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2018: dystopia or utopia?

Bianca Debaets, State Secretary for Digitalisation
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Bianca Debaets

2017 was not exactly the best of years. In addition to attacks in Europe and ongoing wars in the Middle East, you also notice daily dealings becoming much harsher. I remember when we approved our anti-discrimination ordinance in the Brussels Parliament, a great deal of venom was directed at me on Twitter.
But that was small beer compared with what happened last year:
Researchers discovered that Facebook makes it possible to target people with extremely hateful and racist categories, e.g. how to burn Jews. Which brought all the neo-Nazis in the world together. It turned out that Facebook had little or no control over the module that creates these categories, however inhuman they may be.
Meanwhile, as many as five judicial inquiries have been conducted into Uber, the company was banned from London, in Europe (not unjustifiably) was reclassified as a transport company and lost the data of 57 million users to hackers.
Or what should we think of Ancestry, a site that offers cheap DNA research but then sells your personal data to American insurers so that they can refuse certain people with hereditary conditions?
Not all evolution is progress, that much is clear. It seems as if, after all the techno-optimism of the nillies (the ‘00s), we seem to be falling into techno-pessimism. However, the new technological possibilities are also subject to relatively simple ethical rules. About social media, for example: don’t do anything to another person that you wouldn’t want to experience yourself. Is someone insulting you? Ask him kindly not to engage in personal attacks. Does it happen repeatedly? Then mute that person. Is someone saying something racist or discriminatory? Talk to them, or if you want to see it disappear, report it to Facebook (which wants to recruit 3,000 people to counteract hate speech). Submitting a complaint to Unia is also an option. Do you feel you spend too much time on social media? Go to the cinema (Brussels has fantastic cinemas!), or visit a friend whom you have not seen for a long time, or get involved as a volunteer. The technology is there for us, and not the other way round.
We should not blindly rely on technology or ICT capabilities. We must do this with common sense, with the right horizon and objectives.
Free Wi-Fi in more than 200 public places: we don’t do it for fun but because 15% of Brussels residents don’t have a fixed internet connection and we have millions of nights spent by foreign visitors a year in our beautiful city.
The Fix My Street app a gadget? No, we need a means of making and keeping our beautiful city beautiful.

Our new data centre that keeps our data as secure as possible? Not that 100% safety is guaranteed, but we must strive for it.
The video platform with ANPR cameras that we have set up to better track offenders and suspects? A cheaper and more efficient way to enforce, with proper privacy review by an independent commission.
What is important in all major technological revolutions - and the digital revolution is a true paradigm shift that has an effect in all areas - is that you make your people and companies resilient. Give them the tools to reap the benefits and overcome the possible drawbacks.
All the big changes go this way: the pendulum first swings firmly to the technocratic side (“the technology will change everything!”), then to the technophobic side (“we have to renounce the technology altogether!”), and finally we usually end up in the brave middle. And we are applying that in Brussels too.
That’s why our policy is so strongly focused on digital inclusion and we have recently decided to set up a Digital Transformation Office, which sets standards in the field of digital services, design principles and helps to stimulate digital collaboration for all our target groups.
You can see it all over the world: it is the cities that are pioneering the trend, that trigger (digital) innovation and set the (ethical) bar. A Smart City is there for and by people. In 2018, too, we will continue to be courageous and resilient.