and data trusts, and are thinking about new ways we can really help those alternative ways of sharing data scale.  

 

Tell us about the digital right to opt out and self-govern. 

The internet is no longer something that just exists on our laptops or phones, but is increasingly around us anywhere we go. We are tracked when shopping in the supermarket and our travel patterns are shared with third parties. This makes it difficult to meaningfully consent to be part of this kind of data collection, and hard to understand how our behavior is being manipulated and evaluated on a daily basis. 

We need new ways of giving meaningful consent, especially when we are being tracked in public spaces, but also need to take giving permission a step further. How can we make it possible for us to, individually and collectively, opt out of being a forced subject of these kinds of data-guzzling systems? How can we give local communities the opportunity to shape and decide how they want new technologies to be deployed in their own neighborhoods and towns? Within NGI Forward, we call this the right to opt out and self-govern. 

 

Some of the gaps that we are facing right now are affordability and connectivity for lower income and vulnerable communities. Which actions are needed to achieve a more sustainable and fairer infrastructure?

This is an incredibly important issue, particularly now during the global pandemic when access to the internet is more vital than ever before. There are a lot of barriers to access, such as basic access to the internet infrastructure itself – a larger problem in Europe than many would expect.

But the main challenges are economic in nature – in areas with the least and slowest connectivity, the internet tends to be the most expensive. Access to devices is another source of inequality, as the move to home schooling during COVID-19 has brought to the fore. The digital skills gap, which particularly affects people on lower incomes, is another area where more intervention is needed. 


“Half of the world’s population is not yet connected to the internet. This is an issue where Europe should show global leadership”


We need to approach the issue of access holistically and think beyond just access to (affordable) broadband. Fortunately, this is something that has now become a big priority for many policymakers. When we think about opening up access, we also need to make sure we look beyond Europe alone. Still, roughly half of the world’s population is not yet connected to the internet. This is an issue where Europe should show global leadership.


What are your opinion and predictions on how everything is going forward during and after the global crisis of COVID-19 and how technology can generate sustainable solutions for the future?

COVID-19 has revealed and accelerated a lot of inequalities and other systemic issues in the political and economic systems we rely on. It is clear that we cannot continue with business as usual when the worst of the crisis is over.

I wrote a long blog article about these different dynamics in May 2020, which I think still holds up quite well, despite all that has happened in recent months. 


“We’ll see more global competition over innovation and we must be wary that, amidst these tensions, we don’t turn to tech solutionism”


I think the role of technology will be a double-edged sword moving forward. On the one hand, I think we will see more global competition over innovation, with particularly the largest powers, such as China, the US and Europe, seeking to leave their mark on its development. This might well lead to more tensions, and potentially even geopolitical conflict. 

We must also be wary that, amidst these tensions, we do not turn to tech solutionism – something we have seen very clearly during the pandemic, where many governments put all their eggs on, for example, contact tracing apps to combat the spread of the virus. Fruitlessly in many cases.

But technology can of course also be a force for good. We have seen during the pandemic how much science can achieve when we put our collective muscle behind it. Think of the incredible pace with which we developed COVID-19 vaccines. We will need similar forceful action to combat the climate crisis – the pandemic has left me somewhat hopeful we might get better at using government, private sector and civil society power to achieve similar feet in this space.


“Technology can be a force for good. We’ve seen during the pandemic how much science can achieve when we put our collective muscle behind it”


We would love you to finish with a piece of advice to young female students like yourself to pursue their dreams in science and technology.

One thing that particularly excites me is the important role women and members of other underrepresented groups play in shaping the debates about responsible innovation today. Many of the leading voices exploring the risks and challenges of emerging technologies are women, as is a growing share (though still too few!) of the technologists building many of these solutions.

I guess my biggest piece of advice would be to go for it! Building a better internet and steering the direction of innovation will only become more important in the coming years as the pace of development continues to pick up. While we talk about these challenges more and more, we still lack concrete solutions to many of them – the more perspectives and fresh ideas we can bring in, the better.  

 

More info on Katja Bego: https://www.nesta.org.uk/team/katja-bego/

Nesta website: https://www.nesta.org.uk/ 

NGI website: https://www.ngi.eu/

NGI Forward website: https://www.ngi.eu/ngi-projects/ngi-forward/

Feel free to follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/katjabego  

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/katjabego/ 

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