Regulating technologies for the future

Posted: June 4th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: education, governance, human rights, politics, privacy, technology, thoughts | No Comments »
There is going to be some sort of regulation of the new technologies, sooner or later. Governments are getting involved and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Libertarian-minded people might not agree with this, but in the deployment phase of any techno-economic paradigm (as illustrated by Carlota Perez) governments are going to have to step in to guarantee the success of the deployment for all.
In the previous TEP, this was “The New Deal”, Marshall Plan and the development of global institutions. This resulted in the post-War Golden Age in the US and Western Europe, with the social safety net and a strong middle class. The one before (The Belle Epoque) was more of a Gilded Age, which benefited only a few.
The ICT TEP, which we are in the middle of, is going to be the greatest of those so far, because for the first time to paradigm shift is more or less global, impacting billions of people at once.
  • We need regulation to ensure that new technologies reach all people of the world and not benefit just the few (enacting strong net neutrality rules for example).
  • We need smart regulation to prevent tech monopolies from abusing their position.
  • We need rules that provide public oversight and participation.
  • We need to make sure that new technologies are not going to be used for unethical and immoral ends.
  • We need to make sure that there are strong privacy rules protect the individual, their freedom and autonomy.
  • We need to make sure that technology does not allow totalitarian and extremist propaganda to isolate individuals and destroy solidarity, trust and social cohesion that is more necessary that ever in an interconnected and interdependent world.
  • We also need to change our existing regulations to fit with the new world, in all levels of governance. Otherwise we are sailing the oceans with outdated maps (as Seyla Benhabib so well compared the lack of guidance that international law gives us in a new era of cosmopolitanism). This requires creativity and imagination, an open mind.
However, there are also those that want to step in and regulate in ways that work against those goals. There are those who want regulation to go the other way: expanding and legalising mass-surveillance, ban strong encryption, protect monopolistic technologies, prevent or limit access to technologies by poorer countries or help to deny the voice and participation for minorities and women.
The fight is not for or against regulation: not having rules is not a sustainable option. The fight is about what kind of rules we will have; whether there will be those that protect human dignity, freedom and rights, advance solidarity and mutual respect and understanding; or those that divide and threaten, limit freedoms and rights.

On the election of Donald Trump

Posted: November 9th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: diversity, elections, governance, politics, technology, united states | No Comments »

My take is that the election of Trump was a loud message of disapproval from a signficant part of the electorate to the political elite, which had formed a closed, clientelist and thus undemocratic system. In a world where people have an increased expectation of more equal access to power, those closed systems are unappealing, especially to those left out. And those people are very much happy to destroy the system, just because they can. It is somewhat difficult to understand for those within the system or benefitting from it, but they should. In the US elections the choice was also so clearly between the candidate that embodies the establishment and an absolute outsider, so this was rather easy. I do not think that people will get what they wanted, but as a message it could have been worth it.

If one wants to avoid such things then one needs to increase diversity and inclusion within political parties to involve people from different backgrounds and open the whole thing up to a larger variety of people. In order for democracy to survive, parties have to be reformed from the hierarchical “old-boys-clubs” to modern networked, transparent and democratic institutions. In the UK, Labour has done some of this after much controversy and rebellion from those supporting the status quo. But that is just one part of it.

There is also a need to talk about elections and political representation as such in the ICT age, and not talking about potentially damaging pseudo-reforms like internet voting or direct digital democracy, but a substantial upgrade of representative democracy for the digital age. Perhaps we do not need regular elections, but just a way to trigger elections when enough of the population is no longer happy or when there is a stasis. Perhaps we need to re-think self-governance beyond the nation-state, to involve in the equation trans/supranational modes of governance. Somehow the mismatch between self-government aspirations of individuals who belong to different governance spheres and the corresponding dismal performance of democratic institutions or non-existence of those should be settled in a way that still resembles representative democracy.


On self-driving cars: the biggest challenge is not technological

Posted: October 24th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: privacy, technology, thoughts | No Comments »

For self-driving cars (or any new technology) to be a success you basically need three things: technological feasibility, social acceptability and economic profitability. So even if something is technologically possible, it might not get adapted because of the two other factors. Self-driving cars offer huge, transformational benefits for individuals and the society so it makes sense to look into how this could happen.

Technological feasibility seems to be the easiest to solve. The technology that makes self-driving cars safer than human-driven cars is mostly there already or getting there very soon. All of the big car manufacturers, Tesla, Google/Alphabet and Uber seem to be dedicating a lot of resources into advancing self-driving capabilities so the engineering is there.

Social acceptability (which depends on culture, history, values) for self-driving cars is also being slowly worked on. Uber and other ride-sharing services are changing perceptions of personal transport, but more needs to be done. Expect heavy incentives in the beginning and a global marketing campaign, which makes it cool not to own a car (or to have it drive others while you do not need it), highlighting for example the cost of owning a car to the environment. It could also focus on the convenience not owning a car brings (i.e. no need for finding a parking spot or worry about maintenance). The mindset shift is already happening, for example I am already looking at buying and owning a car as something quaint and old-fashioned (but I am an early adopter for tech anyway).

Those who do drive are slowly conditioned into giving up control. Tesla is getting drivers used to the coming new reality with the autopilot feature, others are also using advanced cruise control technologies. In some cities like Paris you also have car-sharing services, which also serve to detach you from the need of owning a car.

For economic profitability the state has a role on the development by subsidising costs, by regulations, by taxes, by limiting access to the crowded city space. For example, city centres could be made accessible only to self-driving cars. Owning a personal car could be made an expensive luxury by hiking taxes on cars. Liability and insurance needs a proper legal framework.

It also depends on whether there is finance to create the system, and how is it going to be organised. These are going to be the trickiest things to manage, I think. It will come with an overall shift from owning to renting/sharing (from buying goods to buying everything as a service), which is more efficient and environmentally friendly. There needs also to be strong protection on privacy so that you do not feel that your comings and goings can be tracked by the government or by corporations.

The mass-market car was the key product of the cheap oil, mass-production, waste of resources era, which is getting replaced by the information age. I can imagine that there will be perhaps three or four major self-driving car service providers that compete against each other (like mobile phone companies do) on quality, coverage, availability, but also on the strength of privacy protection.

The self-driving car system might be integrated within the business models of car manufacturers, which could be crowdfunded. I am not sure what the Tesla network is going to be like, but it could be that as a self-driving Tesla owner you could allow your car to be used for transporting others and in return you can use other people’s cars. So in a sense you will not buy a car, but a membership of a self-driving car sharing service. Alternatively, it could be that a car manufacturer operates a bunch of self-driving cars centrally.

The organisational models need to be made sensible, and easy and seamless to use so that they could be also operated by people who do not use smartphones or who use cash. Customer service is key so there needs to be support staff available for any issues as well as in order to make sure the system works for everyone.

Initially, people will not give up their personal cars, but will use them less and less for everyday travel, because self-driving cars are cheaper, more convenient and can get to places where other cars cannot. Eventually, the average person will do the math and consider that they might rent a car for that luxury experience of driving your own car somewhere. There might be specialised services for this, so you could for example book a car that you never got to drive before just for fun which will be delivered at your doorstep and which you will return after the ride. After a while this will be an entertainment activity for a minority (like riding a horse, a boat or an airplane) so the majority of people will never learn how to drive a car.

P.S. My first, and so far only, ride in a self-driving car took place nearly four years ago in early 2013 at Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City. Even though it was a short ride, it was quite an amazing feeling to sit into a car, press a button an be driven without any guides or drivers. Here is a photo:

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The End of Mass Surveillance?

Posted: October 21st, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: human rights, politics, privacy, technology, thoughts | No Comments »

Mass surveillance, introduced hastily under the pretence of guaranteeing security, is hopefully seeing the beginning of its end in many countries. A perfect example of technological step forward that was made because we could, but actually should not have, mass surveillance was set back only after several protracted legal battles in Europe. It was also an attempt by some to fundamentally reconfigure the relationship between the state and the individual (because without privacy there can be no constitutional democracy, no free elections, no freedom of speech, no human dignity).

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) showed in several decisions that privacy as a fundamental right is here to stay. The Court started with the quite unprecedented nullification of the Data Retention Directive (Joined Cases C-293/12 and C‑594/12 Digital Rights Ireland) in April 2014:

As regards the necessity for the retention of data required by Directive 2006/24, it must be held that the fight against serious crime, in particular against organised crime and terrorism, is indeed of the utmost importance in order to ensure public security and its effectiveness may depend to a great extent on the use of modern investigation techniques. However, such an objective of general interest, however fundamental it may be, does not, in itself, justify a retention measure such as that established by Directive 2006/24 being considered to be necessary for the purpose of that fight.

As for the question of whether the interference caused by Directive 2006/24 is limited to what is strictly necessary, it should be observed that, in accordance with Article 3 read in conjunction with Article 5(1) of that directive, the directive requires the retention of all traffic data concerning fixed telephony, mobile telephony, Internet access, Internet e-mail and Internet telephony. It therefore applies to all means of electronic communication, the use of which is very widespread and of growing importance in people’s everyday lives. Furthermore, in accordance with Article 3 of Directive 2006/24, the directive covers all subscribers and registered users. It therefore entails an interference with the fundamental rights of practically the entire European population.

It then continued just one month later to establish a strong pro-privacy stance in the Google Spain decision (C-131/12) in which it established “the right to be forgotten” and forced Google to remove certain search results if people legitimately request it.

The latest blow to mass surveillance came earlier this month, when the CJEU declared the EU-US Safe Harbor arrangement void in the Schrems case (C-362/14). Safe Harbor had been used by many US corporations to process the personal data of EU citizens as the US itself lacks as strong privacy laws as the EU requires (which are the toughest in the world). The case, which was brought by Austrian student and privacy activist Maximilian Schrems against the Irish data protection body for their reluctance to take on Facebook resulted in the CJEU stepping in an declaring the whole Safe Harbor arrangement invalid [1].

Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and a lot of others have all been impacted and have made alternative arrangements. Many of them have come out in the support of stronger privacy rights. Microsoft Chief Legal Counsel Brad Smith writes:

But privacy rights cannot endure if they change every time data moves from one location to another. Individuals should not lose their fundamental rights simply because their personal information crosses a border. While never stated quite this directly, this principle underlies every aspect of the European Court’s decision, and it makes sense.

Add to this the daily reality that personal data is often moved not by individuals, but by companies and governments. Typically, individuals are not even aware of where their information is being moved or stored. It is untenable to expect people to rely on a notion of privacy protection that changes every time someone else moves their information around. No fundamental right can rest on such a shaky foundation.[2]

Apple CEO Tim Cook has explained their approach to privacy:

We do think that people want us to help them keep their lives private. We see that privacy is a fundamental human right that people have. We are going to do everything that we can to help maintain that trust. …

Our view on this comes from a values point of view, not from a commercial interest point of view. Our values are that we do think that people have a right to privacy. And that our customers are not our products. We don’t collect a lot of your data and understand every detail about your life. That’s just not the business that we are in.[3]

Cook’s mentioning that “our customers are not our products” is a dig against Alphabet (formerly known as Google) and, of course, Facebook, which are the companies that have built a huge business by enticing a big part of the world’s population to trust them with their private data. Those companies are the ones with the most to lose from the resurrection of the right to privacy. Facebook is already grasping at straws by claiming somehow that better privacy protections endanger the security of users[4]. Google has in the past tried to undermine the privacy concerns against it by riding the freedom of information horse, but has recently also started to take things more seriously as it understands that its business model is threatened. Google’s SVP Rachel Whetstone even offered a rare mea culpa early this year at a speech in Bavaria:

Finally, let me turn to privacy. I want to start by making clear Google hasn’t always got this right. It’s not just about the errors we have made–with products like Buzz or the mistaken collection of WiFi data–but about our attitude too. These have been lessons learned the hard way. But as our swift implementation of the Right to be Forgotten has shown, they are indeed lessons we have learned. [5]

There are plenty of politicians, (security) officials, companies and others who took the decision to ignore the right to privacy and contributed to the creation and utilisation of mass surveillance which has resulted in probably the most large-scale infringement of human rights so far in history. Meanwhile this cost has had no significant benefits: it has not made anyone safer or prevented crimes and even if it did manage to prevent some in the future, it would not be close to the worth the cost to our values, democracy, society and economy.

While it may have seemed to some (including Estonian president and chief tech evangelist Toomas Hendrik Ilves [6]) that so-called Little Sister (i.e. private businesses) is more dangerous to privacy than Big Brother, then now they have been proven wrong. Preserving privacy in the digital age is as much in the interests of tech companies as it is for the consumers and it is still the governments that we should be most worried about. The fight will continue, but in more balanced way because there is more awareness of the cost of mass surveillance. There are a number of court cases pending and there are stronger and stronger voices globally that something has to be done in order to guarantee better privacy protections for everyone.

Thankfully there are those who have dared to start this fight against great pressures. Edward Snowden of course, along with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian and others deserve thanks from all of humanity for what they did at great personal cost. But we also should be very thankful to the judges who have done their job and used their powers for good. They have proven themselves as the last bastions of rule of law, democracy and human rights (even of our political leaders terribly failed us) and saved us from immediate privacy dystopia. We should all thank them and the people and organisations who brought the cases and continue to do so. They are heroes who have helped and continue to help to nudge humankind to a better future.

Post scriptum: My own small contribution to the fight against mass surveillance was the application I submitted to the Chancellor of Justice (the only independent constitutional rights watchdog) in Estonia to check whether mass telecommunications data retention is unconstitutional (as this was introduced resulting from the now invalid data retention directive). After long deliberations, the Chancellor sadly did not think that data retention is necessarily illegal, but nevertheless considered that privacy safeguards need to be strengthened and requested that the Ministry of Justice conduct a comprehensive analysis of the legislation. See her opinion here (in Estonian).

Further reading:

  1. Behind the European Privacy Ruling That’s Confounding Silicon Valley, New York Times, 9 October 2015.
  2. Smith, Brad. The collapse of the US-EU Safe Harbor: Solving the new privacy Rubik’s Cube, Microsoft on the Issues, 20 October 2015.
  3. Apple CEO Tim Cook: ‘Privacy Is A Fundamental Human Right’, Interview on NPR, 1 October 2015.
  4. Facebook Goes On Privacy Offensive in Europe, WSJ, 13 October 2015.
  5. Whetstone, Rachel. Privacy, security, surveillance: getting it right is important, Google Europe blog, 13 February 2015.
  6. President Ilves: we should worry about the “little sister” instead of the “big brother”

Kant and Facebook

Posted: January 28th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: governance, human rights, law, politics, privacy, schoolwork, technology, thoughts | No Comments »

This essay was originally written as a final assignment for the State and Governance class I took this Fall.

This essay aims to consider the concept of the autonomous individual and its role in the political philosophy of Immanuel Kant. This applicability of the concept to a world that is changing due to social media is then analysed in parallel with other pressures. Finally, possibilities to uphold individual autonomy in this new context are explored briefly.

Kant’s autonomous individual

Kant believed strongly in the rationality and morality of an individual. In order to be moral one needs to be able to make choices, which is where individual autonomy comes in. If an individual makes a moral choice, only then she can be praised for it (Berlin 1971). Berlin puts it:

“If I choose to do what I do, not because I am free to choose between them, but because I am conditioned to do so, by whatever it may be – by education, by my passions, by the behaviour of my body, by the pressure upon me of my society, by any kind of force, whether the external forces of nature or the forces of nurture or education or, as I say, my own emotions – if I am in fact conditioned, if I am simply an object in nature like stones and animals, who cannot help acting as they do, so that some men are generous because they cannot help being generous and others are mean because they cannot help being mean, how then can praise and blame be rationally used?” (Berlin 1971)

This central tenet of Kant’s political philosophy distinguishes human beings from other animals and objects. Kant believed that human beings as autonomous individuals are able to tell right from wrong, if the time comes for such a decision. The autonomous individual is, in turn, an important cornerstone for Kant’s political philosophy.

This autonomy is not mere right to make choice and decisions, but it is the possibility to make choices without influence of others, without social conditioning. It places value in the individual uniqueness of each person and her dignity. In this way human beings can make moral judgments that are also rational. This also means that human beings are capable of self-government and is the basis behind the formation of constitutions and democratic constitutional republics.

Autonomy and freedom are not the same. Autonomy is a state in which a person can be in whereas freedom can refer to specific actions: it can even mean a choice to reduce one’s personal freedom (Feinberg 1982):

“Where manipulative techniques are used to open a person’s options with his voluntary consent, there is an enlargement of freedom and no violation of autonomy; hence, this is the least troublesome category. A harder case is that in which a person consents to behavior control which closes some options irrevocably for the sake of a good he has come to value more than his freedom. Respect for autonomy requires noninterference with such choices provided they are genuinely voluntary and fully informed. On the other hand, manipulation of a person without his consent in order to close his options restricts freedom and violates autonomy too. This third category is the most obviously impermissible kind of case. The most troublesome and controversial kind of case, in contrast, is that in which a person is manipulated without his consent for the benign purpose of enlarging his future freedom of choice, but even here, the doctrine of personal sovereignty requires that a person’s moral right to govern himself within his sovereign domain be given precedence even over his future defacto freedom.” (Feinberg 1982).

The loss of autonomy has a much more profound impact on an individual than the (temporary) loss of freedom. In the Kantian sense, individual autonomy is an ideal state.

Kant’s political philosophy is the basis of liberal democracy and the current organisation of the world into states as political entities. We live in a Kantian world, with the concept of the Rechtstaat, a constitutional state which is constrained by human rights and the underlying principles of which stem from the moral values and consent of its citizens.

Focusing on the individual, Kant believed in a republican political order and not in direct democracy. He stated: “… that of democracy is, properly speaking, necessarily a despotism, because it establishes an executive power in which “all” decide for or even against one who does not agree; that is, “all,” who are not quite all, decide, and this is a contradiction of the general will with itself and with freedom” (Kant 1795). Thus Kant sided with the individual always, and not with the will of the majority, which he saw as despotism. This is an important distinction that highlights how important Kant considered individual human beings and their autonomy.

Indeed, individual autonomy is a necessary building block from which the Rechtstaat can be built. Autonomous individuals who have an innate understanding of morality choose to associate themselves with others in a political entity in which they agree to be bound by a constitution that reflects those basic moral values. In this state that is based on the principle of Rechtstaat, those individuals retain autonomy and are protected against misuse of power. Other states, which are constructed in the same way, are co-existing peacefully with each other in a global setting.

The Kantian concept of individual autonomy is very much present in John Stuart Mill’s philosphophy, in which he claims it to be “one of the elements of well-being” (Mill 1859). This has been further advanced by Rawls, who considers individual consent essential for his theory of justice (Christman 2014).

Web 2.0

We live in a ICT-centric techno-economic paradigm (Perez 2009). The most powerful technology in this era is the World Wide Web that is changing our society and our behaviour. The Internet was initially text-based and mostly one-way communication in which information was made available on various websites for individual users. Although Web 2.0 is a buzzword that is difficult to define, it is commonly used to denote innovations in websites, including the use of new technologies such as AJAX, social components such as user profiles, friend links and like buttons, user-generated content in different formats (text, video, photos) that also invite comments and ratings (Cormode and Krishnamurthy 2008). The social aspects of Web 2.0 include:

  • users as entities in the website system, with individualised profiles that includes information about the user that may be added by the user or other users;
  • formation of connections between those users, either individual connections between “friends” or membership of common groups or subscription to information shared by other users (“following”);
  • the possibility to add text, photo, video or other content to the site and to content published by other users, with some control of privacy and sharing
  • other social features including public APIs that allow third party content to bed fed to other sites or embedded in the site in question, as well as real-time chat features. (Cormode and Krishnamurthy 2008).

The social and “sharing” features have enjoyed considerable success, with social media sites among the most popular on the web. At the time of writing of this paper, there were 1,35 billion daily Facebook users and 323 million daily users of twitter (out of a total of ca 3 billion internet users).  In the United States in January 2014, 74% of all internet users used social networking site of some kind whereas 89% of users aged 18-29 do.

The implications of Web 2.0 and its impact on the protection of privacy has divided experts. According to a recent report by Pew Research Center, experts remain divided over whether there will or will not be a global widely accepted privacy infrastructure in 2025 (Pew Research Center 2014). Those who were more sceptical believed that only a few can protect themselves against “dataveillance”, global agreements are difficult to reach and Internet of Things will make the situation a lot worse. Those who were more optimistic believed that there will be a more tiered approach to privacy and consumers will have new tools to self-manage privacy settings, that there will be a backlash against invasion of privacy. However, experts agreed that revealing personal information to the state and corporations is the new default and that people will adjust their norms to it.

Web 2.0 also has additional implications for democracy in addition to privacy issues, it is questioned whether the existing democratic systems are suitable for the constantly networked young people (Loader et al 2014). Loader reprints Russell Brand’s defence of non-voting:

“I’m not voting out of apathy, I’m not voting out of absolute indifference, and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations and which has reached fever pitch where we have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system so voting for it is tacit complicity with that system. And that is not something I’m offering up.” (Loader et al 2014)

 Younger generations might consider representative democracy archaic and “uncool” and thus will be even more disillusioned and uninterested in the existing systems. Although efforts are being made to make voting cool for the connected generation (by introducing e-voting for example), this can have unintended consequences on the overall functioning of the democratic governance system and infringe on the basic safeguards that guarantee against fraud and abuse.

Autonomy and social media

Social media also changes our individual selves, because a person continues to have a singular identity that is the same in both online and offline world (Ess 2015). This means that what happens in social media has changes offline lives as well. In this context, Ess considers that in Western countries there is a shift away from the rational, individual and autonomous individual towards emotive and relational individual that increasingly defines herself through relationships she has with others. This is supported by the changing attitudes towards privacy and (intellectual) property that are no longer exclusive and individual, mainly due to the virtual abundance offered by the internet (Kostakis and Drechsler 2013). At the same time, in Eastern countries there is a shift from relational to a more individual emphasis, which means a kind of convergence in the middle.

The key factor in autonomy is individual privacy. The right to privacy became relevant with the advent of the first mass communication technologies, i.e. photographs in a newspaper (Warren and Brandeis 1890). As a consequence of abuses by totalitarian regimes that took advantage of technologies that allowed for infringement of privacy, a strong framework of laws has been in place that guarantees individual privacy, especially in Europe. In the current era right to privacy is seen by some as unimportant, but it would be more correct to note that the understanding and usage of the right to privacy has transformed. Research has shown a phenomenon that could be described as “partial publicity” or “public privacy” which essential means that privacy has become multilayered and that there are several shades of gray between total publicity and total individual privacy (Ess 2015). A new form of subactivism has been identified occurring in the social media space that “is not about political power in the strict sense, but about personal empowerment seen as the power of the subject to be the person that they want to be in accordance with his or her reflexively chosen moral and political standards.“ (Bakardijeva 2009).

As a consequence of the developments of social media, especially in the sense of loss/transformation of privacy, the Western understanding of self is moving away from individual sense of selfhood (that is essential for an autonomous and rational individual) towards a more relational sense of selfhood (Ess 2015).

The other impact that social media has, is the changes in communication. The (national) public sphere is weakened due to the fragmentation enabled by the web, which is dominated by commercial interests. There is a fragmented public sphere in which people are in their own social bubbles in which they engage in computer-mediated communication using non-neutral algorithms programmed to maximise profit or potentially used for something more sinister.

It is well known that Facebook and other social media sites exploit privacy for commercial gain. The business model relies on individuals using social media and reveal more to others, i.e. “if you are not paying for it, you are the product”.

Jürgen Habermas has stated in an interview with FT:

“The internet generates a centrifugal force, …[i]t releases an ­anarchic wave of highly fragmented circuits of communication that ­infrequently overlap. Of course, the spontaneous and egalitarian nature of unlimited communication can have subversive effects under authoritarian regimes. But the web itself does not produce any public spheres. Its structure is not suited to focusing the attention of a dispersed public of citizens who form opinions simultaneously on the same topics and contributions which have been scrutinised and filtered by experts.”

Seyla Benhabib also sees profound changes in the democratic models induced by new forms of media:

 “The emergence of new media technologies, and new centres of information is leading to everyone doing their “own thing,” so to speak. It’s as if people are going around with bubble wrap around their brains. And inside the bubble wrap is the informational world that they themselves have generated. When we first articulated this model about the interaction of the strong and weak public spheres in the late 1980s and 1990s, many of us were thinking of transformations in Eastern Europe, the emergence of civil society movements, strong women’s movements, ecology and youth movements in the West, and so the model was one of a decentred, weak public sphere of anonymous conversations and networks that would then have some impact on the decisional public sphere. Now, we need to reconsider this model in the light of the complete proliferation of the electronic media and public spheres – the rise of FaceBook; YouTube; community and citizen journalism, etc…”

Thus in an abundance of information and communication options, people are for the first time able to choose for themselves also which spheres to belong to and which to form. Communication no longer knows state and community boundaries, people are no longer bound by their associations in a spatial ways. Also, the former borders of specific ingroups and outgroups are becoming fuzzy and individual identities are becoming blurred as well, which adds to the pressure of relational rather than individual selves, because the latter are not so easy to define any more.

One could imagine a not so distant future in which Facebook and/or its descendants have become even more persuasive than today. Already today, Facebook has shown that it is willing to ethically questionable and possibly illegal social experiments that change the mood of its users. It also already manipulates voting patterns by pushing people to vote by creating peer pressure to go to polls. Thus it is not difficult to imagine that at some point in the not so distant future Facebook could manipulate and nudge users to vote for a particular candidate or political party. For example, it could manipulate its feed algorithms to show more news stories that could make people vote progressive or conservative. As the algorithms are secret, it is not possible to know whether this is already not done.

Currently Facebook already allows paid political advertising. In Estonia, where outdoor political advertising has been banned to improve the quality of democratic debate, an extremely poor decision upheld by an even worse judgment by the Estonian Supreme Court, it is allowed to have banner ads that direct you to the e-voting site where you can vote for your candidate. As social media advertising techniques surely improve, it will be easier than ever to nudge you to vote in the “right” direction, by analysing the commercially available data. You can then be targeted with tailored messages.

The autonomous individual is not only in danger during elections, but social media has also helped to create the conditions to impact the state in other ways.

As social media offers technological tools for bringing together large groups, potentially the whole population, there has been renewed interest towards direct democracy and deliberative democracy. Direct democracy was considered to be despotism by Kant and there is no reason to believe that widespread use of direct democracy would not result in worsening of the status and conditions of minorities. Even when Facebook itself has tried to emply direct democracy methods, it has had to face failure.

Mediacratisation has also been heightened by social media, in which it is much easier to induce moral panics that can be used to force changes in policies or even impact legislative processes. In November 2014, Estonian Minister of Finance resigned due to a arguably Russophobic comment he made on Facebook when commenting there. Even if one agrees that such comment was unacceptable (and I personally do), it shows that politicians are facing new pressures from social media sources, which can organise quickly for or against a specific cause. This could lead to a world of emotional voting which was depicted in the sci-fi TV series “Black Mirror” episode “The Waldo Moment”.

Possibilities for “Facebook Kantianism”

For a Kantian autonomous individual to survive there are several ways to preserve it and keep Facebook too. This requires to regulate Facebook on a global scale, which is difficult, but nevertheless achievable.

If one considers Kantianism as the perseverance of the autonomous individual in a social media setting, then interesting possibilities arise. It partly depends on whether one considers Facebook as a neutral and mechanical platform that simply replicates online the processes that happen offline. However, it seems that Facebook goes far beyond that. The algorithms that define what gets shown to whom are programmed by human beings and even if they try to stay neutral, it is rather impossible to do.

It could be that the solution is the regulation of Facebook according to an understanding of hybrid self (Ess 2015), which means that Kantian autonomy is consciously and deliberately preserved for those purposes which require moral judgment and which have wider political consequences, whereas in other relationships a more relational side prevails. There needs to be some way of delineating these aspects and also regulation that prevents any infringements of the independent side. This means certainly more regulation of Facebook and the likes and an enforceable ban on those activities that intrude on autonomy. Regulation of Facebook is, however, somewhat difficult as it already wields enormous political influence.

Another option would be a move towards cosmopolitan federalism, which would expand the Kantian concept of autonomy beyond the borders of the state. This is supported by the fact that democracy is undergoing a transformation also due to the decoupling of state and citizenship. Nation state is losing its monopoly to trans- and supranational, but also local levels of governance, leading to a growing ideas of globalised governance.

This does not necessarily mean the end of a nation state. Benhabib writes:

“This sketchy vision of cosmopolitan federalism is not based upon a hostility toward the nation-state; quite to the contrary. Only within a framework of sub- and transnational modes of cooperation, representation, and collaboration is it possible to protect the fundamental values of liberal and republican liberty, that is of private and public autonomy.”  (Benhabib 2005).

The fate of the autonomous individual is uncertain. However, if enlightenment values such as human rights, equality and democracy, upon which Western societies have so far prospered and which have managed to maintain a relative level of peace and non-violence in the world, were to be upheld more attention should be diverted towards the impact of social media on the concept. It might be necessary to create global regulation that would ensure that technology does not end up controlling human beings, but human beings continue to have autonomy in the dynamically changing world. There are no reasons why the principles of the Enlightenment could not be equally applied social networking sites. If done properly, this could bring about unprecedented levels of growth, peace and stability, because it is an opportunity to apply those principles not within Rawlsian self-contained nation states, but globally, to all those that are connected.

Tallinn, 6 January 2015

 

References

Bakardjieva, M. 2009. Subactivism: Lifeworld and politics in the age of the internet. The Information Society 25:91–104.

Benhabib, S. 2005. Borders, Boundaries, and Citizenship. PS: Political Science and Politics 38.4: 673-677.

Berlin, I. 1971. The Assault on the French Enlightenment. Kant and Individual Autonomy. John Danz Lectures, University of Washington, 22, 24 and 25 February 1971. Unpublished, available at: http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/lists/nachlass/assault2.pdf

Christman, J. 2014. Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Cormode, G., & Krishnamurthy, B. 2008. Key differences between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. First Monday, 13(6).

Ess, C. 2015. The Onlife Manifesto: Philosophical Backgrounds, Media Usages, and the Futures of Democracy and Equality. in: The Onlife Manifesto Being Human in a Hyperconnected Era (ed. L. Floridi). Springer

Feinberg, Joel. 1982. Autonomy, Sovereignty, and Privacy: Moral Ideals in the Constitution. Notre Dame L. Rev. 58: 445.

Loader, B., A. Vromen and M. A. Xenos. 2014. The networked young citizen: social media, political participation and civic engagement. Information, Communication & Society, 17:2, 143-150.

Kant, I. 1795. Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch

Kostakis, V. and W. Drechsler. 2013. “Commons-based peer production and artistic expression: Two cases from Greece. New Media & Society

Mill, J. S. 1859. On Individuality, as one of the elements of well-being. On Liberty.

Perez, C. 2009. Technological revolutions and techno-economic paradigms. Working Papers in Technology Governance and Economic Dynamics no. 20

Pew Research Center. 2014. The Future of Privacy. Available at http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/12/18/future-of-privacy/

Warren, S. D. and L. D. Brandeis. 1890. The Right to Privacy. Harvard Law Review, Vol. 4, No. 5 (Dec. 15, 1890), pp. 193-220


The end of collective technophilia?

Posted: May 18th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Estonia, european union, human rights, politics, privacy, technology, thoughts | 1 Comment »

2014 could be the year that a serious shift happened in our attitudes towards technology.  A more critical, perhaps mature attitude seems to be developing, initiated by the Black Swan event created by Snowden revelations, the so-called Snowden effect. Our societies will be better because of it, especially in terms of protection of human rights and democracy.

For a long time, there has been a concern that human rights do not get enough emphasis in our constant drive for better and more efficient living through constant improvement of technology. This has meant that technology has become and end and not means to achieve something.

In Estonia, this is even more prevalent, because the national narrative and international image of the country has been built to depend on technology. The success of e-stonia is seen as source of national pride and international scholars are also usually not focused on such a small country, which prevents any critical analysis of the situation and opens Estonia up to huge vulnerabilities. This perverse view of technology is seen particularly strongly now, when e-voting is touted by the ruling political elite (while one major party is totally against it). This view can be seen for example in the statement by President Ilves: “Minule on e-hääle andmine mitte ainult mugav, aga eelkõige usaldusavaldus maailma ühele paremale IT-süsteemile, usaldusavaldus Eesti riigile.” (“For me, e-voting is not only convenient, but foremost a statement of trust towards one of the world’s best IT-systems, a statement of trust towards the Estonian state”).

Worldwide, the shift to a more reasonable, less hype-filled approach is evidenced by various courts trying to better balance freedom of information and speech with privacy rights and other rights. Freedom of information and speech has seen an unparalleled Golden Age with the Internet, however, previously there was not much discussion related to the fact that human rights are interdependent and indivisible. Thus, a much greater emphasis on freedom of information also means that some other rights are going to be less protected.

In some remarkable recent court decisions courts have finally begun to critically evaluate the impact of technology to the society and, specifically, human rights. They have attempted (arguably not most successfully), to rebalance freedom of information with other rights. This has been mostly happening in Europe, since the EU has the strongest data protection laws in the world.

  • In the Delfi vs Estonia ECtHR case the ECtHR placed the responsibility for libelous anonymous comments on the online news portal that published them, rather than the author of the comment. The case has been referred to the Grand Chamber so there still might be a change, but the initial chamber decision stated pretty clearly: “The ease of disclosure of information on the Internet and the substantial amount of information there means that it is a difficult task to detect defamatory statements and remove them.”
  • The CJEU invalidated the Data Retention Directive in its landmark judgment in which it declared mass surveillance illegal. The CJEU went further than anyone expected when it said: “As for the question of whether the interference caused by Directive 2006/24 is limited to what is strictly necessary, it should be observed that /…/ the directive requires the retention of all traffic data concerning fixed telephony, mobile telephony, Internet access, Internet e-mail and Internet telephony. It therefore applies to all means of electronic communication, the use of which is very widespread and of growing importance in people’s everyday lives. Furthermore, in accordance with Article 3 of Directive 2006/24, the directive covers all subscribers and registered users. It therefore entails an interference with the fundamental rights of practically the entire European population.”
  • The CJEU also ruled in its very recent Google Spain decision that there is a strong “right to be forgotten” and the search engine must remove links to information that a person does not want to be linked to. The CJEU said: “As the data subject may, in the light of his fundamental rights under Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter, request that the information in question no longer be made available to the general public by its inclusion in such a list of results, it should be held, /…/ that those rights override, as a rule, not only the economic interest of the operator of the search engine but also the interest of the general public in finding that information upon a search relating to the data subject’s name.”

There are also some other interesting developments:

  • In popular culture, tech culture has increasingly become subject of criticism. See the series Silicon Valley and, most poignantly, a recent episode of HBO’s Veep.
  • Recently it was reported that German economy minister Sigmar Gabriel suggested that it might be necessary to break up Google, while current President of the European Parliament and one of the top candidates for the next president of the European Commission Martin Schulz stated on Google: “Whoever knows everything about citizens, firms and politicians achieves a level of power which doesn’t belong in a pluralistic democracy.”
  • There are also growing grassroots citizen movements that target the tech giants such as Europe v Facebook.
  • MOOC courses are increasingly seen as mostly hype and not the transformation that it was claimed to be.
  • The Estonian Supreme Court also decided in a less reported case last December that charging less for online court proceedings than traditional ones is unconstitutional, because of the importance of fundamental rights at stake (access to justice). The Court among other things heavily criticised the concept of efficiency behind the introduction of the e-justice system and accused the government that it is trying to shift the burden of entering and submitting complicated legal documents from the courts to the general public who might not be best prepared for it.
  • The Estonian online election system has been called highly vulnerable and recommended to be abondoned by leading scholars in the area.

Thus the shift consists of better rebalancing freedom of speech and information with other human rights in the online context and a more cautious and realistic view towards the danger that the likes of Google and Facebook are posing to the lives of all individuals, our human rights and democracy due to their omnipresence in the Internet. In terms of Carlota Perez’s Techno-Economic Paradigm Shift theory, this could be signal that the world has moved on the a more stable and peaceful deployment period of the currently dominant ICT paradigm from the turbulent installation period.