“If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” An Interview with Marleen Stikker

OEB21 Opening Keynote speaker and Internet pioneer Marleen Stikker: “We have to help young people understand that the Internet can be designed differently”.

As Founder of Waag and Professor of Practice at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam, Marleen Stikker intends to instill in students and administrators a critical view on digital technologies. This is the only way to push back against the power of big tech companies and make the Internet a truly public place.

We are kindly allowed to share a recent interview held with Marleen by Marjolein van Trigt of De Volkskrant, a daily Dutch national newspaper.

On the day that the Volkskrant speaks with Marleen Stikker about potential risks of online education, the Dutch government expressed concerns too, for the first time. In a letter to the House of Representatives, Ministers Slob and Van Engelshoven wrote that the way Google collects data from students entails major privacy risks. “At last”, Stikker (58) responds. As director of research institute and design lab Waag, she has warned many years that the power of tech companies in the public sector is far too great. For example, she called it ‘bizarre’ that 70 percent of Dutch elementary school use Google software and are often proud of it too. “This is like saying you’re a Coca Cola school.”

In 2020, more than ever before, schoolchildren and students have spent time in online educational environments. Stikker believes that this is all the more reason to be critical of systems used for online education. Not only Google, but also smaller EdTech (education technology) companies like to keep track of what their users click on, how long they are logged in and what kind of searches they perform. 

Stikker thinks it is overdue that the Ministers stated that is is “undesirable” for Google to collect metadata on students, but she believes it shows that something is changing. In Europe, new regulations are being drafted to better protect citizens as they use the Internet. In the Netherlands, twenty public organisations, media and cultural institutions, united under the name PublicSpaces, explore how the Internet can once again become a public place: a park instead of a shopping mall. Across Europe too, more and more organisations are working together to create tracking-free platforms. “At last there is a solid, global movement that is trying to reduce the role of big tech.”

Stikker was recently appointed Professor of Practice at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam (HvA). Her appointment fits with the shift in thinking about technology in the public domain. Stikkers understanding and vantage point put her in an ideal position to teach students, teachers, researchers and administrators about critical approaches towards digital technologies. In the early 1990s, she was at the forefront of the Digital City, the first Dutch virtual community. With design lab Waag, she has investigated openness, transparency and inclusivity of new technologies for more than 25 years. Her motto: “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”

You are currently developing a Minor in Digital Resilience for the HvA. What are students least aware of, in this respect?

“The need to take a critical approach and the importance of creativity. Too often they believe that you just have to give up your privacy if you do something with the Internet, as if that’s a given. We must help young people understand that the Internet is structured in this way because of the interests of the companies that provide services, but that it does not have to be this way and that they can contribute to this.”

Educators are doing their very best to make the most of the opportunities online education offers. It could look like you’ve come to tell them that everything has to be changed and improved. Did you encounter any resentment about your appointment?

“I’ve only met with enthusiasm. There are also a lot of developments in line with my work within the institution, such as critical research on platforms.

“You see, we come from an era in which public values such as freedom, autonomy and equality were simply not central to the decision-making process regarding the use of ICT – in government nor in education. Above all, ICT was supposed to be not costly. If we now feel that we have lost something crucial to our democracy as a result, such as its users’ sovereignty, then we must look at what we can do better. That takes time. I’m not calling for things to be different tomorrow. The interesting thing is that the HvA is subscribing to this narrative, as are more and more institutions that are co-funded with public money.”

“There are a number of swift measures that can be taken. Why does a university or college use Google Analytics in its website? To track what users are doing. This is just as true for instance for newspapers. Many journalists write about the horrors of surveillance capitalism – making money from user data in order to flood readers with targeted ads and disinformation – but at the website where these articles are published, readers are being tracked and traced just as they are everywhere else.”

“Educational institutions have a duty of care to their students. Don’t hand them over to Google’s free services, but select a reliable alternative. Make sure the browsers are secure. After that, more complex issues come into play, such as online proctoring. That’s when you get to the crux of the matter.”

Online proctoring is a hot topic in the educational realm. It involves surveillance software for online examinations that are taken remotely. Before Corona, it was hardly ever used in the Netherlands, but many institutions saw it as a necessity to be able to administer exams online. Students have to turn on their webcam and sometimes install a second camera behind them. Algorithms detect suspicious activities, such as eye or hand movements. Many students feel this breaches their privacy. Some educational institutions, such as Avans University of Applied Sciences and Leiden University of Applied Sciences, as a matter of principle do not do any online proctoring. Stikker also thinks that online proctoring goes too far. “In a physical examination room the agreements are clear,” she says. “You are watched, but you know up until which point – how long your pen touches the paper is not taken into account. Proctoring takes the idea of a panopticon to the very extreme.”

A panopticon is a circular building whose residents can be watched from the centre, an example being dome-shaped prisons, in which guards can observe prisoners at any time of the day without being seen. Stikker: “The effect of a panopticon is that you anticipate being watched. People panic about that. Proctoring is an extreme form of acting out of distrust.”

Petitions against online proctoring have been submitted at eight Dutch universities and a lawsuit has been filed against it too. But colleges and universities have many more digital technologies at their disposal. For example, they use more and more data about students to track and improve study progress and guidance, as well as lessons and management-related issues. Some educational institutions compare data on students’ previous education, age and place of residence with data on study progress in order to analyse the backgrounds of students who are at greater risk of dropping out. The aim is to provide students with more personalised guidance earlier in their studies. Others use study data to identify the most common difficult courses and subjects.”

Generally speaking, these uses involve careful consideration of ethics and privacy. Do you feel that students may still too easily assume that all is well?

“I do understand that students say: go ahead and use my data. However, there is a difference between what you can ask of individuals and what you must ask of institutional powers. Individuals should not have to constantly assess whether it is acceptable for their data to be used. In the area of food safety, we have agreed that people should not be allowed to die from food poisoning. As a result, we don’t have to decide how much risk we are willing to take every time we buy, let’s say an apple. I expect that together we will create the same kind of basic hygiene in the digital domain. In addition, if an educational institution needs data to know how your students are doing, or where problems are occurring in educational programmes, then the scale on which you are operating might be too large. At that point, you might no longer be a good learning community. But that’s another story.”

That basic digital hygiene, how can we achieve this?

‘With legislation and supervision, but also by setting up data commons: platforms that allow everyone to control their own data. Students and teachers donate data to the commons, which are then carefully managed. It should be clear which parties have access to this data and what it can or cannot be used for. Data are anonymised and rules are set for data analysis”.

To date, Dutch higher education institutions have no experience with data commons. Dutch data commons are already being developed for mobility data and energy data. Waag is leading a data commons that collects genetic information in a cooperative, so that it does not end up with commercial dna companies such as 23andme, but remains available to researchers.

The Professor of Practice is looking beyond digitisation in education. The city where the University of Applied Science is located has itself been digitised over time. Amsterdam has stated its ambition to protect public values as a digital city. Its residents should be able to contact the municipality, buy a ticket for a performance or log into a neighbourhood platform safely and without being tracked.

The city is committed to transparent algorithms and a reporting requirement for sensors in public spaces, among other measures. In the context of the 750th anniversary of Amsterdam in 2025, the HvA, the University of Amsterdam, the municipality and others will be working towards this over the next four years. Together with the students, Stikker will contribute to shaping the digital city. “This is also about mobility and the sharing economy, the service economy that has been disrupted by platforms like Airbnb and Uber. For example, we want to help set up an alternative cab company that functions like a cooperative. And with the help of a data commons, we can ensure that people who rent a shared bike don’t lose their data to unknown parties. We have let these kinds of issues go on too long. To me, we now reached a point where we can start something new.”

In your inaugural address, you reminded students that they are not merely users of the Internet, but that they can help determine its direction. What do you mean by that?

“Regardless from their specialisation, students can contribute to a safe Internet. If you study economics, you can think about other revenue models. How can open source software, where the code is accessible to everyone, help breach the monopoly of tech companies? Students of creative studies can look into designing good interfaces. Law students can go all out: thinking about new legislation, analyzing GDPR and competition law, as well as AI, facial recognition and human rights. Students of education and teacher training programmes can explore methods which allow children to become familiar with technology in a playful manner.”

Do you also have a message for Google?

“’No. I don’t believe that we, the Netherlands alone, can work it out with Google. I would say let the European Union handle Google with better legislations and enforcements. It’s then up to us all to concentrate our efforts on developing of a new generation of the Internet.

Marleen Stikker will speak at OEB21 on December 2. This is a translation of an interview with her by Marjolein Van Trigt, which was published on March 19, 2021 in De Volkskrant, a Dutch daily morning newspaper. The original text (in Dutch) can be found here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.