EU launches public consultation into fears about future of internet

The EU is launching an unprecedented public consultation to find out what Europeans fear most about the future of the internet.

A succession of surveys over the coming weeks will ask people for their views on everything from privacy and security to artificial intelligence, net neutrality, big data and the impact of the digital world on jobs, health, government and democracy.

A dozen leading European publications, including the Guardian, are to publicise the surveys over the coming three weeks. Results will be compiled in early June. Readers can complete the first questionnaire here.

“Science should be open and freed from its traditional ivory tower; to be discussed, submitted to critique and fed with new perspectives,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission, adding that the consultation would “inspire fresh ideas about how to solve some of our society’s most pressing problems”.

The project is being led by REIsearch, a non-profit initiative co-funded by the European commission. The aim is to give policymakers a better sense of public priorities in their decision-making. The European commission is often criticised for being too detached from popular sentiment and preoccupation.

The newspapers and publications involved are Der Standard, El País, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, La Libre Belgique, Gazeta Wyborcza, Luxemburger Wort, Público, Il Sole 24 Ore, The Lancet, Cell and the Guardian.

Brussels policymakers have long sought to tap into the internet to boost Europe’s economic growth and the EU’s popularity. In his state of the union speech in September 2016, Juncker called for every town and village to have free wifi by 2020, a demanding target that initially rattled the telecoms industry. Closer inspection showed the proposed free wifi would not quite reach every remote hamlet and far-flung outpost of the EU: the commission expects 8,000 towns and villages to benefit from its €120m (£101m) free wifi fund, known as WiFi4EU.

The EU executive is also leaning on the telecoms industry to do more to upgrade internet speeds. It wants schools, most businesses, railway stations and airports to benefit from broadband speeds of one gigabit per second by 2025. (The best-connected schools have internet speeds of around 30 megabits per second, but many are far behind).

To spur on the rollout of fast broadband, telecoms companies could see a relaxation in EU rules that force them to open up their network to competitors. Firms, such as Deutsche Telekom and Telecom Italia, have long argued it is hard to get a return on investing in fibre-optic cables, because they must open their networks to competitors.

It is the commission’s role as a competition watchdog that has brought it into conflict with some of the most powerful technology companies. Smartphone maker Apple has been ordered to repay €13bn in unpaid taxes, after the competition commissioner found it had benefited from a sweetheart deal from the Irish government, which amounted to illegal state aid. The commission is currently investigating Google for abusing its dominant position. Meanwhile, Amazon has tried to ward off a potential fine, by offering to change contracts with publishers, following an EU anti-trust investigation.

The EU’s wide-ranging regulatory powers also extend to guaranteeing “net neutrality”, ensuring that all web traffic is treated equally, as well as setting online privacy standards. MEPs want the EU to start regulating artificial intelligence and have even called for “rights for robots”, in the form of electronic personhood for the most advanced AI. But the commission is not obliged to follow this advice.

“The internet’s impact on our world is already enormous and will accelerate even more in the coming years with the rise of artificial intelligence, the bridging of the physical and digital worlds and the pervasive use of data,” said Jesús Villasante, a commission official.

“We believe the digital world should respect the same values and rights we enjoy in the physical one. We also believe Europe has the potential to be a key player in internet matters even if many important decisions are taken elsewhere.”


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