December 16, 2018

Digital Democracy

Thinking about digital civic space in terms of a democracy has been challenging for me - now I understand why. That is because the character of this space is very different from the traditional spaces of our society, which are established by the power of the state. In digital spaces, this role is currently, ultimately played by corporations. This requires us to realign, and sometimes even redefine, classical concepts that we connect with democracy.

Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska from the Polish Helsinki Human Rights Foundation spoke recently at Internet Governance Forum Poland about the challenge of redefining human rights for the digital times: while traditionally human rights defined and secured the relationship between an individual human and the state, today human rights are triggered in relations between individuals and corporations that create and own online spaces. This requires human rights to be redefined, and activists are today seeking to define wholly new types of rights, that can be defined in these corporate, and not political, relations.

A similar point has been made this year by Matthew Prince, the CEO of Cloudflare - a company that provides content delivery network services that are an important element of the World Wide Web's basic infrastructure. By virtue of this, Cloudflare has control over a major portion of online content. In mid-2018, Prince decided to ban from his network the Daily Stormer, a neo-nazi online service.

In an interview for Recode, Prince sees his action as an intervention enabling a debate about the freedom of speech online: "We couldn’t have this conversation until we made that determination, but it is the wrong decision in the long term". In a conversation with Cindy Cohen, Kara Swisher and Lauren Goode, Prince observes that the online companies not only have the power to remove content, but wield power necessary to publish securely content, especially if it is controversial:

"I think that there’s a conversation that we need to have about when technology companies get to such scale that they effectively become the public square. In this case, the reality of publishing something on the internet, if it’s at all controversial, requires you, at this point, to have a network at a scale of CloudFlare’s, or Google’s, or Facebook’s, or Microsoft’s, that the resources to just withstand the attacks, and hacking, and everything that tries to take you down. If you don’t have that, it’s really difficult for you to be online at all".

He also notes the power that these companies wield:

"What I worry about — which, I think, echoes what Cindy worries about — is that there’s almost a kabal of effectively 10 tech CEOs and tech executives who are making decisions on what can and cannot be online".

In an interview with NewCo Shift, Prince argues that companies, just like states, ultimately need to respect the rule of law:

"if you’re an Internet company with any real scale, you’re inherently a global company. So I think you actually have to start with more foundational principles than just freedom of expression".

"in order to have Rule of Law you need three things: 1) transparency — you should be able to know the rules before you play the game; 2) consistency — the same rules should apply to two people in the same situation; and 3) accountability — the people enforcing the laws should be accountable for their decision".

In a blog post explaining the decision about Daily Stormer, Prince writes about the role of proxy services as establishing the rule of law with regard to publication and availability of content and communication services online.He reflects that on the day that he announced his decision, one of his employees asked: "Is this the day the Internet dies?".

Looking at digital spaces from the perspective of democracy and its core values will require us to reframe / establish other concepts - the crucial one being citizenship. It irks us to think of online users as citizens. But we can clearly see that the concept of a "consumer" does not provide us with a sufficient framework to establish the rights of users.

At European level, while the European Union has been struggling with the creation of shared European identity, a strange form of quasi-citizenship can be argued to exist for people who are collectively, arlogirhtmically shaped by greatest digital platforms, such as Facebook or Youtube.

Related: Jay Rosen on how "De Correspondent" will protect itself formally against decision to maximize profit at the cost of the public mission of the title (blogpost on Medium).