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:
- 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.
- 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.
- We are going to deliver this picture, as a product of our collective intelligence, to the European Union institutions.
Are you in?