Privacy and security experts gathered in Tartu on Friday to reflect on some of the most pressing online issues of the last half year and how national research and educational networks (NRENs) can be a hedge against too much government and corporate control of the Internet.
The conference marked the 20th anniversary of EENet, the Estonian Internet backbone that became the first ISP in the country in 1993 and continues to provide bandwidth and other services for researchers, universities and cultural institutions.
Skepticism regarding Big Data was the order of the day from several speakers, such as Internet Society technical outreach director Robin Wilton, who expressed outright worry over algorithms that may in the near future allow unprecedented semantic analysis and tracking. He also opined about the "creepiness" of the "third, invisible party in the room" on social media sites.
John Dyer, business and tech strategist at TERENA, the European NREN umbrella organization, said there continues to be a need for NRENs and called for more cooperation globally.
"The users of NRENs are also users of […] aggregrators like Google and Microsoft. We have lots of users and can use that as a bargaining chip to get what we want. We can act as a broker aggregating requirements of community users, going to the market and getting some good deals on services. We'd be powerful if we could aggregate on the global front."
Asked whether any NRENs had been terminated, Dyer said no, but added that there was a discernible trend of creeping nationalization, and cited Portugal.
The biggest consumer of EENet, as with many NRENs are theoretical physics research projects like the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. Estonia's Mario Kadastik, a senior research fellow at the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics, coordinates one of a number of centers that analyzes data and runs simulations in the quest to determine whether the Higgs boson, an elusive subatomic particle, exists. The volumes of data involved are measured in several petabytes, a unit equal to a million gigabytes.
In his presentation, Dyer made a strong case for extending the benefits of NRENs to the humanities as well. "Not everyone needs an optical path to the LHC, some people just need e-mail."
Other Estonian speakers at the conference included Anto Veldre, the Estonian Information System Authority's computer emergency response team specialist, known for colorful presentations and views often as unbridled as those of electronic freedom activists, and Rain Ottis of the Tallinn University of Technology, who has worked for the NATO cyberdefense center.