Joint blog with Bronwyn Williams
We’ve known for many years about the importance of the IT industry, and in particular its social media arm, in facilitating political campaigning. A few years ago, big data and AI also became prominent political forces. Now, server farms, cloud services and everyday app provision have also entered politics. There is nothing wrong with providing powerful platforms to facilitate politics; the point here is that they are powerful but remain under the control of big IT, not government. These technologies are developing rapidly, and will become more and more important forces in politics, governance, as well as in every field of control and provision of essential services and information. Cash is well on the way to being exclusively digital, phones track us and every aspect of our lives and even smart watches now play roles in medical insurance and services.
The last two elections have shown that IT vulnerabilities are often perceived as almost as important, potentially allowing malign overseas agents to influence opinions via social media or even to directly control or attack electoral software or machines. It makes no difference whether particular instances of corruption or fraud did or didn’t happen – that’s for historians to debate – what matters is that they could have and could in the future.
In this election, we have learned the enormous potential for such malign influences and even more so the enormous power exercised by big IT. We’re well used to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram censoring opinions they don’t like, now censoring all the way through the social media influencer ranks right up to the President, but we have this week seen Google, Apple, Amazon and Stripe acting in synch, as an oligarchy, flexing their muscles to remove entire business – including web hosting and payment processing – from their platforms, effectively denying those businesses the ability to operate. Censoring or removing individuals from posting on social media platforms is one thing (and could reasonably be understood within the frame of general freedom of association). A coordinated attack to deny a third party business the ability to trade is quite another. Such an ability goes beyond a businesses risk towards being a matter of national security – imagine, for example, the digital oligarchy described above joined forces to hold a government service or department (perhaps a national health service) reliant on consumer-facing cloud based third party platforms and services hostage?
With IT hardware, comms, AI, cloud services, software, apps, social media, audio and video media, gaming, advertising, and extensive control over the retail and distribution industries, big IT now wields so much power over US life and politics that it could be considered a fourth branch of governance, alongside POTUS, Congress and SCOTUS.
This has happened gradually over many years, and although most aspects of it were predicted well in advance, it is abundantly clear that politics was not and is not ready for it.
We have a conundrum. Freedom of speech, freedom of association and the right to refuse service are all key components of a free and fair society. But what happens when those freedoms come into conflict? Complex messy problems require clever solutions to ensure the cure is not worse than the disease. Simply handing power over digital communication networks and access from powerful private entities to government regulators only further centralises the risk of censorship and propaganda. As recent years have shown, politicians are not infallible, or altruistic. As with all systems, agents will act according to the incentives presented to them to maximise their own power and further their own agenda’s – be that profits, votes or popularity
One suggestion that might offer a middle way out of our Catch22, is to implement a new formal independent agency, representing big IT, let’s call it ITOTUS. It should be a body that includes key members of the main facets of the broad IT industry. It should, like SCOTUS, be staffed by people very expert in their field, and like SCOTUS, theoretically impartial (easier said than done, yes, but theoretically possible) . Its primary purpose should be to ensure a democratic level playing field that provides sound IT hardware and services to the US population without fear or favor, that is protected against political bias, corruption or malign foreign interests. As well as ensuring and guarding security and privacy and access to digital utilities (such as the ability to host a functional website or app and receive digital payments), it might also be the natural body to implement such upcoming fields as AI ethics, robot rights, human-machine convergence.
“one ought to design systems under the assumption that the enemy will immediately gain full familiarity with them” ~ Shannon’s maxim
ITOTUS is already needed, it is just late. The incoming administration will find an IT industry much aligned with its own politics, for now, but they will also soon realise that such alignment will not last for long, and this new body will very soon not only be desirable, but unavoidable.
Whatever path we choose, as citizens or states, we have to do so on the understanding that if not tomorrow (or on the 21st of January) then eventually, the system we design, the rules we choose, and the institutions we establish – be they public or private – will find themselves controlled by our ideological opponents. This is why it makes sense to advocate for an institution with a degree of autonomy from state, church (popular ideology) and business, to guard and tame the leviathan we have unleashed upon ourselves.
A further question, perhaps, should be whether this oversight capacity should be national or international? After all, the same issues of domestic freedom of speech and trade are only magnified at an inter-state level. A fractured, nationalised global internet is no better for humanity than a fractured bi-parisan domestic internet.
Guest Author bio:
Bronwyn Williams is a futurist, economist and trend analyst.
Her day job as a partner at Flux Trends involves helping business leaders to use foresight to design the future they want to live and work in.
You may have seen her talking about Transhumanism or Tikok on Carte Blanche,; or heard her talking about trends on 702 or CNBC Africa where she is a regular expert commentator. When she’s not talking to brands and businesses about the future, you will probably find her curled up somewhere with a (preferably paperback) book.