Democracy hacked — a rather underwhelming evening with The Guardian

I went to the Guardian Live event on the impact of new tech on democracy last night and came out feeling mildly annoyed and fully underwhelmed. I was there to support Martha Lane-Fox, who I think is a wonderful advocate for tech in the UK, and whose NGO (doteveryone) I am a proud supporter of. I was also there because I had hoped that the panelists would give her the opportunity to talk more about her proposed plan for an Office for Responsible Technology. Mrs Lane Fox, through doteveryone, has put together a number of papers and research to showcase the need for an independent regulator for technology matters in the UK (find them here) and I’ve always found their approach the most balanced one because it comes from a regard for ethics, equity and responsible business making but also from a deep understanding of how tech operates.

Sadly, most of the above was not an issue last night, as the majority of the panelists were more interested in sensationalist topics and sharing utopian/dystopian ideas that have little basis in how the Internet operates.

That said, I do have to single out Professor Luciano Floridi, a professor of philosophy and ethics of information at Oxford University, as the GOOD GUY on the panel. I thought his interventions came from a foundation of profound empathy and understanding for the way tech and the internet operate and found him, while too inclined to jump to facile metaphors or comparisons, refreshing to listen to (particularly when he near quoted my favourite moment in TPB documentary: the Internet IS real).

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He tried to explain that you cannot regulate the internet like it’s a media company because “nobody lives ON the TV […] but we all live online” which is SO true, he proposed a proactive approach to regulation which would show tech companies a direction to go into rather than subjecting them to patch-like regulation which tries to fix small offences as they happen, and he advocated for caution in relation to AI while making it very clear that we’re nowhere near AI taking over.

The rest of it was mostly frustrating as it meandered from how unprepared the UK government is to apply electoral law, how China is the real threat, why Tories are not to be trusted and of course the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Throughout I was pained by the incredible assumptions underlining everything that was being said: social media and /or tech and/or the Internet are to blame for the problems we are seeing with democracy, Facebook and Twitter should be held accountable for what Russian bot farmers do, nobody can build a company like Facebook therefore they should be broken apart and regulated, Facebook holds all of our data and the government should, the government will behave responsibly with our data and private companies don’t.

It would take me a week to break down the many ways in which most of the speakers failed to understand basic things about how the Internet and tech companies operate, what the genesis of this “civic disobedience” way of doing business is and why we simply cannot apply the same rules for free speech as they do in the US. Martha Lane Fox was the only one who pointed out something that made sense about the latter — free speech in the US is NOT like we think of right to speech here. If you want to understand more read this heartbreaking statement from ACLU Legal Director David Cole.

There are two things I need to point out about what happened there:

  1. The government has a plan that is not built on sound foundations → I mentioned before this idea of patch-like solutions; people identify what seems to be a problem and they provide a simple, patch solution to that problem. Case in point: the faulty application of electoral law which was discussed in detail on the panel. The contention is this: electoral law was skirted by tech platforms which allowed people to post electoral ads without signalling them as such. The example (typical of the anachronistic way the government thinks about this) given was that of leaflets which people put in your mailbox which have to have the source of the paying party printed on them. The solution proposed (and implemented by Facebook) is for Facebook to mark all political ads. I’m not going to comment on how this fixes little to nothing but I will use the same silly analogy to explain what they’re trying to do: they’re asking the printing house that’s printing the leaflets to ask their clients who they are and put it on the leaflets and assume the printing house will do the due diligence to ensure they’re not being lied to. Hilarious and sad at the same time. And a patch, a wrong one at that, for a topical problem.
  2. The problems they’re trying to fix are transnational and they are applying national laws to them. There was a lot of time spent in the panel on the issue of Russia and China and how the danger comes from sources outside the UK. The answer seems to be that yes, companies are international but we need to apply our national rules to them meaning we will make bot farmers in Russia abide by UK law or else. The defining moment of how much this conversation does not work was when MP Collins let slip that there are ways to do this, potentially “cutting external access” for the bad guys only, of course, and etc. He then mumbled “VPN networks” and stopped himself as he could see where that would have taken him. This is what he checked himself from saying: we will not allow access to “the foreign bad guys” to our “national Internet” by putting blocks on VPN clients and potentially working with the ISPs to ensure that only validated sources have access. That is an attack on #netneutrality and he simply did not want to say it out loud.
  3. Our rhetoric about the Internet has become inflamed and negative and it discounts the fact that, genuinely, we are no longer able to live without most of what the Internet offers not because we are addicted but because it’s BETTER.

As I was walking home, I reflected on whether the gulf that seems to separate people who, like Professor Floridi, understand that the internet is something we live on and has affected our culture and society in ways which go beyond media and electoral law, and regulators like MP Collins will ever be bridged. I thought of how an accurate implementation of the GDPR had exposed me to my first message of “this website is not accessible from your country until we sort out how to deal with GDPR” and how extremely frustrated and deprived that had made me feel and how much I wanted my internet to be the way I’ve been experiencing it thus far, free, open, global.

I think tech companies should be regulated. I think we are unprepared to do it with the cohort of politicians I’ve heard speak about it. And mostly, I think we should be as radical with the idea of #netneutrality as the ACLU is with that of free speech unless we want to kill the biggest thing that’s been invented since they made fire.

Digital Strategist. The Internet will save the world (pending verification). Views expressed here are my own/should not be construed as coming from my employer.

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