Does technology threaten democracy? Here’s a recent dialogue from the most recent Munich Security Conference which suggests that it does.
It is time to regulate the power of cyber criminals and cyber monopolies.
I’m going to approach this briefly in two ways.
The first is through cyber-security.
The second is through the lens of social media dominance.
Right. If what happened in the United States 2016 elections occurred in New Zealand or Australia’s 2017 elections, we would be justifiably outraged, expect the traitorous perpetrators to be on trial, take relevant diplomatic actions, and change a whole suite of laws and enforcement powers to stop it from happening again. With me?
Maybe Kim DotCom had a point. We should take lessons from what we have already seen. The British get it: “So I have a very clear message for Russia: we know what you are trying to do and you will not succeed.” – British Prime Minister Theresa May, 13 November 2017.
Social media platform attacks using near-monopoly providers are now the major way that political campaigns are run in every developed democracy. They are used by these campaigns and their proxies and funded with tens of millions of dollars because they work. This is a national security issue for the world.
Yet proposing strong global regulation of such international cybercrime is not an easy row to hoe. It has been tried many times before.
The international cybernorms process again came to a halt this summer when the relevant United Nations group of Governmental Experts could not agree on a final communiqué. Some fundamental disagreements have come to the fore despite progress made over the past years. Contentious topics included, in particular, the applicability of the rules of international law. However, the nature of what cybersecurity entails also remains open to debate. The U.S. and its Western allies primarily focus on the security of infrastructure, hardware/software, and data, whereas Russia, China, and other states would prefer to broaden the debate to include “information security,” which would also consider content as a threat that should be addressed.
As a result, the way forward for cybernorms is unclear. The U.S. and Europe have shown signs of developing an approach that would unite and concentrate on the effectiveness of a naming-and-shaming approach.
Cybercrime has reached unprecedented levels of activity and scale in 2017, in particular with ransomware attacks such as WannaCry, which in May of 2017 eclipsed all previous attacks and infected an estimated 300,000 victims in 150 countries. Whereas the focus of cybersecurity efforts in previous years was on occasional worst-case scenarios such as large attacks on critical infrastructure, increasingly it is every day.
Now let me just name China for a moment: it has a full alliance between authoritarian states and large, data-rich IT monopolies, bringing together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with already-developed systems of state-sponsored surveillance. When they attack they attack with skill and with power. New Zealand certainly has greater social freedom than China, but the power of China upon us including our social networks is real and growing.
There are plenty of other countries to name as the origins of attacks, but I am sure you already know them.
Attempts to get a global framework around this issue include:
• 2011 SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) Draft international Code of Conduct for International Security
• 2013 OSCE Confidence-building measures
• 2014 NATO Wales Summit Declarataion
• 2015 SCO Draft International Code of Conduct for Information Security (revised)
• 2016 NATO Cyber Defence Pledge
…plus bunches of United Nations sponsored dialogues, which continue. A full list of efforts underway can be found in the Cyber Policy Initiative, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Which is to say, we don’t need to wait for the results of any one investigation into any one country or any one election or any one attack. Each of those summits has fat reports worth reading, and plenty of tough diplomatic efforts to strengthen states against sustained cyber-terrorism, which is what one country attacking another through digital devices really is. Efforts have been underway for a while to get proper global policing over this massive global problem, which haven’t worked so far, but will continue probably until it gets so bad that they do.
This is where we segue into the need to regulate ordinary social media.
Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit our social minds. This is particularly nefarious, because these companies influence how we think and behave without them even being aware of it. This interferes with the functioning of democracy and the integrity of elections. Because internet platform companies are networks, they enjoy rising marginal returns, which accounts for their phenomenal growth. The network effect is truly unprecedented and transformative, but it is also unsustainable.
It took Facebook eight and a half years to reach a billion users, and half that time to reach the second billion. At this rate, Facebook will run out of people to convert in less than three years. You can comfortably say that Facebook alone has more direct social power on humanity than the United Nations and all its entities put together.
There is a similarity between Internet platforms and gambling companies. Casinos have developed techniques to hook customers to the point that they gamble away all of their money, even money they don’t have. Such digital industries are usually age-controlled. Social media companies deceive their users through manipulation, deliberatively engineering addiction to the services they provide. Given the power over adolescents of social media as a form of addiction, it’s time to open that debate about putting age restrictions on social media as a whole.
Something potentially irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age. This is not a matter of mere distraction; monopolistic social media companies are actually inducing people to surrender their autonomy. This of course sounds pretty similar to those who decried the expansion of television in the 1970s following colourisation, and those 1950s arguments about the ‘debasement of the youth’ with comic books. But just because the argument has the same flavour, doesn’t mean it’s nutrition-comparable. We are talking about the rapid and immersive commercialisation of how we actually speak to each other, and asks us to do that simple addiction test: can you socialise without it? Young people today, I mean really …….
Seriously, it takes significant effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called the freedom of mind. Once lost, those who grow up in the digital age may have difficulty regaining it.
This has far-reaching political consequences. People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated. This danger does not loom only in the future; it already played an important role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Claiming social media doesn’t influence elections is as naïve as the U.S. television companies in the 1960s who decried any limit to political advertising or monopolistic power. So they were regulated. The best parallel moment we are in is to television: during its early years, the United States Federal Communications Commission permitted a single company to own a maximum of five television stations nationwide. It also reminds me now of the era in which the Bell company was forcibly broken up into a series of “baby Bells”. The state must powerfully regulate the social media monopolies with a similarly-sized stick.
In the U.S., regulators are currently not strong enough to stand up to the monopolies’ political influence, as we saw recently in the “net neutrality” debate.
The E.U., however, uses a different definition of monopoly power from the U.S. Whereas U.S. law enforcement focuses primarily on monopolies created by acquisition, E.U. law prohibits the abuse of monopoly power regardless of how it is achieved. Europe has much stronger privacy and data protection laws than America.
The E.U. Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager is the champion of the European approach. Look her up: she’s a champ. It took the E.U. seven years to build a case against Google. As a result of its success, the process of instituting adequate regulation has been greatly accelerated. Moreover, thanks to Vestager’s efforts, the European approach has begun to affect attitudes in the U.S.
So it can be done. It’s possible.
Global political control of social media through monopolistic platform corporations is now the single largest control over the social behaviour of humanity. It’s more directly powerful than the whole of Islam. While the many efforts to rein in the influence of either social media or cyber-policing have only rarely been successful, the collective effort to do so must continue if states are to retain any semblance of their future capacity to govern.
This post goes out not only to the left, but also to this government, to the GCSB, the SIS, to Google, Facebook, Baidu, and all foreign governments who seek to twist our autonomy for their own interests.