The Internet and the Future European Information Society: Key Issues Behind the Development of Guiding Principles
A position paper prepared for submission to the European Commission’s public consultation on post-i2010: priorities for new strategy for European information society (2010-2015). INFSO-Postfirstname.lastname@example.org
Contributors to this response include the following participants in the European Alpbach Forum Seminar 09: Bill Dutton, Yorick Wilks, Isabella Hengl, Andreas Pinterits , Julian Ausserhofer, Hannes Oberschmid, Sandra Berger, Christian Witz, Krzysztof Wilczek, Gerald Neugschwandtner, Isabell Ladiges, and Lakshmi Rama Kinan Pasumarthy 
I. Principles for Shaping the Future of the Internet
This response to the consultation is a position paper that was co-produced by the students and faculty of Seminar 09 of the European Forum Alpbach 2009, which met in Alpbach, Austria, for one week, from the 21st to the 26th of August, 2009, on the topic of ‘The Future of the Internet’. The instructors were William Dutton, and Yorick Wilks but all participants shaped the ideas contained in the report and the use of the Internet to co-create this response.
The Alpbach Forum and Seminar 09
The European Alpbach Forums were launched in 1945 and have become a distinguished annual gathering, where students, faculty and prominent figures in public and scientific life gather to debate a range of political, social and intellectual issues, including their scientific provenance and impact, and to consider them, increasingly, in the context of a united Europe, while not neglecting their world-wide implications. It seemed entirely appropriate to the aims and scope of Alpbach that the Future Internet Seminar 09 should respond to this consultation on the future European information society, and we did so through discussion in the seminar, and also by using the Internet to enable all the seminar participants to contribute to its drafting.
Participants in Seminar 09 began with the assumption that the Internet has enabled essentially what has been called a ‘Fifth Estate’ by virtue of supporting networked individuals in ways that provide an independent source of social accountability. In many respects, this Fifth Estate has become an essential part of the social, political and scientific framework of society, and thereby extending Edmund Burke’s famous declaration in the Eighteenth Century that the press was had become the ‘Fourth Estate’ in addition to the classic trio of those times, defined by nobility, the clergy and the Commons.
But the Internet is not merely a new separation of powers, independent of the press, and in need of similar protections, but also a tool for all existing institutions and individuals to support their own objectives and interests. It is a new infrastructure of 21st Century society that cannot be ruled by the laws and conventions that govern older institutions, such as the press or mass media, any more than it can by the regulations designed for telecommunications. It is a genuinely new development that requires unique approaches by governments, regulators and citizens. For example, recent history and experience has shown that the dangers, possibilities and promise of the Internet exceed all the previous bounds of the press and mass media.
This paper begins with a recognition of the well-known dangers the Internet poses and ends with some principles that any future European initiatives on the information society, legislative, regulatory or otherwise, should observe. The core of the paper sets out some of the key issues at stake in the future European information society, which the seminar participants identified as particularly signficant foci for analysis and proposals from among the many others we could have chosen. Each is clarified by a set of questions and proposals designed to more concretely convey their significance and scope. Those key issues raised at the seminar included:
* The Internet and Education
* Internet Governance
* Enhancing and Stimulating the Quality of Public Information and Debate
* Identity, Privacy and Data Protection
Many other equally important issues, such as eHealth, were identified and discussed, but were too numerous to cover in this response.
The major issues raised by the seminar are focused on realizing the potential of the Internet in transforming many existing social and political institutions in positive ways, such as by enhancing access to high-quality information. However, it is important to recognize the many negative aspects of the Internet, much publicized by the press and well known to the public (see Box 1). What is proposed here by way of conventions, and any future legal or regulatory remedies at national or Union level, should seek to minimize these in so far as that is possible without compromising key pillars of a free and open society, which the Internet can enhance.
|Box 1. Concerns Raised about the Internet in Society
- character assassination in social networks
- cyber-bullying especially of school pupils in social networks
- social support of suicide or self-harm or reinforcing and enabling negative behavior, addictions: e.g. overeating, pornography, violent games and gambling
- fragmentation (isolating rather than networking individuals)
- creation of a ‘digital divide’ — reinforcing socioeconomic divides between those on and off the Internet
- a general perception of ‘dumbing down’ information and entertainment, making the population more stupid
- recruiting people to antisocial networks and conspiracies
- plagiarism and other forms of inappropriate copying rather than creating and mixing content
- cracking/hacking of privileged or private material
In short, the participants of Seminar 09 are fully aware that the Internet can be a double-edged sword, which can be used for negative and well as positive purposes in many of the same ways as other technologies, from language to nuclear energy.
II. Issues Facing the Future of the Internet
In considering the role of the Internet in shaping the European information society, seminar participants had more questions than answers. Our most general conclusion was that the European Commission should address these and related questions as a matter of urgency, guided by a set of principles, as discussed in the final section of this paper. The seminar identified dozens of issues, but we would put forward the following as illustrative of some of the key issues that the Commission could usefully address through research or other EU initiatives.
The Internet and Education
- Does the original EC call for comments (to which this replies) seem more concerned with “child safety” than literacy?
- Is there any measure for a user of how effective they are at searching the Internet (i.e. how much of what they want do they actually get?)?
- Should there be more focus on improving a citizen’s search effectiveness?
- Are current uses of the Internet for educational purposes sufficiently radical, given the novel approaches that are now possible?
- Has traditional education been left more or less unchanged by the Internet?
- Why should educational standards be imposed on higher education by various authorities when the very best centers (e.g. MIT) are making so much material available free on line, enabling anyone can judge for themselves?
- Teachers hate the ability of students to just copy in slabs of Internet material and doubt the ability of proprietory plagiarism packages to catch it all—are the they right–what can be done beyond easy, cheap and reliable catch-copiers software?
- Some have thought all this free information everywhere means the end of the traditional university and lectures (e.g. Eli Noam, Roger Schank). Will they be proven right?
- Attempt some more radical form of collaborative eLearning for everyone, using the tools now available.
- Establish more Internet-based quality measurement in education, enabling students to rate teaching programs/ teachers / professors, just as consumers do with films, books, and consumer products. This could be global, and entail transnational cooperation between schools and universities.
- Establish free Internet access to universities, with free online lectures
- Attempt to establish closer international collaboration between educational institutions, as the free movement of students across Europe has not yet worked.
- Media awareness or literacy starts in school – education is a key issue to enhance Internet and media literacy. Children should learn, for example, how search engines work or how to use Web 2.0 carefully. The Internet should be a basic working tool across many subjects, not only for informatics. It is therefore necessary to change the education of teachers as well, so they are able to teach students how to more effectively use new information and communication technologies.
- The European Commission is already aware of media and Internet literacy. But the current document ‘on media literacy in the digital environment for a more competitive audiovisual and content industry and an inclusive knowledge society’ of August 2009 seems to focus more on child safety than on a special media literacy that extends well beyond children.
- In the long run, who will be more dangerous for users’ freedom of expression and access: governments or big companies?
- Does the W3C have any real legitimacy since it is not elected by, or responsible to, anyone?
- How much worse will the world be if the trend towards national or regional Internets continues?
- Since hardware has a major influence on the Internet and how we use it, the EU should take close account of the work of the W3C even without any control over it, but it should regularly express its considered opinions to it.
- The EU should remain strongly committed to a ‘universal’ Internet, rather than any sort of regional or national one having priority; the predecessors of the Internet were strongly based on regional content and they couldn’t have survived in the long term.
- The EU should encourage efforts to organize Internet governance in a multilateral way, such as the Working Group on Internet Governance of the WSIS (http://www.intgovforum.org/cms/), while avoiding over-regulation. Even if the attempts to find a consensus on the different models of governance has not been reached so far, this forum is an opportunity to enhance dialogue on this and related topics. In the short term, and as long as no consensus on an intergovernmental council is found, this forum could also be used as an instrument to strengthen both international assistance and access of vulnerable groups to the Internet, and the EU should work within such a framework.
Enhancing and Stimulating Quality of Public Information and Debate
- Is a Wikipedia better if moderated explicitly like the German one, rather than the EN one’s free-for-all (though even that is not really so, of course)?
- Can you have any kind of official verification of information since there is no general agreement on the truth (e.g is there Dark Matter or not? Are human beings as a species less than 10k years old or not? Do animals have rights or not?)
- What can be done to protect the independence of the press, as a Fourth Estate’ and networked individuals of the ‘Fifth Estate’ as one approach to ensuring greater social accountability of the press, public intellectuals, governments, and business?
- Information is considered to be a public good in democracies. Therefore, the question of who has the control over the flow of information and the regulation of censorship is necessary in order to enable each citizen to participate fully in the decision process. Internet information sites could be used as a meta-medium and as a place for freedom of expression.
- Especially concerning topics such as health, medicine or technology an enhanced review of information might be possible. Online and regulated communities with special mechanisms to validate potentially dangerous information could be created.
- The entries in Wikipedia should be guided by the facts the majority of scientists agree upon, but other views should definitely be present and visible, with criticism of all viewpoints actively encouraged.
- Product data for consumers on the Internet should be clearer, shorter and consumers should be able to accept different levels of acceptance of conditions, rather than one take-it-or-leave-it box tick.
Identity, Privacy and Data Protection
- Is there support for radical identity management proposals, such as control over self-naming by the individual citizen and the limit to which he/she has to reveal their identity at all times on the Internet?
- Are there irresolvable national or cultural differences over such questions that make universal agreement impossible or not?
- Does a person totally own and control, say, their own health data (as in Spain)?
- Can political expression be genuinely protected on the Internet without the assurance of anonymity, as recently illustrated by the arrest of Twitter users in Iran?
- The Internet should enable an individual to be anonymous when they wish to be, such as in contacting a help line, or expressing unpopular views on public policy. This anonymity should only be removed if accepted by the user, as in eGovernment or eCommerce applications, or signed emails. For that purpose the Commission should provide a free, trustworthy, easy-to-access and easy-to-use signing and encryption technology.
- Medical history should ideally be stored in closed networks in an encrypted, anonymous, form. A card (like the eCard in Austria) would then be the only link between the medical data and the user’s identity. Every user interaction with this data would follow an acceptable protocol and reviewed.
- The Web remains too insecure to use it for basic governmental actions like remote Internet voting. Creative means to be developed to enhance security in such situations, since the public is polled by all kinds of actors in ways that could be influencing policy and practice.
- Every Web 2.0 provider should give their users the right to edit or delete their own contributions permanently. A quality seal should be established to certify the providers of such editing procedures and the procedures should be reviewed from an agency of the European Commission.
- All backup data should have a clear and limited time span for being kept. Only reviewed and sorted data should be retained for long periods. This rule can be compared to the deletion of offenses from a person’s criminal record and the archiving of important documents and pictures in mines. Data miners like Google should follow this rule. Generally, data retention should be the focus of as much attention as data creation.
- The use of Trojans by State authorities would reduce trust in the government and stimulate paranoia among a population. The costs of such a Trojan would also be very high because it has to be updated to pass daily updating anti-virus software. If nevertheless the technology is allowed in a European country, it should only be allowed by judges as the security need arises. A lawyer who protects the personal rights of any suspect should be included from the beginning of any such process.
- The music industry as well as journalism should adapt to the new circumstances rather than to avoid them. Maybe they should be considered as public goods and therefore publicly financed.
III. Principles for a Future Internet in Europe
Seminar participants realized that they were only able to address a subset of the many issues facing the future European information society, and that even so, the answers to these questions are far from clear. We therefore saw it as critically important that the Commission recognize the uncertainty surrounding how to address many issues, but at the same time provide some basis for moving ahead. It was in that spirit that the seminar turned its attention to a set of principles for shaping the future information society. While we do not pretend to have a handle on the exact set of principals, given the time limitations of a single seminar, we offer a set of principles as a means to concretely express the kinds of considerations that the Commission might consider as guiding principles for moving ahead.
One over-arching question was whether the European Union is an appropriate level for any kind of Internet directives, given that it is an association of cultures, nations and communities whose autonomy and right of expression must be respected and whose Internet needs and practices may well differ, e.g., the urge to control pornography on the Internet will be far stronger in some states than in others and the laws of defamation and libel may well differ significantly. It is neither local or global in its makeup – but the Internet operates at all these levels. Clearly, it is the responsibility of the highest level EU policy to ensure that all Union citizens have access to the Internet, and that access is roughly similar in principle in all states and regions. It would be clearly inconsistent with EU practice and legislation on the free movement of labor to have any kind of special firewall, or filter, that cut off a region or state, but there is, in any case, no likelihood of this as far as we are aware.
This leads to the general suggestion that rather than attempting to legislate, regulate and control the Internet piecemeal, the EC should develop a clear set of principles to guide the formation and execution of any such proposals. It is in this spirit that we suggest that the EU develops a set of guiding principles, illustrated by those that surfaced in our seminar’s discussions (See Box 2).
|Box 2. Starting Points for a Set of Guiding Principles
- Avoid any form of Internet censorship, keeping the Internet a medium for free and open communication and access to worldwide sources of information
- Keep the Internet world wide, avoiding its nationalization or regionalisation through inappropriate regulation or legislation
- Try to emulate the best methods used in the off-line world
- Treat information as a public good
- Respect European, local and global cultures
- Aim for provision of free Internet access anywhere, anytime; and do not cut-off access to the Internet as a form of punishment
- Support/stimulate self-regulation
- Support public problem solving, and the right to contribute content
- Block children’s access to harmful material
- Strengthen the role of an information, privacy and data protection Commissioner, as these issues are too complex for individuals to protect themselves without support
- Maximize every citizen’s control of their personal data, such as who may see what information under what circumstances
- Give personal control over one’s identity
- Protect the right of an individual to anonymity on the Internet
- Ensure equal treatment over access to official data: no exemptions for the privileged (such as to hide data about themselves, if available about others)
- Support a plurality of information sources, avoiding information monopolies
- Public service media should be able to use public finds for their Internet operations
- Consider a universal Digital Bill of Rights for the 21st Century
Acknowledgements: The views presented in this report are those of the contributing authors, and are not necessarily the views of the European Alpbach Forum, its organizers, or members of the seminar who did not put their names on this report. However, the authors wish to acknowledge the Alpbach Forum and all of the participants in Seminar 09 for creating the setting to make this response possible.
 Director, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford
 Professor of Artificial Intelligence, Department of Computer Science,
University of Sheffield
 The concept of a Fifth Estate has been developed by Bill Dutton. For example see: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1167502