The internet has dramatically shifted the model of public communication and organisation from “one to many” model where authority rests with the source of communication to one that is more peer to peer, non hierarchical and networked where speech and organisation have been flattened and democratised. Political and business elites usually fail to grasp the enormity of this change; dominated by elites who grew up in the analogue world, they struggle to understand it. This has created the anomalous situation in society where the office intern or the junior political staffer may understand the internet better than the CEO or the Prime Minister.
It is also changing the environment in which we do politics. Danish and US academics have referred to the era from the invention of the printing press to the invention of the Internet as the ‘Gutenberg parenthesis‘, which posits that Gutenberg, in inventing the printing press, ushered in an era of textuality and authority around the written word. The period of textuality is being dismantled by internet based communication which is returning us to the period of orality characterized by the medieval marketplace but now on a global scale. Here rumour, gossip and peer-to-peer interaction enjoy the same status and value as authoritative information. Combined with peer-to-peer communications and organisation this is eroding the legitimacy of all kinds of authority.
Policy makers and political parties rooted in the analogue world are trying to understand how to operate in this environment. Meanwhile, the companies that are driving the digital revolution, most of them a decade or so old and wealthy beyond imagination have a barely disguised contempt for the political universe. A Palo Alto view is that the world of politics and political parties has no functionality, is irrelevant, pointless and 20th century, and should just move out of the way and let them manage things. And given their scale of investment and ambition compared to the caution and managerialism that affects most democratic governments many sympathize with this view.
This is one of a series of challenges facing policy makers in the attempt to address this new environment. Yet as it currently stands, European policy makers are so far off the pitch, they don’t even know the game is being played or which stadium it’s in.
A preoccupation of European policy makers is the business model of the internet in which users are offered a free set of services in exchange for their personal data. There is little prospect of this business model changing, as it would involve charging users for search and other internet services. In the key demographic of under thirty five year olds that will be the dominant internet users of the future, it is unlikely there is going to be much demand for this. But this model has aroused privacy concerns – particularly in Europe, exacerbated by the Snowden revelations – leading to attempts to impose various controls on the internet service providers.
But the key question does not surround whether or not data should be harvested as this will be crucial for the functioning of future technology and services (for example the internet of things). The key question will be the ownership of data. Currently, when a user signs up to an internet service, their data becomes the property of the latter who can decide how they wish to use it.
A fruitful area to explore is to shift of ownership, a business model which involves the user retaining ownership of their data but licencing the company in question to use it in a manner they agree to. This will be essential with the development of wearable technologies and their application to public health. And Europe with its socialized health systems and services is ideally placed to develop new approaches. In fact the real challenge for Europeans is not to retrofit regulation to the open internet but to imagine what the internet equivalent of Airbus would be and invest in building it.
A fruitful area to explore is to shift of ownership, a business model which involves the user retaining ownership of their data but licencing the company in question to use it in a manner they agree to.
But before this, it is essential that both the political and technology spheres enter into dialogue. Political policy needs to incorporate engineering and coding skills, whole companies and engineers need to understand the public dimension to the technologies they are building. If, for example, we are to have effective regulatory bodies to oversee surveillance, they need to involve engineers who understand code as well as lawyers and respected public figures. It is engineers after all who understand code and know what a metadata search is or what a metadata warrant request is actually doing. Beyond this hypothetical regulatory body, these engineers must also be integrated in the wider policy debates so that they appreciate that they cannot simply create utility on their own, that policy and public interest matters, that the reconciliation of conflicting interests will always be, fundamentally, a task for politics.
These steps involve shedding 20th century models of governance where politics is conducted as it has been for a hundred years. The world is awash with data and technologies that can curate and share information and draw in wider constituencies to formulate policy. Brazil has been taking a number of steps in this direction with tools to promote civic participation in Brazil, such as the PlataformaBrasil.org.br. Europe should seek to innovate in the way in organizes its public life to re engage the wider public and young people in particular. We need to apply 21stcentury models of governance to this 21st century environment.
Europe needs to build its digital policy capacity and exert itself in the global debate. Too often EU policymakers here are driven by a crude anti-Americanism and fear of envy of US companies rather than a mature global outlook on what Europe can do in the wider world. Europe, with its tradition of values-based policy, can play a very constructive role in the debates over internet governance. In the domain of cyber security, for example, Europe’s influence is essential. Cyber security is becoming the dominant paradigm in government circles. One need only look at the attendees at the Hague cyber security conference in April 2015, comprising a far larger number of senior government officials than any other internet governance forum in the world. But there is a developing tendency for governments to adopt a state-centric view of cyber security as opposed to one that is user-centric and respecting of human rights. Europe, in engaging in this debate, could play a role in reshaping and understanding cyber security as something that is fundamentally about protecting democratic and human rights values and user interests.
Or to take another perspective the weaponisation of computer viruses such as Stuxnet, is a practice that could spiral out of control and infect the bloodstream of the internet globally. There is a need for an international treaty, just as those in place prohibiting the use of biological and chemical weapons, to ban certain activities on the internet. Europe could play a pivotal role in launching a discussion on those kinds of issues. Seen as a trusted norms setter internationally, Europe can and must exert itself in the digital arena and in a manner befitting the new environment it finds itself in.
Based on comments made by Andrew Puddephatt during the ‘Does Europe have a digital future?’ discussion at the ECFR Annual Council Meeting in Brussels, 12 June 2015. Puddephatt is the Director of Global Partners and Associates, an organisation campaigning for human rights in the internet environment, and an expert advisor to UNESCO and UNDP
This post has originally been published on the European Council on Foreign Relations web page.