Harness the digital revolution’s power for democracy’s future

Matthew D'Ancona
Text appeal: new technology has transformed human behaviour and interaction in ways we have yet to fathom: Getty Images

The state, the political party, the civic group, the citizen: these are all old categories from a pre-digital world.” So writes Oxford academic Philip N Howard in his compelling book Pax Technica. There could be no better prism through which to survey the politics of 2018.

Naturally we are drawn to familiar procedures, rituals, and structures: Theresa May’s forthcoming reshuffle, Jeremy Corbyn’s increasingly presumptuous preparation for life as Prime Minister, the legislative agenda for the year ahead. But there are much deeper political forces at work now, spawned by the digital revolution, that dwarf even the institutional, economic and diplomatic upheaval of Brexit.

We need, Howard insists, to look at the world afresh and see it “as a system of relationships between and among people and devices”, and to grasp that politics “used to be what happened whenever one person or organisation tried to represent another person or organisation”. Now, he says, “devices will be doing much of that representative work in the years ahead”.

What this amounts to is nothing short of a revolution in human behaviour and interaction, one whose profound consequences and challenges are beginning to force a germinal reaction from the political class. In a newspaper interview at the weekend security minister Ben Wallace denounced the tech giants as “ruthless profiteers”, complaining that companies such as Facebook, Google, and YouTube have done much too little to combat the threat of terrorism and the proliferation of extremist content. In assessing what sanctions might compel greater co-operation, Wallace warned, “we should look at all options, including tax”.

No less significant is the comprehensive investigation into “fake news” being carried out by the Commons select committee on digital, culture, media and sport. Its chair, Damian Collins, has already publicly censured Facebook and Twitter for failing to comply fully with requests for evidence of foreign cyber-interference in the EU referendum.

The extent of online intimidation and violent bigotry drew heavy criticism in December from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Last week, the NSPCC called for action to prevent the manipulation of YouTube by paedophiles as a “shop window” for horrific imagery of child abuse. Barely a day passes without fresh evidence of the ways in which “big data” — the unprecedentedly huge caches of information about every citizen accumulated by the tech giants — may be covertly exploited for financial or political gain.

The question that faces all governments is how to address these anxieties without appeasing Luddism, curtailing legitimate free expression or dissuading commercial innovation. The worst possible outcome of this emerging public debate would be a Ministry of Truth, or anything like it. It cannot be said too often that the web, for all its pathologies, is unquestionably a force for good, a technology whose capacity to improve and enhance the human condition is breathtaking.

The problem is one of pace or, more specifically, the inability of our traditional political system to keep up with the most dynamic technological revolution in history. It is only 14 years since Facebook was invented, 12 since Twitter was founded, eight since Instagram went live. Scarcely surprising, then, that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 — the rules which governed the Brexit vote — is a such a flimsy barrier against cyber-intervention and the destructive work of marauding bots.

This year will yield many important lessons about the future of online regulation. From April, users of porn sites will be required to provide age verification, as mandated by the Digital Economy Act. This week Matt Hancock, the minister of state for digital — who should be promoted to Cabinet rank in the reshuffle — announced a new offence under the same legislation to prevent touts from using automated technology to buy tickets in bulk.

It cannot be said too often that the web, for all its pathologies, is a force for good

Matthew d'Ancona

In May the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will come into force, transforming the obligations of organisations that hold and transfer information about citizens. The extent to which this will force tech giants to adopt new practices remains a matter of bitter dispute — not least because the Government has announced its intention to preserve the EU’s regulatory structure even after Brexit.

What matters most is that the new system of rules governing digital technology is driven neither by moral panic nor (at the other extreme) by fear of upsetting the tech giants. The need for rapid, intelligent, co-ordinated action could scarcely be greater. But in the first instance this is not a technical challenge but a test of our collective imagination and of our ability to grasp the magnitude of what is happening.

To take one example, which has exercised the Collins inquiry: should companies such as Facebook and Google be treated as “platforms” — mere vectors for content — or as publishers, with all their attendant liabilities? The answer, almost certainly, is “neither”. Plainly it is absurd to exonerate the most powerful information providers in human history of all responsibility for the material they disseminate. Yet the very scale of the content they host means that they cannot realistically be equated with, say, Penguin Books or Faber & Faber.

In practice, a new, third jurisprudential category will be required for these corporations: one that reflects their awesome might but also acknowledges the difficulty of policing systems used by (in Facebook’s case) two billion people.

What should not be in doubt is that we stand at a crossroads. Amazing as it is to consider, the potential of this technology has barely been scratched. Now is the time to bring it properly into the democratic fold without crushing its vitality. Be in no doubt that this is the most urgent civic task facing us in 2018 — and beyond.