I would like to thank the European Internet Forum for putting this event together and for inviting me to share my thoughts on the need for digital rights and principles.
During her opening remarks at 2021 Digital Assembly – “Leading the Digital Decade” – President Von der Layen said, among others: “We believe in a human-centered digital transformation”.
Indeed, there is something profoundly human about the internet. The ability of independent networks to set their own rules while adhering to minimum standards that ensure interoperation is parallel to the democratic attributes of human autonomy, expression and participation.
This basic architectural design, however, is often taken for granted. Current regulatory attempts from around the world, including in Europe, often seem to assume that the internet can’t break – that it just works – out of magic.
The same way democratic societies have rules, so does the internet. And, this becomes particularly important as new ‘internet models’ emerge that seek to displace, replace or generally undermine the internet. It is for this reason that the timing of the “Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade” is important.
It is a challenging time for the internet. This technology, which has transformative qualities, is currently being used as a weapon to threaten democracies and undermine users’ rights.
For the past few years, Europe has been a global leader insisting on the need for regulation and clear rules that will allow the exercise of users’ rights while at the same time encourage innovation and economic growth. Striking this balance is not easy, given that a lot of the business models currently in place are designed around “surveillance capitalism” and they are the outcome of strong network effects and economies of scale.
In this regard, the effort made by the European Commission and Europe’s willingness to commit to digital rights and principles is certainly commendable. The Declaration touches on almost all major points that are in need for immediate attention: it places people at the center of digital transformation; it highlights the need for connectivity and digital skills; and, it recognizes the need for users to be able to exercise their human rights within a secure internet environment.
None of these aspirational goals can be fulfilled, however, without an open, decentralized and global internet. You see, there are various ways of networking – China’s way of networking is one of them. But, the internet way is rather unique.
The internet is premised on a set of fundamental properties – engineers awkwardly call them invariants because they remain constant over time. The internet can evolve but these properties stay the same. This is what makes the internet so powerful. No matter how it changes, its properties remain unchanged. But, this internet is not a given nor can it withstand coordinated attacks.
The internet is not a monolith nor should be treated as one. Its constant evolution, growth and innovation is a direct consequence of its original design. The internet’s properties are a mix of aspirational goals and pragmatic design choices and are significant because without them none of the goals listed in the Declaration can be materialized.
Let’s run through these properties briefly:
These properties, aside from facilitating inter-networking, they also facilitate users’ freedom of choice, user participation and empowerment as well as a fair and secure environment. They ensured a resilient digital environment during the COVID pandemic. Unlike humanity, the internet was ready for this pandemic.
The flipside of not having these properties is an internet that is based on topdown control where innovation is directed by a central authority, which is also responsible for determining what users can and cannot do. This is the China model and currently, at the international level, there is an ongoing debate as to which model will prevail.
Because of this, Europe has a unique opportunity. As it sets the rules for the road, it must pay tribute to these foundational properties.
Europe’s vision for the internet is one based on democratic ideals. An internet that departs from its original architectural principles cannot be a democratic one. So, my recommendation today would be to have these design principles enshrined in the declaration document and any other piece of primary or secondary legislation that emerges in the future.
It is simply the only way to ensure that people are at the center of the internet.