One year of NGI Forward, and where to go from here

The Internet is an essential human infrastructure. In the space of just a few decades, it has grown into a fantastically complex system, ever evolving, taking on new functions, opening new markets, facilitating and accelerating all kinds of social dynamics – from fantasy virtual worlds to swarms of bots to game our elections and sinister surveillance systems. Like everyone else, we watched it unfold, and wondered what was next.

In 2016, the European Commission did the right thing and launched a Next Generation Internet initiative (NGI). The idea was, and remains, making sense of what the Internet is evolving into, and embed human rights and the rule of law deep into its core. Last year, we joined this initiative as part of NGI Forward, a research project that the Commission means to be the “strategic brain” of the NGI initiative. For a year, we hosted a conversation on how the Internet is evolving. We have seen, and analyzed, a rich discussion on how Internet technology, ethics, and climate change are intertwined. Topics like AI, blockchains, big data, fintech have been top of mind.

Then COVID-19 hit.

We live in Europe, the region hit hardest by the pandemic. As we write, the continent is shifting gears. The whole of society is coordinating to protect its weakest: overworked nurses doctors treat the sick; stressed delivery workers try to keep people stocked; everyone else is protecting essential infrastructure, or staying out of the way.

COVID-19 made the Internet even more relevant than before. Quarantined, confined, socially distanced, Europeans use it for their work, their schooling, their shopping, staying in touch with loved ones. Even more than before, the need for an NGI initiative is clear, and we are prouder than ever to be part of it.

But the conversation about the Internet has shifted. Suddenly, opening new markets is no longer top of mind. “Innovation” is no longer a cool activity to pitch investors with, but a grim necessity. “Moving fast and breaking things” no longer seems like such a great idea. The appropriateness of paywalling and DRM-ing potentially life saving content (scientific articles, for example) looks dubious.

There are new priorities. Staying connected, as human beings. Reaching out. Helping others to cope. Making key information (open access!) and data (open data!) accessible. Honing ways that we can work together without physical presence – our own open source Distributed Collaboration Manual, launched in late 2019, turned out to be very timely. The generosity, the drive to help, the human need to reassure and be reassured, are everywhere. It’s just like Solnit described in A Paradise Built in Hell, but in the digital sphere: catastrophes dissolve egoisms, and conjure amazing communities as stricken populations work together to respond. We ourselves are part of this, from @RobVanKranenburg’s attempt to build a stack for a privacy-aware disposable identity to handle COVID-19 status data, to Edgeryders’ effort to get organizations to work through remote collaboration.

We have seen this before. The early days of the Internet were community-centric. As we watch the flood of pain, shock, warmth and laughter online, we are reminded of the words of Howard Rheingold:

My direct observations of online behaviour around the world over the past ten years have led me to conclude that whenever computer-mediated communications technology becomes available to people anywhere, they inevitably build virtual communities with it, just as microorganisms inevitably create colonies.

Howard wrote these words in 1999.

At the same time, he – like other digital activists – also warned about impending dystopian risks. And they are here, too, stronger than ever. The potential for surveillance of smartphones and other connected devices is seen in a new light, as demands for special powers to governments to curtail civil liberties in the COVID-19 emergency come to the fore. Companies with dubious track records like Palantir and Clearview AI are reportedly talking to governments to implement pervasive surveillance tools.

The Next Generation Internet initiative suddenly finds itself in a new, more central position. It no longer is about re-orienting funding streams for technical innovation, and creating beautiful gadgets and clever services. Now it’s about community resilience, personal freedom and happiness. It’s about having an infrastructure that enables us to take care of each other, get the supplies to the people that need them, keep the lights on against this dark night, and the ones that almost certainly will come in the future. It’s about protecting each other from those who dream themselves our masters. It’s about who we love, and how best we build for each other, and for ourselves.

We cannot screw this up. We need to build a human, hospitable world that we can all inhabit, on the other side of the pandemic. Thanks to its unique position, the NGI Forward project has a voice. We are offering it to you, and making you a promise. This:

  1. We are going to host a deep, frank, fearless conversation about the Internet in the times we live in. We welcome everyone’s contribution, because everyone is an expert on this, because everyone is going through the ordeal of COVID-19, and everyone is online part of the time, or knows someone who is.
  2. We are going to pay attention to every single contribution, and aggregate them all into a meaningful picture, where we can look for patterns together. We will publish all data as open. Nothing you contribute to this conversation will get lost in the noise of social media. We are not so much trying to make a list of initiatives, though that’s welcome too, but to reflect together on why we (collective “we”) feel the need to roll out those initiatives, what values they embed, what they have to say about us as participants, and as members of the human community.
  3. We are going to deliver this picture, as a product of our collective intelligence, to the European Union institutions.

Are you in?


I think it makes sense.

A possible path forward in light of the recent challenges to plans involving mobility is to perhaps build an online alternative of the Impact Summit. And make the themes/ strands of enquiry prominent in the event and our engagement efforts for the coming months.

We could work together as a consortium to develop a nice online impact summit program adapted to the current situation both in terms of content and format. What do you think @katjab @RobvanKranenburg @Heshanij ?

Hi Alberto, we are definitely in. Check and I hope edgeryders will join. the Telegram and start spreading, Rob


Which one? Amelia’s? Mine? A remix?

Will you take care of the call to action?


i would like to hear what @katjab has to say about the proppsal above re online summit ?

I am good with topic 1…or 2 or any of them really. But Is the idea that each one of these is its own topic and we funnel comments into them? Or could stewarding also mean bringing up these aspects where you find them in any conversation?

And is this being structured with a short opening essay such as the ‘versions’ as written above? It’s not that clear what it is you are asking us to choose.

Another thought that came to me earlier is, can we send a message to every user of the platform? Many have the platform messages forwarded to their own email, so they don’t have to log in to ER to see it. I think if we asked our ER friends and colleagues to go one of those topics to say what is going on from their perspective, a lot of them would do it. Although it is a big group mailing, I don’t see it as spam. More like we are asking our friends to do us a favor. So many people have come and gone via the LOTE events and Open Village, etc. who don’t really spend time on the site much now, but are surely doing things of interest. Maybe we could bring them back for a bit…?

hey John can you copy your comment here? Do you want to join our Covid19 Community Response? A breakdown of Edgeryders activities, roles, tasks and workflows

yes. I should have read that first…

@marina and @katjab and @Heshanij, this would be a proposed entry for the NGI blog – after revisions and comments, especially by @amelia. Will it work, you think?

I think we need both. @amelia’s version is great to have at the top of the IoH category page. It’s a good introduction to the role of the discussion categories just below (when made just a bit shorter and assuming a bit less shared context). The full version can then be linked from there and go into its own topic.

On the other hand, Alberto’s version is great for providing publicity to the call-to-action: on a minisite, on our blog, sharing around etc.: a thoughtful post for people who have a bit more time than for just reading the instructions.


Great! Sounds good to me. @CCS also suggested we could tweet out a slightly shorter version of this part to get people to come join us :slight_smile:

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succinct and on point.

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Hello, I am working on an overview of the current discussions for this week. Can I already announce there that a post like this is coming and can I use the quote bellow ready (with or without attribution?) to include in calls and motivations to share stories on the platform instead of somewhere else? Thank you :slight_smile:

Posting here @katjab response received via e-mail:

"It’s an interesting idea! We explored it quite in-depth before we moved the conference, but given its purpose/intended goals we felt it made more sense to move the event and meet in person in the fall.
However, we are very interested in doing some fringe online activities before then- and experiment with both more interactive workshop formats + also talks in the next weeks/months. We for example
held an online workshop and talk on sustainability/bit of COVID-19 on Friday as part of IAM internet, which was quite successful- definitely worth doing more of that.

Maybe we could do something COVID-related soon? Webinars, talks, meeting groups?"

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That could look like a great chance to have a “funnel on steroids” to the summit, using appropriately our new and shiny Webkit (though I understand @owen is not at full capacity, and we may need to be patient…)

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There is a huge need to do things online, especially think of ways to replace the planned face-to-face events with some kind of online version. It might happen that the Summit moved to September won’t take place, can we think of different scenarios / methods / formats / tools to make online events successful? How can we collaborate on that as a consortium? It’s the topic of the outreach and engagement task force call, this Thursday at 14h ( Who can join?


if @kajafarszky says I can make it then yes @marina

@nadia can join for the call on Thursday at 14h. @marina

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@nadia info for today’s call: It is going to be half an hour (NESTA team has an exceptional call later that they cannot reschedule now), so let’s try to be as concrete as possible and ask for very specific things from them. From our side, Alberto, Maria, Hugi and I will be there too.