The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Frissen: Challenges of the future internet: towards a data-driven European society? A critical analysis of the European agenda for the future internet


Frissen, V., TNO Information Communication Technology, The Netherlands


In a speech in July 2009 the former European Commissioner for the information society, Viviane Reding, stressed the key importance of ICT for the recovery of the European economy after the 2009 financial and economic crisis. Following Reding’s highly optimistic rhetorics, there is a direct and positive link between ICT and economic performance. In Redings view, ICT raises the innovation capacity of all industrial sectors, improves productivity, helps to optimise the use of natural resources and to increase energy efficiency. Furthermore, ICT is believed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the public sector and to boost the quality of life of European citizens.

However, in order to fully profit from this potential, there is a need for a new strategic vision on ICT and particularly the internet. Reding foresees three major trends for a ‘Digital Europe’, the agenda which has now been taken over by her successor Neelie Kroes. First, a shift from ‘Web 2.0 for fun’ to Web 2.0 for productivity and services (from which for instance eGovernment and public services could profit substantially). Second, a shift from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 and the Internet of Things, and third, the emergence of a wireless web, which will allow European citizens to access relevant data and services anytime, anywhere. The result she foresees is ‘an explosion’ of new applications and services, from industrial and commercial applications in the supply chain, nomadic services for mobile workers, and environmental monitoring services to life-saving security systems and last but not least health and education services, all boosting the European economy.

This explosion of services, however is rooted in an even more explosive rise of data and large databases, that are able to interact with each other, as the future internet is envisioned as a seamless web of data, services and communication possibilities. A major impact of this vision is that European society will become more and more data-driven. This urges us to think about key societal dilemmas concerning the future internet such as balancing the benefits of transparancy and openness vs. the risks of security and privacy; and the need for stability, ease of use and dependability on the one hand vs. the potential loss of user freedom and autonomy on the other hand. Or, to use Jonathan Zittrains’s words: a view on the future internet also implies a view on ‘how to stop it’ (Zittrain, 2008). In the recent European policy documents on the future internet these dilemmas are acknowledged, but only in the margins of a discourse which is largely breathing an old fashioned technology driven optimism.

What is also a recurrent feature in the strategic documents on the future internet is the awareness that the internet as we know it today is facing some major challenges. The internet has grown to be the key communications infrastructure for the global and European economy. However, the current internet was designed in the 1970s for purposes that do not match the unforeseen wide spectrum of uses that we see now in almost very domain of our everyday life. A vision on the future internet therefore, should fundamentally (re)consider the design of the underlying architecture.

All in all, there is a strong momentum for a quite fundamental debate on the future of the internet and, as a result, on the future of the information society. The paper critically reviews the current European policy debate on the future internet. A strategic vision on the future internet needs to start with fundamental reflection on societal dilemmas and how to cope with them. Until now, however, this reflection is alarmingly limited.