Can we imagine a better Internet?

The convenience of thinking together

by Alina Utrata and Julia Rone

Reflecting on our recent tech and environment workshop, two of our workshop hosts, Alina Utrata and Julia Rone, explore the questions from the event that are still making them think.

On June 17, over 40 participants from all over the world joined our workshop exploring “the cost of convenience” and the opaque impact that digital technology has on the environment.

Instead of having academics presenting long papers in front of Zoom screens with switched-off cameras, we opted for a more dialogic, interactive and (conveniently) short format.

We invited each participant (or team of participants) to share a provocation across the environmental impact of technology/the political economy of the environment/technology nexus and discussed in small groups. Then, in panel sessions we discussed the provocations (what we know already), the known unknowns (what we don’t know yet), and ideas for an action plan (what could we be doing). 

Below are our reflections on the workshop.

A visual representation of the workshop, produced by artist Tom Mclean.

There is no real technical or technological “fix” for the climate crisis

By Alina Utrata

I am currently working on the relationships between technology corporations and states.

For me, what stood out about the discussions was the sense among all participants that there was no real technical or technological “fix” for the climate crisis.

Instead, the conversations often revolved around globally embedded systems and structures of power—and asking why a certain technology is being deployed, by whom, for whom and how, rather than whether they could “fix” anything.

“I was inspired by how participants immediately recognised the importance of these systems, and instead focused our conversations on how to change them.”

Alina Utrata

In fact, it was pointed out that often the creators of these technological innovations deliberately promoted certain kinds of narratives about how they wanted the technology to be thought of—for example, the “cloud” as a kind of abstract, other place in the sky, rather than a real, tangible infrastructure with real costs.

The same could be said of the metaphors of “carbon footprint” or “carbon neutral”—the idea that as long as discrete, individual corporate entities were not personally responsible for a certain amount of emissions, then they could not be held culpable for a system that was failing the planet. 

Credit: Alex Machado for Unsplash

I was inspired by how participants immediately recognized the importance of these systems, and instead focused our conversations on how to change them.

Although many political concepts today are so commonplace that they seem ordinary, we discussed how they are often really quite modern or Western in origin.

For example, the idea of the shared, communal commons is an ancient one, and can be used as a political framework to tackle some of the harmful systems humans have put in place on our earth. 

Finally, we acknowledged that we all have a role to play in this fight for our future—but not all of us have or need to play the same role.

Some of us will be activists outside these systems of power, and some of us will be sympathetic voices from within.

The participants reaffirmed the need to both communicate and coordinate across disciplines within academia, and more broadly in sectors across the wider earth.


Should we abolish the Internet?

By Julia Rone

 Credit: Denny Müller for Unsplash

I am currently working on the democratic contestation of data centre construction.

John Naughton often says during our weekly meetings that the most interesting conversations are those that finish before you want them to end. That was definitely the case for me at the workshop since of each the sessions I hosted ended with a question that could be discussed for hours and that still lingers in my mind.

Concepts and conceptual problems

If I have to identify the key common threads running through the three sessions I hosted, the first one has to with concepts and conceptual problems. 

Several participants posed the crucial question how do we think of “progress”.

Is progress necessarily synonymous with growth, increased efficiency, better performance?

What are we sacrificing in the name of “progress”?

One participant asked the painfully straight-to-the-point question: “Should we abolish the Internet?” (considering the massive toll of tech companies on the environment, the rise of hate speech, cyber-bullying, polarization, etc.)

Do we feel loss at the thought? 

“Yes!” – I immediately said to myself.- “How could I talk to my family and to my friends”.

This question really provoked me to think further.

If I can’t live in a world without the Internet, can we think of a different Internet?

How can we re-invent the Internet to become more caring, accessible, more Earth-based and less extractive (as one of the provocations suggested).

Credit: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona for Unsplash

What does it mean to be sustainable?

Another, similarly important conceptual question was posed at the very end of the second session by a collegue who asked “What does it mean to be sustainable?” Why do we want to be sustainable? What and whom are we sustaining?

Should we not rather think of ways to radically change the system?

Our time ran out before discussing this in depth and therefore this question has also been bothering me since then. 

Ultimately, as another participant emphasised, research on the environmental impact of tech is most problematic and underdeveloped at two levels – the levels of concepts (how do we think of abstraction and extraction, for example?), but also at the lowest level of what individuals and communities do.

This latter question about on-the-ground labor, work and action is actually the second common thread between several of the contributions in the sessions I attended.

“It is difficult to disentangle the economic aspects of repair from the environmental ones.” 

A colleague studying workers who do repair for their livelihood (not as a hipster exercise) rightly pointed out that when discussing the environmental consequences of tech, and practices such as repair in particular, it is difficult to disentangle the economic aspects of repair from the environmental ones. 

Indeed, in a different context, scholars of the environmental impact of tech have clearly shown how tech companies’ extractive practices towards nature go hand-in-hand with dispossession, economic exploitation and extraction of value and profit from marginalised communities.

“In order to understand and better address the environmental consequences of digital tech, we need to be more open to the experiences of individuals and communities on the ground who often “know better” since they live (and occasionally also cause) the very consequences of tech we research.”

Julia Rone

Another colleague had studied the ways in which local leaders participate in decision-making about data centres in Thailand and controversies around water use – a topic very relevant to my own current project on data centres in the Netherlands.

Another participant yet had studied how participatory map-making not only consumes electricity but also changes the very way we see nature.

The reason why I found all these contributions so fascinating is that they challenged simplistic narratives of Big Tech Vs the Environment and showed how many players (with how many different intentions, principles and economic interests) are actually involved in the increasingly complex assemblage of humans-nature and tech. 

So to sum up – in order to understand and better address the environmental consequences of digital tech, we need to be more clear about the concepts we use as researchers but also to be more open to the experiences of individuals and communities on the ground who often “know better” since they live (and occasionally also cause) the very consequences of tech we research. 

To summarise…

Ultimately, each of us who attended (and hosted) the sessions of the workshop have a rich but still incomplete overview of the workshop.

By attending different sessions, there were provocations that individually we missed as sessions intertwined and overlapped (a bit like tectonic plates readjusting meaning, ideas and new perspectives for research).

We would love to hear from other attendees from the workshop, the ideas that struck them most during the sessions.

Luckily, some participants have submitted their provocation to our Zine, a unique document that we will share soon to help guide us forward in our thinking.

We can’t wait to share the Zine with you… stay tuned.

Public networks instead of social networks?

We need state-owned, interoperable, democratically governed online public networks. From the people for the people.

posted by Julia Rone

The conversation so far

The following comments on Trump being banned from Twitter/ the removal of Parler from Android and iOS stores were, somewhat aptly, inspired by two threads on Twitter itself: the first by the British-Canadian blogger Cory Doctorow and the other by Canadian scholar Blayne Haggart. The point of this post ideally is to start the conversation from where Doctorow and Haggart have left it and involve more people from our team. Ideally, nobody will be censored in the process :p

Doctorow insists that the big problem with Apple and Android removing Parler is not so much censorship – ultimately different app stores can have different rules and this should be the case – but rather the fact that there are no alternative app stores. Thus, the core of his argument is that the US needs to enforce anti-trust laws that would allow for a fair competition between a number of competitors. The same argument can be extended to breaking up social media monopolists such as Facebook and Twitter. What we need is more competition.

Haggart attacks this argument in three ways:

First, he reminds that “market regulation of the type that @doctorow wants requires perfect competition. This is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons (e.g, low consumer understanding of platform issues, tendency to natural monopoly)”. Thus, the most likely outcome becomes the establishment of “a few more corporate oligarchs”. This basically leaves the state as a key regulator – much to the disappointment of cyber-libertarians who have argued against state regulation for decades.

The problem is, and this is Haggart’s second key point, that “as a non-American, it’s beyond frustrating that this debate (like so many internet policy debates) basically amounts to Americans arguing with other Americans about how to run the world. Other countries need to assert their standing in this debate” . This point had been made years ago also in Martin Hardie’s great paper “Foreigner in a free land” in which he noticed how most debates about copyright law focused on the US. Even progressive people such as Larry Lessig built their whole argumentation on the basis of references to the US constitution. But what about all of us – the poor souls from the rest of the world who don’t live in the US?

Of course, Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet, Amazon, etc. are all US tech companies. But they do operate globally. So even if the US states interferes in regulating them, the regulation it imposes might not chime well with people in France or Germany, let’s say. The famous American prudence with nudity is the oft quoted example of different standards when it comes to content regulation. No French person would be horrified by the sight of a bare breast (at least if we believe stereotypes) so why should nude photos be removed from the French social media. If we want platform governance to be truly democratic, the people affected by it should “have a say in that decision”. But as Haggart notes “This cannot happen so long as platforms are global, or decisions about them are made only in DC”.

So what does Haggart offer? Simple: break social media giants not along market lines but along national lines. Well, maybe not that simple…

If we take the idea of breaking up monopolies along national lines seriously…

This post starts from Haggart’s proposal to break up social media along national lines, assuming it is a good proposal. In fact I do this not for rhetorical purposes or for the sake of setting a straw man but because I actually think it is a good proposal. So the following lines aim to take the proposal seriously and consider different aspects of it discussing what potential drawbacks/problems should we keep in mind.

How to do this??

The first key problem is: who on Earth, can convince companies such as Facebook/Twitter to “break along national lines”. These companies spend fortunes on lobbying the US government and they are US national champions. Why would the US support breaking them up along national lines? (As a matter of fact, the question of how is also a notable problem in Deibert’s “Reset” – his idea that hacktivism, civil disobedience, and whistleblowers’ pressure can make private monopolists exercise restraint is very much wishful thinking). There are historical precedents for nationalization of companies but they seem to have involved either a violent revolution or a massive indebtedness of these companies making it necessary for the state to step in and save them with public money. Are there any precedents for nationalizing a company and then revealing how it operates to other states in order to make these states create their respective national versions of it? Maybe. But it seems highly unlikely that anyone in the US would want to do this.

Which leaves us with the rather utopian option two: all big democratic states get together and develop interoperable social media. The project is such a success that people fed up with Facebook and Google decide to join and the undue influence of private monopolists finally comes to an end. But this utopian vision itself opens up a series of new questions.

Okay, assuming we can have state platforms operating along national lines..

Inscribing values in design is not always as straight-forward as it seems, as discussed in the fascinating conversation between Solon Barocas, Seda Gurses, Arvind Narayanan and Vincent Toubiana on decentralized personal data architectures. But, assuming that states can build and maintain (or hire someone to build and maintain) such platforms that don’t crash, are not easy to hack and are user friendly, the next question is: who is going to own the infrastructure and the data?

Who will own the infrastructure and the data?

One option would be for each individual citizen to own their data but this might be too risky and unpractical. Another option would be to treat the data as public data – the same way we treat data from surveys and national statistics. The personal data from current social media platforms is used for online advertising/ training machine learning. If states own their citizens’ data, we might go back to a stage in which the best research was done by state bodies and universities rather than what we have now – the most cutting edge research is done in private companies, often in secret from the public. Mike Savage described this process of increased privatization of research in his brilliant piece The Coming Crisis of Empirical sociology. If anything, the recent case with Google firing AI researcher Timnit Gebru reveals the need to have independent public research that is not in-house research by social media giants or funded by them. It would be naive to think such independent academics can do such research in the current situation when the bulk of interesting data to be analysed is privately owned.

How to prevent authoritarian censorship and surveillance?

Finally, if we assume that states will own their own online public networks – fulfilling the same functions such as Facebook, but without the advertising, the one million dollar question is how to prevent censorship, overreach and surveillance. As Ron Deibert discusses in “Reset”, most states are currently involved in some sort of hacking and surveillance operations of foreign but also domestic citizens. What can be done about this? Here Haggart’s argument about the need for democratic accountability reveals its true importance and relevance. State-owned online public networks would have to abide by standards that have been democratically discussed and to be accountable to the public.

But what Hagart means when discussing democratic accountability should be expanded. Democracy and satisfaction with it have been declining in many Western nations with more and more decision-making power delegated to technocratic bodies. Yet, what the protests from 2010s in the US and the EU clearly showed is that people are dissatisfied with democracy not because they want authoritarianism but because they want more democracy, that is democratic deepening. Or in the words of the Spanish Indignados protesters:

“Real democracy, now”

Thus, to bring to conclusion the utopia of state public networks, the decisions about their governance should be made not by technocratic bodies or with “democratic accountability” used as a form of window-dressing which sadly is often the case now. Instead, policy decisions should be discussed broadly through a combination of public consultations, assemblies and in already existing national and regional assemblies in order to ensure people have ownership of the policies decided. State public networks should be not only democratically accountable but also democratically governed. Such a scenario would be one of what I call “democratic digital sovereignty” that goes beyond the arbitrariness of decisions by private CEOs but also escapes the pitfalls of state censorship and authoritarianism.

To sum up: we need state-owned interoperable online public networks. Citizen data gathered from the use of these media would be owned by the state and would be available for public academic research (which would be open access in order to encourage both transparency and innovation). The moderation policies of these public platforms would be democratically discussed and decided. In short, these will be platforms of the people and for the people. Nothing more, nothing less.

Is the UK really going to innovate in regulation of Big Tech?

On Tuesday last week the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) outlined plans for an innovative way of regulating powerful tech firms in a way that overcomes the procedural treacle-wading implicit in competition law that had been designed for an analogue era.

The proposals emerged from an urgent investigation by the Digital Markets Taskforce, an ad-hoc body set up in March and led by the CMA with inputs from the Information Commissioner’s Office and OFCOM, the telecommunications and media regulator. The Taskforce was charged with providing advice to the government on the design and implementation of a pro-competition regime for digital markets. It was set up following the publication of the Treasury’s Furman Review on ‘Unlocking digital competition’ which reported in March 2019 and drew on evidence from the CMA’s previous market study into online platforms and digital advertising.

This is an intriguing development in many ways. First of all it seems genuinely innovative. Hitherto, competition laws have been framed to cover market domination or monopolistic abuse without mentioning any particular company, but the new UK approach for tech companies could set specific rules for named companies — Facebook and Google, say. More importantly, the approach bypasses the sterile arguments we have had for years about whether antique conceptions of ‘monopoly’ actually apply to firms which adroitly argue that they don’t meet the definition — while at the same time patently functioning as monopolies. Witness the disputes about whether Amazon really is a monopoly in retailing.

Rather than being lured down that particular rabbit-hole, the CMA proposes instead to focus attention on firms with what it calls ‘Strategic Market Status’ (SMS), i.e. firms with dominant presences in digital markets where there’s not much actual competition. That is to say, markets where difficulty of entry or expansion by potential rivals is effectively undermined by factors like network effects, economies of scale, consumer passivity (i.e. learned helplessness), the power of default settings, unequal (and possibly illegal) access to user data, lack of transparency, vertical integration and conflicts of interest.

At the heart of the new proposals is the establishment of a powerful, statutory Digital Markets Unit (DMU) located within the Competition and Markets Authority. This would have the power to impose legally-enforceable Codes of Conduct on SMS firms. The codes would, according to the proposals, be based on relatively high-level principles like ‘fair trading’, ‘open choices’ and ‘trust and transparency’ — all of which are novel ideas for tech firms. Possible remedies for specific companies (think Facebook and Google) could include mandated data access and interoperability to address Facebook’s dominance in social media or Google’s market power in general search.

It would be odd if, in due course, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft don’t also fall into the SMS category of “strategic”. Indeed it’s inconceivable that Amazon would not, given that it has morphed into critical infrastructure for many locked-down economies.

The government says that it going to consult on these radical proposals early next year and will then legislate to put the DMU on a statutory basis “when Parliamentary time allows”.

Accordingly, we can now look forward to a period of intensive corporate lobbying from Facebook & Co as they seek to derail or emasculate the proposals. Given recent history and the behaviour of which these outfits are capable, it would be prudent for journalists and civil society organisations to keep their guard up until this stuff is on the statute book.

The day after the CMA proposals were published (and after a prolonged legal battle) the Bureau of Investigative Journalists were finally able to publish the Minutes of a secret meeting that Matt Hancock had with the Facebook boss, Mark Zuckerberg, in May 2018. Hancock was at that time Secretary of State for DCMS, the department charged with combating digital harms. According to the Bureau’s report, he had sought “increased dialogue” with Zuckerberg, so he could “bring forward the message that he has support from Facebook at the highest level”. The meeting took place at the VivaTech conference in Paris. It was arranged “after several days of wrangling” by Matthew Gould, the former culture department civil servant that Hancock later made chief executive of NHS X. Civil servants had to give Zuckerberg “explicit assurances” that the meeting would be positive and Hancock would not simply demand that the Facebook boss attend the DCMS Select Committee inquiry into the Cambridge Analytica scandal (which he had refused to do).

The following month Hancock had a follow-up meeting with Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s top lobbyist, who afterwards wrote to the minister thanking him for setting out his thinking on “how we can work together on building a model for sensible co-regulation on online safety issues”.

Now that the UK government is intent on demonstrating its independence from foreign domination, perhaps the time has come to explain to tech companies a couple of novel ideas. Sovereign nations do regulation, not ‘co-regulation’; and companies obey the law.

……………………..

A version of this post was published in the Observer on Sunday, 13 December, 2020.

Market definitions and tech monopolies

John Naughton

The tech analyst Ben Evans has an interesting essay on his Blog about the difficulties of defining ‘monopoly’ in the context of the industry. This is one of his hobby-horses, but he’s always provocative. For example:

One of the basic building blocks of any competition case is market definition. If you’re claiming that a company has market dominance, and that it’s abusing that dominance, what market are we talking about? Very obviously, the company being prosecuted tries to draw the definition as widely as possible – ‘we compete with the entire planet!’ – and the prosecutor tries to draw it as narrowly as possible – ‘Ferrari has a monopoly of rear-engined Italian sport cars with horse logos!’

The fun part of this is that both of these definitions are true, and so you have dig rather deeper and work out what problem you’re trying to solve to work out what definition to use, because very often, picking the definition decides the outcome of the case, before it’s even started.

These questions come up a lot in talking about Amazon. If you read the accounts and do the numbers, you can work out that it has about 40% of US ecommerce (I wrote about this here). But US ecommerce is only part of total US retail – it was about 16% in 2019 and this year, with lockdown, it’s spiked to a bit over 20%.

So, does Amazon have ~40% of ecommerce or ~10% of retail? Amazon’s lawyers would argue, entirely reasonably, that Amazon competes with Walmart, Costco, Macy’s and Safeway – that it competes with other large retailers, not just ‘online’ retailers. Indeed, many people who argue most strongly for antitrust intervention against Amazon do so because it competes with physical retail – because they worry what Amazon will do not just to Costco but to their neighbourhood stores. On that basis, Amazon’s market is ‘retail’ and its market share in the USA is between 5% and 10%. 

On the other hand, if you’re a book publisher, you don’t care what Amazon’s share of shoe sales is. Amazon has well over half of US book sales, and probably three quarters of ebook sales. So if we’re arguing about how Amazon runs its books business, it unquestionably has market dominance. You have to pull out a segment, not the whole company. Of course, this works both ways – if you’re pulling out segments, then Amazon has 1% of US grocery sales (even Walmart only has 20%), and you can’t complain about it buying Whole Foods. 

You get the picture: he’s great at asking questions. But he doesn’t have the answers. And, at the moment, does anyone?