Rachael Jolley, editor of Index on Censorship magazine gave the following speech at Eurozine’s 29th European Meeting of Cultural Journals. This year, the meeting was entitled ‘Mind the gap: Illiberal democracy and the crisis of representation’. Panels discussed the rise of the populist right as result of a failure of institutional politics and the role of the liberal media in the dynamics of polarisation.
As you know, we British are very fond of tea. Today, I am going to look at three Ts:
- And why terms and conditions apply.
The over-arching questions here are what is the democracy we want and what is the technology we want to achieve that?
In other words, how can we make it happen?
Long, long ago sometime in the 1990s I went to the BT Lab in Ipswich where they were developing the house of the future, where the washing machine talked to you and you could talk to everything. Then the lab guys said, it will be great, we’ll know what you are wanting to buy and when it’s on sale or you are out of it someone will phone you and tell you.
Ugh, that sounds creepy, I said. No, they said, it will be great.
And so it came to pass, only it wasn’t the phone that called but social media and the internet that knew what I wanted and the phone call was a pop-up ad. And I still think it is creepy.
Because the only person I want to know whether I am out of milk, or I want to buy a new bed, is ME.
One friend even told me that Google knew he had Multiple Sclerosis before he did. As ads for the MS Society keep popping up when he was online, and after a while he began to wonder why.
Right now Google is hoovering up our data, who we email, what we search for, what we want to buy. Not just Google, but Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and entertainment companies like Netflix and the BBC line up a list of programmes they know we want to watch even though we haven’t even heard of them yet.
They are offering to take decisions away from us, by letting them do it. It’s tough out there, so may we choose you a book, a film, a life, a friend who agrees with you, and pretty soon you won’t realise other choices have been taken away.
But actually in many ways this is nothing new. In 2006-10 I worked for a think tank that was pretty close to the government of the time, and it was well known that when Number 10 wanted to know what people were thinking, buying, feeling, —– a societal snapshot if you will —– they talked to the supermarkets, because back then the supermarkets were seen as the leaders in data collection. They knew if more people were buying rom coms, spending less on the weekly shop or stocking up on tins because they thought there might be a crisis.
Back then, and now, supermarkets were gathering data from loyalty cards, then Google, Facebook and others realised we would give loads of information about ourselves to them for free, if they created something we wanted. So they did.
It was our choice. We chose free email, when paid was an option. Other alternatives were, and are available. We choose a search engine that tracks our data. We chose to add our date of birth, photos, and holiday details to Facebook. Handing it over without question.
Do you remember reading one of those terms and conditions apply documents for the first time, and realising you were giving an app the opportunity to read your emails and look at your photos? I do. But people happily signed up and got stuff for free. And the deal was on.
And why is this a democratic issue? The thing is in a democracy we had and have a responsibility to make decisions, as well as to be informed and to be represented.
And in democracies we need to decide more, rather than have decisions thrust upon us. In giving away our data we didn’t realise that all that information would be collated into huge data banks, where people could work out things, like this person with a car is far more likely to vote for Trump than this person who uses public transport. And from there, all those people with cars would be targeted with messages before the US election. And all this data analysis about what people did with their lives would be used to target people with messages in the run up to the Brexit referendum.
Transparency in a democracy means what the impact of our decisions are. I also want to know what the government is doing on my behalf. And I want transparency from companies operating in my country that may have impact on my democracy. I want to trust that the political system is working, and that is not being driven by shadowy figures and ideas that are hidden from view.
So transparency of who we ALLOW to access our data, and having a personal contract with companies saying what they can and can’t do MUST be part of our future democracies.
We also need more transparency about what political parties in an election period are saying to voters. In previous decades we knew what arguments were being made to different parts of the electorate because we saw the billboards or the TV ads or the newspapers advertising, or the interviews.
But what we are seeing increasingly used in the run up to elections is hidden messages, hidden politicking.
The electoral bodies need to catch up with those digital leaps and make some changes to what is allowed in election periods. I am going to argue that each campaign — needs to lodge one example of each message/campaign with them, whether they are on Facebook or on the side of the road, so those that don’t receive them know about them, and are able to discuss and debate whether there is any truth or value in them. In the UK the Electoral Commission needs to make changes so parties can not use hidden tactics. There will be hurdles and opposition, but a system needs to work, in the same way, we used to be able to see an ad, we should then be able to access at least on the Electoral Commission, for instance, each major campaign that a party is running, giving others the chance to fact check or oppose it.
Because a democracy should be a noisy, open society where there is disagreement and argument and there is space to do so.
Transparency breeds more trust, and that’s something that politicians and political systems need in order to operate. If no one believes in the system then it fails.
Democracy must supply its own terms and conditions, ones that create structure for rights and responsibilities, both for its citizens and for corporations operating within it.
These include paying tax, living within the laws of the land, and supporting its essential freedoms.
We do not want to hand over the right to choose what we are allowed to see or read or hear to unelected Silicon Valley corporations. We should not be happy with governments that try to do just that, and suggest that massive California-based companies should be selecting news or views for us. We should make those choices ourselves.
At Index, we have already heard of videos being taken down showing Rohinga Muslims being persecuted, after pressure from the Burmese government — what this does is attempts to undermine evidence gathering by human rights organisations. We hear of numerous issues where the Chinese government attempts to stop its citizens from having access to books and articles and news items on the internet, often by pressurising digital media from publishing them. These are governments pressurising social media and digital companies to censor or restrict access, but in other nations governments seem to want to hand over those decisions to social media, rather than reviewing the law and going through a democratic process.
And back to those terms and conditions that come with apps and other tools, sometimes these run to as many as 30,000 words — the size of a small book — that is not a document designed for people to read or understand. Simple, straightforward contracts need to replace this culture of hidden meanings, designed to mystify and mislead.
We should know what we are signing up for, with our new era of democracy and the technology that goes with it.
We need tech that works to help us be informed, be curious, to connect, and of course we should remember that these tools do exist for good, but they can also be misused to surveil and suppress.