By: Menno Grootveld
Twenty-five years after the breakthrough of the internet to the general public, there is little left of the enthusiasm that accompanied that breakthrough originally. In 1993, the internet was seen as one large, anarchist sanctuary, where everyone could do whatever they wanted. The new medium was described at the time as the ‘digital commons’, the digital equivalent of the original commons (the forests, agricultural areas and pastures that were jointly managed by the farmers living in the immediate vicinity, in the feudal era). But just as these original commons were privatized in the run-up to the industrial revolution by large landowners, who pulled parts of these lands towards themselves by placing fences around them to graze sheep for the nascent textile industry, the digital commons have also rapidly fallen prey to commerce. About ten years ago, companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon had become so dominant that they actually controlled large parts of the internet.
If you look at the history of the network, this should not come as a surprise to anyone. The internet was designed in the 60s by military research institutes such as DARPA (the American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), whose task was to give the US Army a technological lead over potential opponents (then mainly the Soviet Union, which at the end of the 50s had given the Americans the shock of their lives by taking the lead in the ‘space race’). In the event of a nuclear war it was deemed very important that crucial parts of the communication network could continue to function, and this required this network to be decentralised, at least that in the event of the failure of one or more nodes, other parts of the network would still be able to find each other. This is the basis of the persistent myth that the internet as such is a decentralized network, which in fact is not true. The only thing that is true is that certain parts of the network would have to remain able to communicate with each other if other parts were switched off.
This is important because the structure of the Internet has made it relatively easy for the aforementioned companies, and not forgetting all kinds of state bodies, to monitor the activities of the users of the network, which is called surveillance. We have known since 2013 that this was done (and most probably still is done) in secret on a large scale, thanks to the revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former employee of the CIA and the NSA, who denounced the eavesdropping practices of these intelligence services. But most users of the services of companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google also voluntarily donate an enormous amount of data about themselves to these companies, which then try to take advantage of this in all kinds of ways. This is the second myth surrounding the internet, which holds that most of the services on offer on the internet are free. Nothing could be further from the truth: we actually pay these companies with all kinds of information about our lives, our work and our interests. The recent scandal around the company Cambridge Analytica which, through a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, managed to capture the data of millions of Facebook users and then put these at the disposal of the Donald Trump campaign team, has shown that this information can be misused, and often is.
Therefore, there is a strong case for developing methods and techniques that can put a stop to these practices. One of the people who has taken the lead in this area is the Italian Francesca Bria (36). Between 2013 and 2016 she led the EU-funded D-CENT project which aimed to develop tools to empower citizens to have a greater influence on local or national government policies. As part of this project, the Decidim platform was built for the city of Barcelona, intended to help individual citizens, but also associations and public institutions, to organize themselves democratically. For example, citizens can now discuss the strategic planning of new infrastructure and the use of public funds online.
Based on her merits as the initiator and pacesetter of D-CENT and other similar projects, Francesca Bria was appointed Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Digital Innovation Officer of Barcelona in June 2016. For three years now, Barcelona has been run by the citizens’ platform Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common), with Mayor Ada Colau as the eye-catcher. Barcelona en Comú has emerged from various social and political movements, such as the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) and the 15 May movement, which took to the streets throughout Spain in May 2011 to protest against the austerity measures, corruption and lack of political transparency. The PAH had already been created earlier, in February 2009, in response to the financial crisis of 2008, which led to the burst of the Spanish property bubble. As a result, many people were no longer able to pay their mortgages and were threatened to be thrown out on the street. The PAH tried to prevent those evictions through civil disobedience and direct action. Members of the organization gathered in front of the door of people who had received an eviction order, in order to prevent the police from passing through. Ada Colau herself, when she was spokesperson for the PAH, took part in many of these actions.
Immediately after her appointment Bria launched the Decode project, which investigates how to responsibly collect data from citizens and how to use that data for the greater public good, with adequate privacy protection. Three pilot projects will take place in Barcelona and Amsterdam in 2018 and 2019, in the area of the so-called Internet of Things (digital devices that collect and exchange information via the internet), open democracy, and the sharing economy. The tools developed under the Decode project use blockchain technology and a special type of cryptography, which allows the user to monitor how his or her data is collected and processed. Blockchain technology enables online transactions to be carried out without the intervention of an intermediary such as a bank. It is a kind of ledger that is kept decentrally (i.e. not on a single server, but distributed over the entire network). In this way, all kinds of processes and transactions can be handled outside a central authority, which has the potential to have far-reaching consequences for the structure of our society and the institutions that have traditionally been at its heart. A very important element in all of this is that of trust. The system must be watertight and must not be susceptible to manipulation.
In addition to the Decode project, Bria – as the CTO of Barcelona – is also involved in all other initiatives relating to (digital) technology. This not only concerns issues such as big data and the so-called ‘data commons’, but also the entire digital strategy of the city. The guiding principle here is that technology must be at the service of the people, and that what is nowadays called the ‘smart city’ must be redesigned, this time bottom-up instead of top-down. The question of how technology can be used to improve the city’s administration and to make it more transparent and democratic is an important one. The idea is to link the digital revolution to the democratic revolution (as it took place in Barcelona).
Just like Amsterdam, Barcelona is being plagued by the excesses of consumer society, for example in the form of so-called ‘platform companies’ (companies that use a digitally driven organizational model) such as Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb. In fact, platform companies are rather strange entities. On the basis of the trend brought about by digital technology, that of the disappearance of intermediaries, one would have expected that there would be no room left for companies that do nothing but mediate when people want to rent a holiday home, arrange a taxi or order a meal. But the opposite has happened. The fact that these companies have been able to capture a huge market share in no time with the help of venture capital means that they dominate the market and make it virtually impossible for potential competitors to enter it. The consequences are huge, especially in the area of tourism (Airbnb). In order to keep these platform companies under control, it would be a good thing if cities were to work together to limit their activities.
Not everyone in Barcelona is equally happy with Francesca Bria’s dynamism, not even on the left of the political spectrum. For example, Simona Levi of X-net, a movement of online activists who at first sight seem to be pursuing the same goals as Bria’s Digital Agenda for Barcelona, is highly critical. In April this year, when Bria advocated her approach with Decode in an opinion piece for The Guardian, Levi delivered a touchy reply to the mailing list nettime, in which she condemned Bria as a ‘fraud’. Although there may also be some envy here, this antithesis reflects a deeper conflict that is actually pretty old. On one side are the people who naturally distrust everything that is associated with authorities and the government. They are very happy with technology such as the blockchain, but technology is never politically ‘neutral’: the important thing is always how and by whom it is used. On the other hand there are those who believe that the government and its supporting institutions will still have a role to play, albeit that this role is changing from the bottom up as a result of the democratic revolution. It is impossible to make a final assessment of the relative merits of one view or the other in the context of this article, but in general it can be said that it is extremely doubtful whether we can already do without corrective and steering bodies such as the government. The world is by no means a level playing field, and as long as that is the case, the weaker and less fortunate must be protected.
It is certainly not an easy task with which Bria is confronted. As the partner of Silicon Valley critic Evgeny Morozov, she probably knows better than anyone that the powers that she is up against are almost unbeatable. Morozov makes no secret of the fact that he thinks the battle over the large-scale collection of our data has actually already been lost. The large technology companies in Silicon Valley have been able to operate more or less undisturbed for years and have now collected more than enough data to feed their algorithms based on artificial intelligence (AI). This is what these companies ultimately want: to develop advanced AI applications, which they can offer to other companies and governments for a great deal of money. That is where the big money will be made, thanks to all the information that we have given away (largely) voluntarily and free of charge. We are dealing with a kind of arms race, but in this case it is one between very unequal parties. The mostly young, idealistic software developers who work for Decode and the ‘smart citizen’ projects of Barcelona and other cities can never win the battle with the technology giants. At least not when it comes to technology. The difference will therefore have to be made in terms of the social, political and economic values that alternative applications are intended to provide.
There is, of course, another alternative, the model that has been followed in particular by China. China introduced severe restrictions for Silicon Valley companies (the so-called ‘Great Firewall’) at a relatively early stage. As a result, Chinese companies such as Alibaba and Tencent have been able to build up considerable market share in China, and they apply the same techniques as Google, Amazon and Facebook to harvest their users’ data for the development of advanced AI applications. However, it is too late now to replicate such an approach. Therefore, the only viable strategy seems to be to build alliances with like-minded cities in Spain and other European countries. In this respect, the Decode project is, of course, of great importance. It is only by learning from each other and working together that cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam may hope to be able to break the power of platform companies like Airbnb and Uber, and allow their citizens to really enjoy the benefits that digital technology has to offer. In this respect, it was a hopeful sign that the Amsterdam alderman and deputy mayor Rutger Groot-Wassink paid a working visit to his colleague Gerardo Pisarello of Barcelona recently.
Bria, Francesca. ‘Our Data is Valuable. Here’s How We Can Take That Value Back’, The Guardian, 5 April 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/05/data-valuable-citizens-silicon-valley-barcelona/.
Graham, Thomas. ‘Barcelona is Leading the Fightback Against Smart City Surveillance’, Wired, 18 May 2018, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/barcelona-decidim-ada-colau-francesca-bria-decode/.
‘Interview: Barcelona City Hall’, Mobile World Live, 12 March 2018, https://www.mobileworldlive.com/videos/interviews/interview-barcelona-city/.
Morozov, Evgeny, and Francesca Bria. Rethinking the Smart City: Democratizing Urban Technology, New York: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2018.
Sterling, Bruce, ‘Francesca Bria in Barcelona’, Wired, 7 April 2017, https://www.wired.com/beyond-the-beyond/2017/07/francesca-bria-barcelona/.
 Francesca Bria, ‘Our Data is Valuable. Here’s How We Can Take That Value Back’, The Guardian, 5 April 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/05/data-valuable-citizens-silicon-valley-barcelona/.