The talk of Geneva

This year’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF)  was held in Switzerland at the principal UN buildings, the Palais des Nations, in Geneva. The meeting ended earlier this week. The dominant topics of interest, the buzz in the bars, were net neutrality and “fake news”.

Net neutrality

On this, I cannot help but remind myself that when it was debated and decided at EU level back in 2015, under cover of abolishing roaming charges for mobile phones,  which was the part of the measure that got all the media  and, hence, political attention, MEPs and Member States were bamboozled and manipulated into introducing a ban on access providers voluntarily managing their networks to protect children from, for example, pornographic content.

On the face of it this made illegal a practice that had been widespread within the UK  for years so we had to pass a specific law to make clear we took a different view.

But of course a couple of weeks ago in Washington DC the US Government, in the shape of the Federal Trade Commission,  stepped in to abandon the rules on net neutrality that had been devised during the Obama Administration.

Apparently, the fear is that henceforth ISPs and other access providers will be free to enter into arrangements with online businesses to give some of them preferential treatment. In other words if, say, Netflix, is willing to pay, it can ensure its subscribers get their movies faster than “Newflix”. Because bigger companies tend to be richer or more highly capitalised it is suggested they will thereby acquire an unfair advantage over poorer startups or smaller rivals. This could kill off the minnows and damage long-term competitiveness. Eventually, that will work against consumers’ interests.

Now here’s the thing –  my neighbour and I both use the same ISP. I have a 200 MB connection, he has a 20 MB connection. Why? Because I pay more. This means I get everybody’s stuff quicker than he does. Where’s the neutrality in that?

Also there are lots of big players who have installed or established a variety of relays, caching mechanisms and other arrangements around the world to allow their content to be delivered more swiftly and smoothly These techniques will simply not be available to smaller, less well-financed enterprises.

Not so neutral

Then in parts of the developing world,  through programmes such as “Free Basics” more than one company that was against the FTC’s decision, is providing “free” internet access but actually what they mean is it’s only “free” if you access their materials and a limited range of other sites or services. A number of Governments that are strapped for cash, perhaps understandably, go along with this and allow it, nay welcome it, because they think some internet access is better than none. Hmmm.

While I like the notion of net neutrality, in the same way that I like many of the other foundational ideas of the internet, yes I inhaled, I just cannot get massively excited or passionate about it. As far as I can see two sets of big, capitalist businesses, access providers and content providers, are having a fight and its relevance to me and the online child safety agenda is somewhere between tangential and non-existent.

That is absolutely not the case with “fake news” and its associated detritus.

Fake news

It is clear that many people, me included, see this as posing almost an existential threat. Dramatic? Yes. But first a warning. Now that the term “fake news” is quite widely understood, lots of people are beginning to object to it. “Disinformation” is becoming the favoured term. Hey ho. There you go.

I get the distinction people wish to make i.e. between an unintentional and occasional error that might be made even by a professional and otherwise scrupulously ethical journalist, and a source which persistently, deliberately  or recklessly propagates untruths or gross distortions, typically with a political end in mind, or else is indifferent to or careless about the accuracy of what it regularly transmits to its customers or users.

Rules drawn up in an analogue world hitting up against digital realities

Most of the important underpinnings of democratic and human rights were developed in pre-internet days. So, for example, it was considered legitimate for nation states to have rules about how elections within their country should be conducted. Limits on the amount of money that could be spent and how it might be spent were established and no one doubted that such rules were legitimate. Not uncommonly prohibitions against money coming from foreign sources were laid down. Again, the logic of this seems clear.

These sorts of rules will apply most forcibly whenever elections hove into view but they might also have some currency in between elections in respect of campaigns designed to influence public opinion on a range of matters.

Importantly, these rules were drawn up and debated in the public arena where they evolved over a good many years. They are seen as fair by the vast majority of people who think about them, come with a high degree of certainty and predictability,  can be monitored,  and the whole package is subject to enforceable laws.

Nobody should mess with this settlement lightly or unilaterally.

Paid-for political advertising

Now add to or extend the mix to bring in paid-for political advertising. Previously there was something rather comfortable and comforting about its fuzziness. Billboards on the streets. Leaflets handed out at metro stations, manifestos sent through the post to everyone, public meetings and rallies, televised debates. These worked in a very different way from the sort of Orwellian surgical precision which big data can now provide via social media platforms.

The pattern of our “likes” and our browsing habits allow our political views or inclinations to be inferred with a substantial degree of accuracy. A clear example of data being collected for one purpose but being used for another.

As long as it has the money, a political party can today tailor and simultaneously deliver different, even wholly contradictory messages, to people living in a particular marginal or “swing” seat based on an assessment of what it will take to get them to vote or act in a particular way.

With that kind of power comes an enormous responsibility and it is absolutely not the sort of power which can be left unsupervised and unregulated in the hands of private businesses. There can hardly be anything more public than the basis on which we elect our Governments then hold them to account.

In a Parliamentary system such as the UK’s, where a relatively small number of people in a small number of easily identifiable seats can, in effect, determine who the Government is, the implications of all this hardly need spelling out, but spelt out they will be, both in the UK and the USA, where exactly this sort of behaviour is being closely examined.

“Move fast and break things”, making innovation into a holy object, is fine as far as it goes, but not when it puts our democratic institutions at risk or turns them over to wealthy demagogues. “Oops Apocalypse” was a great title for a funny movie but this ain’t funny.

Hold those thoughts.

A free press

Democracies need and rely on a free press but, historically, what constitutes a “free press” was itself bounded by the notion that, for example, laws of defamation  and contempt of court would be honoured and that the journalists who populated the different media were, in turn,  governed by their own professional ethics, grounded in the notion that best efforts would normally be made to report truthfully.

“Comment is free, facts are sacred” is how one distinguished former editor of The Guardian put it back in 1921.

Now of course, on the wide ocean we call the “free press”,  there are many different sorts of vessels navigating a course to their customers. Some are caught by rules which insist on political balance, some are not. Others are avowedly partisan and make no attempt to hide it. And there are often many ways of looking at or reporting the same events. Thus, messy as it was, somehow, by sustaining media plurality, the “free press”, the fourth estate, became an essential pillar of modern democratic life.

Now think about a world where, for major providers of “news”, truth as such is positively an irrelevance, even potentially a hindrance. What counts is what attracts the greatest volume of clicks. That’s what brings home the bacon.

Often that will be the extreme, the grotesque, the sensational or the hilarious. But with all of us having a limited “attention economy” if the extreme, the grotesque, the sensational or the hilarious is also deliberately, constantly, polluted and riddled with outright falsehood and misrepresentation where does that leave us?

More particularly where does that leave children?

When you set the idea of the attention economy next to filter bubbles, you can see the pressing urgency.

Media literacy is a key concept in the modern world but if the masters of that world feel and are under no obligation to separate the sheep from the goats and, on the contrary, they thrive on the chaos and confusion, young people’s pathway to becoming critical, engaged citizens is being put in jeopardy.

Consequently, before I listen to another big online player talk about funding media literacy initiatives I want to hear what they are doing to their business model to change the reasons why we need media literacy initiatives in the first place. Physician heal thyself.