"If you can't open it, you don't own it."

Marleen StikkerBerlin (GER) / Amsterdam (NL), June 2021 - OEB21 Opening Keynote speaker and Internet pioneer Marleen Stikker contends, "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 a critical view on digital technologies in students and administrators. This is the only way to push back against the power of big tech companies and make the Internet a truly public place. Marleen Stikker will speak at OEB21 on 02 December.

OEB Global has kindly been granted permission to share a recent interview held with Marleen by Marjolein van Trigt of De Volkskrant, a daily national Dutch newspaper.

On the day that the Volkskrant spoke 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) responded. As director of research institute and design lab Waag, she has warned for 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 schools 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 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 it 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 have united under the name PublicSpaces to 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. Stikker’s 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?

Marleen Stikker: 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?

Marleen Stikker: 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 - neither 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. This 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.