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Ladies and gentlemen
It’s a great pleasure to be here today, to help celebrate 50 years since the technology that has come to define our age was born.
Like a lot of the turning points that have shaped the world we live in, the importance of that moment wasn’t obvious at the time – not even to the people who made it happen. Charley Kline, who typed the first Internet message in 1969, has said that he didn’t realise at the time that he’d done anything special.
That’s not because of some particular lack of vision. It’s hard to predict the future of technology – because it doesn’t depend on technology itself. It depends on the choices we make, as human beings. On the business models that startup founders create; on the way that we as individuals accept new technologies into our lives; and on the rules that public authorities put in place. All of this will determine whether technology is used in a way that reflects our society’s values.
This is an issue that’s very close to my heart. For the next five years, it will be my job to coordinate the work of the European Commission, to make sure Europe is fit for the digital age. And one important part of that will be to build a framework of rules that keeps human beings at the centre of the digital world.
To be able to do that, we need to understand. We need to know how people really use the Internet. That’s why research like the People’s Internet project is so valuable – and I want to congratulate the team here at the University of Copenhagen, on the work that you’ve done.
The changing culture of the Internet
And as technology develops, we need to be sure that we keep our understanding up to date.
Because the Internet has changed a lot in fifty years. Not just in terms of what it can do – but also of the values it represents.
Leonard Kleinrock, who headed the team that sent that first Internet message, has said that “the ethos that defined the culture we were building was characterised by words such as ethical, open, trusted, free, shared.” This Internet would be a new world, where different rules would apply. A world where every person had a chance to express themselves, and power had no sway. Connections would be built from shared interests and values, not money. And information would flow freely from person to person.
It’s an attractive vision. But it doesn’t reflect what the Internet has become. And like a magician who draws our eye away from how a trick is really done, this utopian vision of the Internet can distract our attention from how it really works or is being put to work today.
Commerce, markets and surveillance
That idea of the Internet as a place beyond commerce with market rules has been out of date for quite a long time. Between them, Google and Facebook made nearly 200 billion dollars in revenue last year – and I’m sure they would agree that the Internet can be pretty good for business.
The involvement of business with the Internet has brought us many good things. Most of the really valuable online services that we enjoy in our daily lives are only there because businesses developed them, in the hope of making a profit. But if we forget that a money logic lies behind these services, we may not notice the true price that we pay for them.
We can get a lot of valuable online services free of charge. But there’s no such as a free lunch. We still pay for these services – not in cash, perhaps, but with our data.
And that means we live our lives online under constant surveillance. Businesses collect data about each website we visit, each search that we do, each post that we make. They link that data across different services, and use our smartphones to tie it to our physical location. In some countries, businesses are required to hand over such data to governments.
And at some level, we all know that these services are not really free. We know that this data might be used to charge us more, or be hacked and used to defraud us; we know that the health data we add to an app might one day mean we pay more for health coverage, and that information about us could even be abused to undermine our freedoms or our democracy.
But these risks can very easily seem rather distant. It can be hard to take them seriously, when we know they may only materialise in the future, or without us actually noticing that they materialise at all. So we agree to a level of surveillance online that we’d never accept in the physical world.
You’d expect that we’d notice that there must be a catch – that no one would really give us such useful services for free. But the expectation that things on the Internet should naturally be free has helped to dull our suspicions. And so we’ve accepted a sort of Faustian bargain – and to save a few kroner today, we’ve accepted an uncertain, unlimited risk for the future.
Power and manipulation
The Internet of fifty years ago was also supposed to be a place that was free of the influence of power – an ungoverned space where everyone would have an equal voice.
But power thrives on the absence of rules. A public space where no one can be sure who you are, where no one controls what you say, is like a flat and fertile plain, with no great rivers or mountains dividing it. It can offer wonderful opportunities for its people. But it’s also easy prey for any army that enters its territory.
It’s true that the Internet can give less powerful voices the chance to be heard. It was the Internet, for instance, that allowed the #MeToo movement to grow – that made it possible for the quiet voices of so many women to come together in a thunderclap that no one could ignore.
But that doesn’t change the fact that on today’s Internet, it’s often still the voices of the powerful that reach furthest. The voices of CEOs and governments.
Of course, this can be a problem in the physical world, too. But it’s especially hard to defend ourselves against manipulation and surveillance online. Because it’s difficult to know where the information that we’re seeing comes from, and who wants us to believe it.
I’m glad that Internet companies are starting to take steps that should help to make this clearer. It’s good that Facebook and Google now allow users to find out who’s paying for the political ads they show. It’s even better that Twitter has decided to stop taking political ads altogether.
But powerful interests can still use the anonymity of the Internet to disguise their attempts to manipulate us. They can create armies of paid supporters, or legions of bots, all pushing their arguments. And with the screen of anonymity, those coordinated messages can seem to be the genuine views of huge numbers of real people.
When a subculture becomes the culture
Of course, it’s not really surprising that power and money have become such an unavoidable part of our online lives. After all, they’re a constant presence in the physical world. And as the Internet has moved from the margins, to become a central part of our lives, we could hardly expect it to avoid the attentions of money and of power.
The trouble is that we don’t always notice how the Internet has become so essential to our lives. We’ve got used to seeing it as a sort of subculture, a separate corner of our world that can safely live by its own rules.
But that simply isn’t the case any more. Today, about half the people in the world use the Internet. In the EU, three quarters of us are daily Internet users. This is much more than a subculture – this is our culture. It is our lives. And there’s almost no part of modern life that you can really understand – whether it’s how our markets work, or the way we relate to others – if you don’t take account of the way we interact online. In the last few decades, Internet businesses have created entirely new online markets – and they operate the platforms that help us find what we need in those markets, from anywhere in the world. They’ve built huge digital libraries of information. They’ve even built a sort of digital public square, where we can debate and discuss politics online.. And so the choices that define how it works are made, not through an open and democratic debate, but by a handful of people in a few corporate boardrooms. And the vital challenge that we face for the future is to make sure that those choices reflect our needs, as a society.
The European way
Meeting this challenge is a complex endeavour. In some countries, the response to the role of Internet businesses has taken the form of state control. Under the guise of concepts such as “national security” or “cyber sovereignty”, governments have taken control of the internet and sought to censor political opponents, suppress citizen’s fundamental freedoms, stifled competiton or imposed mass surveillance on society.
This is not the European way.
In the face of corporate power and state power in the internet, Europe’s approach should be based on a clear guideline: people’s power. The focus of our efforts must be to ensure citizens are empowered to take decisions on how their data are used, and that technology is developed to serve humans.The global Internet should be an open, safe and secure cyberspace where human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law fully apply, with a view to societal well-being, economic growth and the integrity of free and democratic societies.
In the last five years, we at the European Commission have taken some important steps in that direction. As a competition enforcer, we’ve taken action to protect consumers from platform operators that have misused their position to benefit their own services. And new EU rules, which will apply from July, will ensure much higher degrees of transparency and fairness for millions of European companies that have grown dependent on online platforms to offer their goods and services to consumers. The EU is also continuing its support to multilateral efforts to promote free and secure data flows based on strong privacy protections for personal data.
But as regulators, we still have a lot of work to do. What happens online doesn’t stay online. What goes on in the digital world has a profound effect on things that are very real indeed – our relationships, our prosperity, even our freedom and our democracy. With the steadily growing importance of large online platforms in our society and economy, many decisions affecting our lives have been automated. These decisions are based on algorithms and technologies that are often beyond our comprehension, and certainly beyond our control. As the internet and its business models evolve, regulators need to evolve with them. We need to make sure that businesses on the Internet are held to the same high standards, respect the same values, as the ones that apply offline.
Because the thing is, there’s no such thing as cyberspace today – no separate digital world, that can play by its own rules.
What began as a tool for a handful of people, in four universities in the US, has become an essential part of our modern societies. We live in a cyborg world, where the physical and the digital are inextricably combined – and we can’t make the right choices for the future, until we understand that.
The future which Leonard Kleinrock and his colleagues imagined for the Internet in 1969, was a utopian vision, of a world where freedom and truth mattered more than power and money. But the Internet today is a part of our daily human lives – and human beings don’t live in Utopia. And only when we see the Internet for what it really is – when we see its dark side, as well as the good it can do – will we be able to guide it in a way that’s good for humanity.
It can be hard to give up on the promise of Utopia. But there’s also a message of hope. Our technological future isn’t written in the stars. It’s up to us to write that future – and we can do it in a way that puts humanity first.