Today, the internet is the true engine of digitisation of our society and our economy. We are observing a deep transformation in the way we interact with the world around us as everything is becoming connected and the boundaries between the real and the digital world are progressively blurring. With the explosion of the Internet of Things, multimedia content and social media, the internet is becoming a massive-scale data space with unprecedented collection and availability of data and information. Artificial intelligence is allowing us to extract meaning from this data and to embed autonomy and intelligence into networks, connected objects and services.
However, we have recently observed a shift in the public debate on the internet. The issue of trust has become central, following revelations about the exploitation of personal data, large-scale cybersecurity and data breaches, and growing awareness of online disinformation. A 2018 survey shows that half of global internet users are more concerned about their online privacy compared to one year ago. Users also express an increasing level of distrust of social media platforms, search engines and internet technology companies, and many feel that social media has too much power.
It will be difficult to do more on the internet without restoring trust. This was the main issue of the Internet Governance Forum that took place last November in Paris, where many stakeholders recognised the need to develop an internet that builds on trust and the respect of fundamental values.
In Europe we have already put in place a very advanced set of rules to frame and support the development of the internet. For example:
- Open Internet rules grant European end-users the right to access and distribute the lawful content and services of their choice.
- GDPR offers the highest standard in terms of protection of personal data and it has become the reference approach for many countries and regions outside Europe.
- The NIS Directive represents the first ever EU-wide law on cybersecurity. It will soon be complemented by a Cybersecurity Act that establishes the first voluntary EU cybersecurity certification framework.
- The eIDAS framework makes Europe the first and only region in the world with a comprehensive legal and technological framework for electronic identification and trust services.
- In the area of online platforms, the European Commission has made several proposals to ensure a fairer and safer online environment, including a proposal for new rules to get terrorist content off the web within one hour.
Events of recent years, from malware attacks and the unlawful use of social network users’ data to disinformation affecting elections and the democratic debate, are painful reminders that a pure laissez-faire approach is no longer defensible. The stakes are simply too high. Many countries and an increasingly large part of industry are now seriously looking into what public policies are needed to keep the internet truly open and trustworthy.
In Europe we do not consider innovation and clear rules of the game as being in contradiction, but rather complementing each other. We already see for example how start-ups try to turn GDPR into a business opportunity, either by commercialising technologies for privacy preserving data analytics or by developing novel types of intermediaries, such as personal information management services.
And we are applying this approach to the next wave of disruptive technologies:
- Blockchain, for example, will bring great improvements to the internet, enabling new decentralised business and social models based on direct and secure peer-to-peer transactions. We launched the EU Blockchain Observatory and Forum to monitor developments and inspire common actions.
- Our approach to artificial intelligence deals with the technological, ethical, legal and socio-economic aspects of AI, with a view to put in place the conditions for its development and use, while ensuring the respect of European values.
The Next Generation Internet initiative
One crucial aspect to build the internet we want is technology. Given the speed of technology developments, we need to shape the new technologies at the time of their development. We need ground-breaking research and innovation to go hand in hand with our regulatory framework.
This is exactly the goal of the Next Generation Internet initiative (NGI), which aims to build the key technology building blocks of the internet of tomorrow and shape its development towards an internet of humans. An internet that responds to our fundamental needs, including trust, security and inclusion, and in general reflects the values and the norms that we enjoy in our societies.
At the core of the initiative stands an ambitious research and innovation programme with a Commission investment of more than €250 million until 2020. The programme focuses on key technology areas that are driving the development of the internet, including blockchain, the Internet of Things, social media, interactive technologies, as well as technologies supporting multilingualism and accessibility.
As part of NGI, we have put in place the mechanisms to ensure that we attract the talents that will contribute to our vision. Too often top internet innovators are not associated with European funding because of perceived high barriers to entry. We intend to lower these barriers by offering funding opportunities cutting across technologies for accessible, small, focused and agile projects. Some €75 million is being dedicated to directly support internet innovators, from individual researchers, to developers, to start-ups and social innovators. Relying on a network of intermediaries that will fund them through equity-free grants, we will help innovators develop their ideas, encouraging the entrepreneurial ‘try and fail or succeed’ culture that has supported internet development to date.
The first open calls have opened on the topics of privacy and trust enhancing technologies, search and discovery and decentralised data governance. With these first open calls, we invite top European internet talents to engage in NGI and contribute with their ideas to building a better internet.
We will explore more topics in the following years: on electronic identities and how they can support new business models based on trust; on service and data portability on the internet; or on renovating the very architecture of the internet. We are preparing calls on blockchain and distributed ledgers covering all aspects from technologies to infrastructures and applications, with the aim to set a global standard for blockchain infrastructures for public and private services. A prize on Blockchain for Social Good is open and aims to develop solutions to social innovation challenges using distributed ledger technologies.
In parallel, we are supporting experimentation with 'personal data spaces' through innovation actions funded under our data economy strategy. The idea is that a 'personal data space', filled with all data currently stored by multiple organisations, would give back end-users the control on their personal data and allow them to exercise their rights under the GDPR.
We expect that the objective to drive the evolution of the internet in line with EU values will play an important role in the policy agenda of the next Commission and the next Parliament. Beyond the current framework programme, the Commission has already proposed that NGI is an intervention area in Horizon Europe (2021-2027), with a view to support in an integrated way the evolution of internet technologies, infrastructures and applications. Our aim is to design, deploy and use 5G and beyond-5G connectivity based ecosystems, which will combine connectivity with the computing power of cloud and virtualised infrastructures, edge computing, and novel smart devices to enable the provision of emerging user-centric and industrial applications, with the required level of performance, trust and availability. A strong European vision and an intense financial effort, combining public and private, European and national funding will be needed if Europe has the ambition to take a global lead in human centric technology.
As President Juncker outlined it in his state of the Union address of September 2018: "It is because of our single market – the largest in the world – that we can set standards for big data, artificial intelligence, and automation. And that we are able to uphold Europeans' values, rights and identities in doing so. But we can only do so if we stand united."
Building on a strength, the Digital Single Market, continued improvements to the EU regulatory framework and a 10-year investment plan in key internet technologies under NGI, we are confident that we can shape the development of an internet that is trustworthy, that is open, and that contributes to a more sustainable and inclusive society.
This is the value proposition that we as Europeans want to share with the internet community, with a view to create a community of stakeholders united around a common goal: to build an internet of humans.
If you are an internet enthusiast and you want to contribute with your ideas, our NGI open calls are one click away!