Can cities be a guardian of digital rights?

15th February 2019

By Bart Rosseau, Chief Data Officer, City of Ghent, and Tamas Erkelens, Programme Manager Data Innovation, City of Amsterdam, who are co-leading the working group on Digital Rights within Open & Agile Smart Cities (OASC)

Everybody who is professionally involved in technology in cities and communities agrees that the debate on digital rights has moved beyond the implementation of smart technologies. The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) turned privacy into a hot topic, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal catapulted the debate on ethical use of data high up the political agenda.

As a result of this global politicisation of digital affairs, local councils are increasingly becoming aware of their political power to decide and shape the digital development of their cities. For example, 5G infrastructures are not a matter of ‘neutral smart city efficiency’; city councils across the world–the closest democratic representatives of citizens–have a choice how and which data can be collected and by whom.

Policy making in the digital public space

Approaching local governments as ‘caretakers’ for their citizens, some common approaches between the represented cities emerge, and local governments are taking action. Local governments exist to regulate the use of collective resources and public space. We see that our physical public space is digitising. The question that emerges for cities is: how should local governments make policies for the digital public space?

When physical and digital public space are blending–bridges equipped with sensors, public squares offering free Wi-Fi access–local governments have a key role to set the terms and conditions for their city to flourish digitally.

It is nearly impossible for citizens to opt-out of digital tracking when using public spaces in cities. Therefore, it is crucial to know what happens with their data after it has been collected, or in which framework commercial re-use, privacy and benefits are managed.

Privacy considerations might slow down the possibilities for digital industries to innovate, but privacy and innovation are not mutually exclusive. A common understanding and implementation of privacy and ethics might level the playing field. We welcome a strong Europe to develop a fair digital marketplace, based on equality of opportunities for competitors and consumers/citizens.

To achieve a level-playing field, four key actions for local governments to take are:

Explaining digital rights

Citizens have to understand that they have digital rights. Often, digital rights are not clear, or expressed in language that’s difficult to grasp. Amsterdam and Barcelona took the initiative and are working now on general principles to make digital rights clear for everybody.

Using procurement to enforce digital rights

Local governments can use their procurement frameworks to enforce data privacy. With their ‘data sovereignty’ programme, Barcelona has already demonstrated the effectiveness of procurement when it comes to guaranteeing data sovereignty. For example, data collected in assignment of the local government in public space will become available to share in a ‘data commons’.

With an annual budget of €2.1 billion on procurement spending, cities like Amsterdam can guide the market rather than follow it.

Regulating digital markets that impact public space

In digital markets, the interaction between consumers, workers and platforms generated new ways to organise, for example, mobility in cities and set some new challenges for city governments: what is the role of public transport when people who can afford it are using car services? How can the collected data and insights from these platforms become available to policymakers, citizens and interest groups?

In order to guarantee a fair marketplace and equal society, cities need to regulate digital markets when they are impacting public space and the lives of their residents. Collaboration with national and international authorities is needed to create a digital single market. Cities are also looking to counteract the information asymmetry between (local) governments and global digital platforms. This asymmetry influences how local governments can implement and enforce policies.

Be transparent

Citizens are demanding solutions and clarity from their local government. Cities have to be transparent about how they are using data collected in public spaces. There are several ways to achieve transparency. The City of Porto, for example, is providing an application where citizens can check where IoT devices or cameras are installed and for what purposes, when it was decided to install them or who has approved it. The application also allows citizens to ask questions about the device or report new devices to the municipality.

Following these four actions, it becomes clear that municipalities have to involve citizens to manage concerns, demands and technical possibilities. To define next steps, cities need a deeper understanding of privacy concerns of citizens and the assumptions and expectations of technical partners.

Citizens demand clarity about their data

There is no such thing as a digital invisibility cloak. But are there alternatives for digital business models based on the collection of personal data?

There are concepts being developed to give more control to citizens, users or visitors over their data. One of them is Solid, a project promoted by Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web. Additionally, several EU-sponsored projects like DECODE have aimed to create scalable open source solutions that respect the digital rights of citizens.

One of the more tangible efforts is the recently launched the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights. New York, Amsterdam and Barcelona founded the coalition, which is supported, among others by UN Habitat, Open & Agile Smart Cities. More than 50 cities have already joined this alliance to create a framework where policies, best practices and technical solutions can be developed, implemented and shared. The goal is to set a common baseline where the basic securities that we can expect in the street finds its equivalent in the digital public sphere.

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