miércoles, 18 de enero de 2017

Are we facing the tip of a failed state?

As times goes by, it looks that the trend of outsourcing the censorship digital news is being consolidated. I am not a fan of any kind of censorship in any media, but for those case if is needed I see it as a mission that should be under severe control of governments. However, what started with the "right to be forgotten", later was extended with the "Code of Conduct on illegal online hate speech". In both cases, digital platforms are the final court for deciding on the retirement of contents from the network.

The collaboration with the platforms is probably a pragmatic approach, but what scares me it is the lack of transparency on the process. From time to time, Google publishes results of the application of the "right to be forgotten", and as fas as I know there is not an independent review of the report. Recently, during the review on the compliance of the code of conduct on illegal hate speech the results were criticised by the European Commission due to its dissapointing results, but the report was not completely published neither we have data from the platforms on the issue.

Outsourcing the patrolling of contents have also other downsides. Although the code of conduct has a wide scope, combating "public incitement to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined on the basis of race, colour, descent, religion or belief, or national or ethnic origin", the platforms could pick and choose their favourite targets. For instance, a couple of days after the review they team up to develop automatic solutions to combat the spread of terrorism apology, but no other form of illegal hate speech.

Therefore, it seems governments are unable to combat illegal hate speech and reinforce freedom on the network, while at the same time the help of the industry is far from be effective in all the areas. And the same it´s happening with other kind of illegal activities. Furthermore, the help of platforms to combat all these illegal activities is reduced to those areas they like to combat. We are growingly missing the tools to make effective parts of the law in the network.

A failed state is defined as a state “whose central government is so weak or ineffective that it has little practical control over much of its territory; non-provision of public services; widespread corruption and criminality; refugees and involuntary movement of populations and sharp economic decline”. Some thinkers are begining to ask themselves if the Internet has not become a failed state. And it is the right question. What is the same as as asking for the sustainaibility of the network because no failed state could last.

miércoles, 11 de enero de 2017

5G in EU: Do we really have a plan?

One of the more pronounced phrases among the European technological sector is "Europe is lagging behind". Europe was once the home of the most important technological companies, now there is no remain of a European company among the 15 largest ICT companies. There are many reasons for the sectoral European decline, but perhaps the main reason is the decline in the European dominance of the mobile scenario. Europe was the home for GSM invention but,  it has been a follower of 4G deployment since the start of it. Both the global ICT decline and the mobile decline has happened in the same time space.

The rationale described above has a clear implication: Europe has to base the recovery of its technological force in winning the 5G race. Therefore, it looks sound that the European Commission has set as one of the strategic targets for the telecommunication sector "uninterrupted 5G coverage for all urban areas as well as major roads and railways". However it is worrisome that it has not set a this deadline in the press release, except for having "commercially availability of 5G in at least one major city in each EU Member State by 2020", which is a previous promise of the telecom sector. The ambiguous target has been set for two years after the forthcoming Korean trial in 2018 Olimpic Games.

Nevertheless, the Plan for 5G in Europe published by the European Commission gives more space to optimism. There we can find the missed deadline for the "uninterrupted 5G coverage for all urban areas as well as major roads and railways" in 2025.  Also there are a mix of actions that foreseen boosting investments (through the review of the regulatory framework), the creation of a 5G ecosystem (through the continuation of the actions within the H2020) and the works in the standarisation area (through establishing 5G as one of the standardisation priorities for Europe).

However, although the plan looks sound, there would be need concrete actions from Member States. The European Commission just only encourage the Member States to develop its national plans by 2017, but the support and pressure for its development from Brussels looks short. No clear incentives for this purpose are defined, like for instance taking out of the national deficit accounting the government support for 5G deployment or the relax of State Aid ruling in this area.

The 5G Plan for EU have shadowy and bright sides. Good central planning for some measures but improvable basis for the real deployment. We should wait and see its real impact, alas it could too late to rectify if something goes wrong.

miércoles, 21 de diciembre de 2016

Free Flow of Data in Europe: The story of the cake

The European Commission has delivered almost on time the majority the legislative and non-legislative proposals contained in the Digital Single Market Strategy. Some of them even are expected to be approved by the Council and Parliament by the first half of 2017. However, there is one of them that looks trapped in a blind alley: the free flow data initiative (FFDI).

The FFDI was initially expected to be presented in september 2016, later was delayed to november 2016 after the High Level Conference on European Data Economy, and now it is not expected until the end of 2017 Q1. In spite of the pressure of part of the industry and the sympathies of some governments, there is growing doubt about its future existence.

There is war on figures about the economic impact of the liberalisation of the free flow of data, particularly the establishment of a ban on data localisation restrictions. In a manifesto following the last Telecomunnications Council, the industry estimated the potential of data in Europe in 566 EUR billion by 2020. A more realistic estimation of ECIPE put on the table the figure of 8 EUR billion per year (which means much less than 1% of EU GDP).

But free flow of data is beyond economics, it is about building Europe. I'm greatly agree with the need to promote free flow of data in Europe and the need of regulations for its implementation. After the achievement of the freedom of movement of people, products, services and capital, the free flow of data is the 5th freedom that should define the European Unión in the digital era. However, free flow of data should not be restricted to build a regulation for deregulated massively data location requirements. The regulation of  data ownership, access and liability it is also needed to ensure legal certainty in the flow of data. 

You can't have your cake and eat it. The debate around the ownership and access to data is central for the future of our society. As Morozov remembered us recently, five firms alone digest the majority of the world data. Imagine a present where five companies own the property of land in the world to foreseen the consequences for the future if we don´t regulate the access and ownership to data right now.

Free flow of data is needed, but goes beyond the elimination of data requirements. You can´t have a cake and eat it at the same time.

miércoles, 14 de diciembre de 2016

The disturbing investigation of @propublica on algorithms

One of the more interesting web sites concerning the algorithmic society that I have discover along the last months is Propublica. It is not a website specialised on the digital economy but in investigative journalism in the public interest. In the last months they have conducted an in-depth investigation on decisions taken by algorithms and the consequences resulted from them. What follows it is just some of the cases I have found there, enough for strengthening my conviction that regulators should do something more on the issue than be just reactive.

The price of items and services sold in websites is the focus of some of the cases. Due to its dominance on e-commerce, you may be interested in reading the article about the algorithm used by Amazon to present the answer to your requests about any object that you desire to buy. Propublica has discovered how the presentation of the results ordered by price has some tricks that favoured the items sold directly by Amazon. Other article shows Propublica´s discoveries around the different pricing based on geographical area that the Pricenton Review charges for their online courses. Do Consumer Authorities have the capabilities to make such discoveries?

Let´s go to principles. I assume the majority of the people who read this blog are strongly against any kind of racial discrimination. Probably, if you read the articles regarding algorithmic racial discrimination in Propublica you would feel sick. On one hand, there are evidences that algorithms used by public authorities to predict crime in USA are heavily biased against afroamericans. On the other hand, they show how facebook use the racial classification for sorting advertisements. Any of us have any cause to be discriminated, and data hoarders are able to discriminate you. Propublica also discovered that Facebook offered to companies more than 1300 ad categories.

The most disturbing feeling you have after reading the results of Propublica research is that you would feel that you are facing just to the tip of the iceberg. Someone has dedicated time and efforts and have made some discoveries. But what have yet to be known about how the companies handle our digital profiles?

miércoles, 7 de diciembre de 2016

Regulating the objects: Stopping Orwell

The Internet of the Things is not anymore a distant concept but a daily reality. Undoubtedly, the prediction of 20 billion of objects connected by 2020 is impressive, but equally impressive  it is the estimation of nearly 5 billion connected right now. And the main driver of this rise of connected object will not be production environments as the Smart Industry, but consumers. Both in the short and long term more than half of the connected objects will be plugged by consumers.

Almost everyday we can read pieces of news regarding new kind of smart objects. For instance, in less than a week The Guardian published an article regarding the impressive growth of the smart toys market and a piece of new about digitalised sex toys. It doesn´t matter if we feel a little bit akward reading this kind texts, we will not be able to stop the introduction of chips and conectivity  capabilities in all the object surrounding us. Or were we capable in the past of stopping the disapearance of the TV with cathode ray tube?

So instead of refraining of the regulation intentions for the sake of innovation and ask for a light touch approach, we should encourage governments to explore and develop all the needed regulatory options. As any kind of objects are different, we would certainly need specific regulations  for classes of objects instead of general ones. However, we should not overlook the need for transversal rules defining common principles.  An example of the former is the US checklist for self-driving cars.  Among the latter we can include the  "Guide to the ethical design and application of robots and robotic systems" developed by the British Institute for Standards.

Specially important is the regulation of the issues regarding the handling of data privacy and data sharing. Not in vain, both of them were at the top of the US checklist for self-driving cars.  The "purpose limitation principle" and the "data minimisation" principles should be at the centre of data regulation for Internet of the Things.

1984 has arrived to our lives more than 30 years later. Not only the TV has surveillance capabilities, but all the objects around. Stopping the Orwell´s nightmare before it takes form depends on the rules we establish today.

miércoles, 30 de noviembre de 2016

Google; Just the beginning of its domain

There are few doubts of Google's domain of the online world. Currently the second most valued company (after being the first until 2016 Q1) and by far the company with the largest user base (you only need to compare the number of iphone vs android users). The debate is around if we are facing the peak of its domain or just its begining.

The multiple investigations for monopolistic practices that has been opened  in Brussels give us the impression of approaching to dissintegration, either for a sentence asking to separate part of businesses or due to an unpayable fine. Same could be said of some after the last European Commission´s proposal for regulations, heaviliy critisised in US as anti-Google regulation. However, neither the consequence of the investigations nor the new regulations could mean a drawback to the Internet giant but the opposite.

Take the issue of the EC investigation on Android operating system. The EC is accusing Google of abusing its dominant position by imposing restrictions on Android device manufacturers. The jury is still out of the room but the a negative sentence for Google could have implications on the Android ecosystem. There would be a high probability that Google would stop publishing free versions of Android, with highly probable negative consequences both for manufacturers and developers, while Google could continue its activities with an Apple-like business model.

Similar analysis could be done on the alleged anti-Google regulation proposed by the European Commission. The paramount example of this regulations is the proposal for a Directive on copyright in the Digital Single Market. Apparently, the regulation impose harsh obligations to Google for controlling  the publication of videos in YouTube and the obligation of taking into considerations the rights of publishers in Google News services. However, as EDRI has detailed the consequence could be an increase of Google´s monopolistic power. On one hand, Google is the only player that has the technology for controlling copyright in UGC platforms as YouTube. On the other hand, the experiences in Spain and Germany have demonstrated that Google could avoid paying any compenstaion to the publishers while others are not in the same position.

So, in spite of the signs, I beat more on the option that Google is at the first phase of its domain of the technological sector. Perhaps the only clouds in the horizon are the overwhelming position of Amazon in cloud services and the fierce battle around Internet of the Things.

miércoles, 23 de noviembre de 2016

Digital skills: Targets and practices

The European Commission presented in June 2016  "A new skills agenda for Europe". The promotion of digital skills is an important part of this strategy. Among the actions proposed, we can find the revamp of the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition, the inclusion of digital skills in the so-called "Skills Guarantee" and   the taking into consideration of the digital skills in the "Blueprint for Sectoral Cooperation on Skills". 

The revamp of Digital Skills and Job Coalition includes a demand to develop similar strategies in Member States, including sharing best practices of successful initiatives. As I have written several months before, the first practice to put in place should be the retraining of policy makers, therefore I was quite happy to know that  some countries (e.g. Norway) has already developed pilots of this kind.

Apparently, Europe is in the right path for the reduction of the skill gap. The European Commission boasts that its policies has helped to reduce the predicted shortfall of IT specialists in 2020 has been reduced from one million in 2010 to 756,000 in 2015. However, at the same time the DESI still shows that 45% of the population has insufficient digital skills. Therefore, the priority should be helping them to jump to the digital wagon.

An interesting experience regarding digital literacy efforts is Simbioza, an slovenian NGO. Simbioza is an academy based on intergenerational solidarity for lifelong learning. One of their projects aims to helps the older generation to have positive experiences with computers through the help of young volunteers.

Needed projects for spreading the digital skills aim that the children achieve the basic capabilities to access the digital resources. The classic project replicated in several country is the distribution of tablets among the pupils of basic education. Example of this kind initiative is Mobile Learning Austria, which also includes the aditional technical support and teacher for fully exploit the digital power of the tools.

The digitisation of education with projects like Mobile Learning Austria should be built up on a quality internet access. Although the provision of network access to schools are not equivalent to the digitisation of education, there is not doubt that is a needed condition. The European Commission has established for 2025 the goal of Gigabit connections in school and it also has estimated a cost of 46 € billion for providing ultra-fast internet in primary and secondary schools. It is probably an underestimated value if we take into consideration that Germany hast set up a project to connect its schools with a cost of 5 € billion and a more humble project in Spain has estimated the cost in 300 € million (and neither of them aim to have gigabit connection).

Much more things should be included in a national digital skills strategy. Besides teaching ICT in school and to the elders, it is critical re-skilling the labour force for the digital era or diseminate the digital tools among companies, particularly SMEs. We can expect that the European Commision set targets for all this areas by the end of the year as it announced in the skills agenda.
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