2 July 2019 Inclusive

More and more cities are embracing digital rights. But is it enough?

Tessel Renzenbrink
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The conversation about the digital city is changing, that much is clear. Not that long ago, the focus was on technology. Expectations were that tech would bring us a clean, green, efficient ‘smart city’. And now that focus is shifting to people and their rights, interests and preferences. Technology plays a supporting role in that context. That was clearly also the angle that was pursued in the Cities for Digital Rights conference, part of the WeMakeThe.City festival. Delegates sent by cities from Helsinki to Milan discussed how they were working on a digital city that focuses on its citizens. However, protecting digital rights from the power of big tech companies is a massive undertaking. Are the decisive actions taken by cities sufficient to turn the tide?

Privatization of public spaces

There is a lot at stake here, as Bianca Wylie illustrated in her keynote speech during the morning program. “We are facing a crossroads in history,” she said. “Either we will unite our forces to take a stand, or we will see power increasingly ending up in the hands of private enterprises.” In her home city of Toronto, this digital civil rights activist has been resisting the proposed arrival of Sidewalk Labs, a Google subsidiary under the Alphabet umbrella. The company has been given permission to develop a ‘smart district’ in the former port area. They convinced the city council with stories about data collection sensors in the public space that could be used to resolve any urban challenge, from waste collection to sustainable energy production.

Critical questions about privacy were parried with promises to anonymize and aggregate data. However, personal privacy is just the tip of the iceberg, Wylie states. What should actually worry us is that every action that takes place in the public space will be privatized and marketed. In his initial plans, Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff, together with Google founder Larry Page, stated that they wanted to build a digital city “from the internet up”. But Google’s internet is a place where we are being monitored and directed, where our data is gathered, interpreted and sold. If we allow such practices to expand into the physical world, we are putting important vested rights at risk, Wylie argues – vested rights such as self-determination, control, power and freedom.

“We are currently in defense mode,” Wylie said to the conference attendees. Companies are setting the agenda with their ‘move fast and break things’ mentality, constantly pushing the limits of what we consider acceptable. Responses from policy-makers and citizens have been reactive and slow. “For the past 25 years, we have merely defended ourselves,” says Wylie. “It’s time for us to move out of defense mode and proactively start building what we want ourselves.”

The Amsterdam vision

It is impossible to deny that Amsterdam has adopted a proactive attitude. The city was represented at the confrence by Touria Meliani, the first Alderperson for the Digital City in all of the Netherlands. In her speech, she explained the Amsterdam vision regarding the digital city. It is a city that embraces opportunity, is aware of the risks and has a clear focus on its residents. Technology, Meliani argued, is “a driving force behind progress, not just economic progress, but also progress in the quality of life of all citizens. […] We have to know when the use of technology affects our fundamental human rights. Our safety, our privacy, our freedom. And we have to know what we can do to make sure these rights are protected, unconditionally and at all times. Because one thing has to be very clear: the digital city is a city for the people, not for the government or for large tech companies.”

The Alderperson presented several concrete examples of how the digital rights of Amsterdam residents are protected: The city contributed to the development of the Tada manifesto and has committed to the implementation of the six values expressed in that online document. “We also make arrangements for minimalizing the amount of data we are collecting, for privacy by design and for prohibiting wifi-tracking,” Meliani said. “Together with Barcelona and New York, we have started a fast growing international Cities Coalition for Digital Rights. Because we feel the impact of technology on human rights has been ignored for too long. Together we stand strong in protecting these rights, by following some basic normative principles: accessibility, privacy, safety, inclusion, openness. And by sharing best practices and exchanging ideas.”

Can cities take a stand?

Following the Alderperson’s speech, there was a panel discussion with three CTOs from cities that have joined the Coalition: London, Milan and Helsinki. They were interviewed by Marleen Stikker, director of Waag, and Ger Baron, CTO for the municipality of Amsterdam. The impression that emerged depicted three cities working conscientiously towards a fair and honest digital city, but are also experiencing it as a slow, laborious process. Milan, for instance, has been investing in a digital folder for its citizens offering secure, easy access to all their government documents. “Internet-savvy residents thought it was fantastic,” said Roberta Cocco, CTO of Milan. “But others felt excluded. Unintentionally, we had actually increased the digital gap.”

And so the panel addressed the question of whether all of it was enough: the manifestos, the city coalitions, and locally developed tech that focuses on the cities’ residents. Can cities make enough of a difference to prevent companies like Sidewalk Labs from determining the future of our cities? Mikko Rusama, CTO of Helsinki, had this to say: “We all face the same challenges. We are working towards becoming less reliant on big tech companies, gaining more independence. We have a legacy from previous generations who outsourced many different things. We are now in a phase in which we are building our capacities and strengths.”

Bianca Wylie was clear about her opinions on the value of the work being done in such cities as Helsinki, Nijmegen, Barcelona and Amsterdam. “I want to thank you all for your leadership,” she said in her speech. “When we started our fight against Sidewalk Labs in Toronto, it was good to have you as a role model. It points the way to where we want to go.”

Cities for Digital Rights took place on the 19th of June in the Zuiderkerk in Amsterdam. It was organized by the municipality of Amsterdam, De Waag, Humanistisch Verbond Amsterdam-Amstelland and WeMakeThe.City.

Photo by George Maas. CTO panel: L-R Marleen Stikker, Roberta Cocco, Mikko Rusama, Theo Blackwell (London), Ger Baron.

Author: Tessel Renzenbrink
Translator: Joy Philips

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