Looking at the future of NGI

Since the beginning of March, the Next Generation Internet Unit at DG CONNECT has a new Deputy and Acting Head of Unit, Mr. Olivier Bringer.  Previously Olivier held various positions in the European Commission, dealing with policy development and implementation in the area of the Digital Single Market and Competition Law.

Olivier is fully committed to the success of the NGI initiative and strongly believes this is a unique opportunity European innovators have “to develop the Internet we want”.

In the next months, Olivier will be meeting the community at several events across Europe. In September, he will attend the NGI Forum 2018 edition held in Porto (Portugal) on the 13th September.

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As newly appointed Deputy and acting Head of Unit, in charge of the Next Generation Internet and of the Internet Governance Policy, what is your perspective on the NGI initiative and what are your priorities?

I would start by saying that I find my new position very interesting and very motivating. We are working on how to build a better Internet for the future, that works better for the economy, the society, and – in the end – for the people. The Next Generation Internet initiative focuses on the development of a human centric, trustworthy, reliable and open Internet.

I have to say that, in these first few weeks since assuming my new role, I have been struck by the broadness of the NGI initiative. We start from the values: which are the values that we, as Europeans, want the Internet to be based on? – in terms of protection of privacy, security, openness or inclusiveness. And then, how can we implement them on the Internet in order to achieve concrete results? If we want our values to be part of the Internet of tomorrow, I am convinced that we need to master the technologies: artificial intelligence, blockchain, immersive technologies, advanced cryptography to name but a few. This is why a big part of the work of the NGI initiative will be to support innovators who can really develop the technologies at the service of the Internet.

My main priority is to set the NGI work in motion, with the help of the Commission team and the Support Actions involved, and to arrive quickly at concrete achievements, by financing the many innovators in Europe who have ideas on how to improve the Internet.

How is the NGI Unit approaching the process of building the Internet of tomorrow? What are the actions that the NGI Unit is putting in place to foster innovation?

Using H2020 instruments we have put in place a system of cascading grants to reach out to real innovators, aiming to give them the opportunity to develop their ideas and to network and find partners, to market their ideas. We are in the process of selecting intermediaries which will conduct the Open Calls to select and support the innovators we are targeting.

We must also consider that developing the Internet of tomorrow is not a linear process, we can’t simply spell out our roadmap and vision, launch a project and expect to have the Internet of the future in place in ten years’ time. It is a very dynamic process, with continuous technology disruptions and new ways of using the Internet. Business models themselves change dynamically, sometimes you start from a commercial project and you end up with a social-oriented platform. In order to be able to refine, revise and maintain the NGI initiative, in-line with the ecosystem’s changes, we need to engage with the stakeholders: innovators, academia, civil society, industry, Member States and citizens, of course. This is what we are trying to do via our NGI platform which contains related articles, news, information about events, and an interactive map of where open NGI facilities can be found in Europe.

What makes the NGI stand out among other international initiatives aiming at the Internet of the future?

I believe the resources we are investing into the NGI initiative make the real difference. I see many other initiatives working towards the same goal of an Internet of Humans, but the NGI initiative benefits from a very significant investment by the European Commission, both in terms of policy proposals and R&I funding.

If we look at the Digital Single Market (DSM) package adopted on 25th April 2018, it is clear that a lot of the measures adopted will, in fact, help improve the functioning of Internet. For the first time we have a European strategy on Artificial Intelligence: we commit a high level of investment, we commit to develop a legal and ethical framework for robotics and AI, and we commit to help people, in particular workers, adapt to the changes. Europe is very ambitious on Artificial Intelligence and we set things in motion. We also put in place a mechanism to ensure fairer relations between online platforms and the businesses which use them (many of which are SMEs). We are tackling online disinformation and in particular we want to investigate how technologies can ensure traceability, trustworthiness and identification of information’s sources. Finally, of course, we should not forget the General Data Protection Regulation  (GDPR), which will enter into force on 25th May. It is a foundational tool to change the functioning of the Internet and give end-users full control of their personal data.

Above all, we are not only putting in place a policy and regulatory framework; we are actually investing in technologies and innovation. Under the current H2020 framework, for the timeframe 2018-2020, we speak about 270 million euros budget dedicated to NGI and covering several technology areas: immersive technologies, artificial intelligence, IoT applications and services, social media, language technologies, digital learning and open Internet applications. It is a significant portion of the ICT budget in H2020. We plan of course to work in collaboration with the Member States and possibly with the industry to leverage even more investment and bring further good ideas.

In light of recent developments (e.g. Cambridge Analytica), how is NGI shaping its political and research framework beyond 2020?

Thinking of the current status of the Internet and the recent news regarding alleged mass manipulation or the net neutrality debate, we must realise that we have a unique asset in Europe: our regulatory and policy framework. We are the first in the world to have such a comprehensive framework for data protection; we have rules on net neutrality; we have rules on cyber security and electronic identification.

We have the framework to develop the Internet we want. Now we need to develop the technologies to materialise these rules: as an example, what technologies we can put next to the GDPR, to make sure people indeed control their data, could it be AI agents or personal data spaces that help people really decide what to do with their data? People should be able to decide whether they want to share their data with businesses in exchange for services, or share them with public or academic institutions for research or sustainability purposes. How can we use blockchain to ensure more secure and transparent online transactions between end-users, be it in the financial sector, or in the energy sector for example? Right now, the European Commission is discussing internally how it can further invest in these technologies under the next multi-annual financial framework, where investment in digital will be considerably increased, as was announced by President Juncker on 2nd May 2018.

How is the European Commission supporting the NGI in terms of political, economic and social endorsement?

There is existing political capital we may leverage on. At the NGI Summit, in 2017, the First Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, gave a very inspiring speech on the Internet of Values, as well as Andrus Ansip, Vice-President for the Digital Single Market. Our Commissioner, Ms. Mariya Gabriel, who is responsible for Digital Economy and Society, is very supportive of the initiative. She will be speaking about DSM achievements and her vision of the Internet at EuroDig, the Internet Governance forum for Europe, in Tbilisi, Georgia, in early June. Many European leaders have shown ambition in improving the functioning of the Internet and gaining technological leadership.

Thanks to the involvement of the NGI Support Actions we have managed to build up social capital as well. Behind the initiative we have now researchers, innovators, Member States, civil society and citizens. We need to pursue our effort and engage even more people.

I think we have a great window of opportunity with the implementation of the GDPR. It is clear that Europeans are entitled to control their data. Now we need to move to implementation, looking at the technologies which will allow us to maximise the social value of data.

How is the European Commission helping Europeans to better understand and leverage on these new technologies?

We recently launched the Digital Opportunity Scheme, which aims at helping people in academia and in the higher education system to gain the skills to develop and implement advanced technologies, for example in the field of cryptography, High Performance Computing (HPC), or AI.

That’s one side and it is a long term exercise, which we just started. We also need to do more on the literacy side, on re-skilling and up-skilling people to adapt to the digital transformation. That’s part of our AI strategy: these technologies will change how people work, travel and interact with each other. We need to help people become familiar with these technologies. We will have to start within the education system, but we will also need to reach out to people when they are outside the education system. We need to think how we can retrain workers, for example. What employees can do to best use the technology, which will massively pervade our online and physical environment?

Are you satisfied with the NGI programme awareness among the stakeholders? And how do you plan to improve it?

We have organised online public consultations; we have met citizens and stakeholders in various events and workshops. We have already achieved a lot in a small amount of time, but we need to do more and go beyond awareness creation. Now we need to come up with concrete achievements, together. We talk about an Internet of Humans, but then we need to listen to what people have to say, what they believe in, what their fears are, what opportunities they see. If we ask people directly, I am pretty sure we will get concrete proposals and suggestions to improve the Internet.

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