humanet3: the third attempt at a human-centered internet
The group analyzes and puts forward proposals of how a human-centered digital transformation can be defined and be worked towards. Its focus will be the digital public, as space for debate and for the expression of opinion on the internet. This space is defined by its accessibility, its self-commitment, and its function, not by its ownership. It includes, in particular, all platforms which are generally open to everyone, claim to serve the public good, and are used by the people to communicate personal views to a broad audience.
The starting point of the group’s research is the recognition that the internet in its function as digital public space is currently experiencing a pivotal moment for its future development. Our collective ability to exchange opinions, ideas, emotions, and dissent lies at the core of what distinguishes the current Web2.0 from its predecessor, the static Web1.0, which understood users as passive consumers, not as active speakers. However, the democratic, utopian vision which has driven the development of the Web2.0 as ‘social web’ in its beginning has been replaced by an unknown concentration of private power over global infrastructures. Users are understood as targets for advertisements, the quality of content is confused with engagement, and attention is the new currency of success.
Now, we are experiencing an unprecedented momentum for digital regulation. In 2021, the European Union has presented its vision for the digital transformation by publicly ringing in ‘Europe’s Digital Decade’. With its European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade, the European Commission aims explicitly towards a human-centred digital transformation. As part of this undertaking, several landmark laws have been enacted. These include the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act as the most prominent ones, but also the Data Act, the Data Governance Act, and the yet-to-be-finalized AI Act.
In parallel to these normative projects, a multitude of movements informing the shift away from the Web2.0 as a commercialized, centralized space in the hand of a few companies are manifesting in practice, sharing the common claim of building the internet around the individual and its rights. Following Web1.0 and Web2.0, these approaches can be understood as the third attempt at a human-centred internet. To only name a few, they include (i) what is now subsumed under the ‘Metaverse’, a vision to seamlessly blend digital and physical worlds, (ii) a so-called ‘Web3’ community, based on blockchain technology, and (iii) the ‘Fediverse’ as a decentralized federation of communities.
More recently, an unprecedented rise of generative artificial intelligence (AI) applications, such as ChatGPT and Midjourney, is creating new challenges. While such AI tools have existed in the past, the mass availability and high quality of their output is a novelty. Public discourse is based on trust and a common ground of knowledge and ‘truth’. Growing uncertainty about the authenticity or forgery of content, and even about the human quality of one’s interlocutor, will reshape the way our discussion culture functions. The economic effects of generative AI on human creativity, the traditional human-based innovation system, and the concentration of economic power in the internet platform economy still remain uncertain and yet may well require additional regulatory action. Moreover, existing biases in the training data of AI systems – and thus in society – will be replicated on a new scale. This could exacerbate current patterns of discrimination against minorities and other marginalized groups.
The group analyzes and puts forward proposals of how a human-centered digital transformation can be defined and be worked towards. Its focus will be the digital public, as space for debate and for the expression of opinion on the internet. This space is defined by its accessibility, its self-commitment, and its function, not by its ownership. It includes, in particular, all platforms which are generally open to everyone, claim to serve the public good, and are used by the people to communicate personal views to a broad audience. Messengers, which aim to facilitate private communication between a handful of individuals, and market places, which are built for the exchange of goods and services, are thus not in the (primary) scope of the group.
It addresses the current developments in the digital realm from two sides:
(1) An individual approach will concentrate on the rights of individuals, in particular the rights to freedom of expression, to privacy and to non-discrimination. It will put the human being most literally at the centre of its research and analyze the effects of current developments on individual rights. Possible avenues of this research could include not only the limitations and violations of human rights by the use of technology, but also investigate how it facilitates the exercise of such rights, or even leads to the development of new rights. While it is focused on the individual, it looks at it from a public perspective, emphasizing its participation in social and political life.
(2) A collective approach deals with systemic questions of the structure and organization of the digital public space, considering principles like democracy and self-determination, the power of (quasi-)monopolistic gatekeepers and the distinction between private and public law. ‘Human-centred’ is understood here in opposition to ‘enterprise-centred’; one way the current structure of the digital public could be qualified. Thus, the approach investigates possible structural changes orientated towards an internet committed to the public interest, and not merely the profit and power of private actors. Yet the project needs to take into account that it addresses the regulation of business conduct that has the potential of bringing about and implementing innovations with unprecedented potential benefits for humanities at times of major global crises. The human-centred approach therefore has to fulfil an enabling function to stir business conduct and innovation in a direction that serves the interests of future generations.
Possible topoi which could be covered by group members are, among others, an evaluation and adjustment of current laws in the field of intellectual property, data protection and competition regulation; the systemic consequences of constant private surveillance (tracking) in the digital public; effects on the democratic discourse by the algorithmic curation of advertisements and content; attempts at democratizing norm-setting in the digital sphere by regulation, self-regulation, and co-regulation; the integration of values and principles into the development and application of AI tools; the trust of citizens and their participation in the public discourse; and the recognition and treatment of disinformation.