Horizon 2020 – A Chance to Include Privacy, Data Protection, and Human Rights in Technology

How can government have a tangible influence over technology? This issue is at the core of establishing rule of law online. In many cases, government intervention in digital is messy: it may be inefficient, blunt, have unwanted side effects like privacy concerns. Needless to say, it is often a source of friction with the tech industry. Many times, regulation is added as an after-thought, once the technology is in place. For natural reasons, sometimes it is only when a practice has been established that the consequences become clear. This is often described as government being behind the curve on new technology.

However, at the same time, government is ahead of the curve on many technologies. The internet itself started as a research project in the Sixties with the US Department of Defense’s ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency). The World Wide Web started at CERN, the European particle physics research center. Even a project branded as anti-establishment like the TOR anonymity network is government-funded (first US Navy, later US- and Swedish government).

Netopia has organised two events and report launches on new technologies and government in the past six months, one on 3D-printing and one on the Internet of Things. Both of these are areas where various governments invest a lot of tax money into research and development. Both areas have potentially disruptive consequences for society: personal 3D-printing brings up issues of consumer protection, sales tax collection, gun control, intellectual property and more. The Internet of Things challenges the way we think of the network – rather than people communicating with people, machine-to-machine-traffic will be predominant before 2020, which of course raises questions of freedom of speech, surveillance and responsibility. All these developments are clearly foreseeable, have been discussed for a long time and Netopia’s reports only add to the existing knowledge. Yet, on both occasions when I asked representatives of the European Commission what sort of policies they had to deal with this, the answer was “None. Yet.”. So there is one part of government funding development of new technologies, and another that is clueless to the implications.

There is an opportunity here: if considerations like privacy, data protection, fair competition, rule of law and consumer protection are included in the design phase when new technology is developed, many of the short-comings of today’s tech regulation (as spelled out above) can be avoided. Some talk about “privacy by design”, that would be a good case. Another example is stock trading software platforms. I have a friend who develops such software and once asked him how they deal with differences in finance law (money laundering, insider trading, that sort of stuff) in different jurisdictions. The answer was “Easy, we just include it from the start”. So the answer is right there in the open: join the parts of government dealing with the research grants with the parts dealing with legislation. Make the societal implications part of the research grant requirements.

Europe has unique opportunity to do just that with the recently announced Horizon 2020 research framework. Now is the chance to ensure new technologies are not only ground-breaking but also in line with human rights and democratic values.

I touched on some of these ideas in a Euronews appearance on 3D-printing earlier this week. U talk is the name of the show, check it out: http://www.euronews.com/2014/04/11/consumer-concerns-around-3d-printing/ [Updated: Correct link]