Special Reports / „Democracy, Internet, Transparency” – The 22nd Tischner Debate

Internet and Democracy

The 22nd Tischner Debate · 3 April 2015
Ivan Krastev, Evgeny Morozov, Katarzyna Szymielewicz and Alek Tarkowski discuss major threats the Internet and global technological companies pose to democracy as well as opportunities new technologies present to our public life.

Marcin Król: What are the relations between Internet and good democracy? Is Internet helping or killing good democracy? To be honest I have no idea at all.

Evgeny Morozov: The term “Internet” is in itself extremely misleading, because we tend to think it contains certain fixed features – it’s good for transparency or bad for transparency; it’s good for privacy or bad for privacy, it leads to misinformation or it makes us more informed, etc. We have to be much more flexible in our approach to this concept. The Internet we have now is not the Internet we used to have yesterday and might have tomorrow. It’s something we can still shape and in my view we haven’t shaped it as much as we should have, if the values of democracy are to be reflected in this technology.
Marcin Król: What kind of Internet do we have today?

Evgeny Morozov: The answer is simple: it’s the Internet of corporations, that favors interests of big companies gathering data. All of a sudden, over the course of the last 5-10 years, our apartments, cars and our other assets have became filled with sensors and turned into commodities in the new so-called “sharing economy”. And though it is presented as an economic opportunity that can empower individuals both politically and economically, it’s not necessarily so.

Evgeny Morozov

Evgeny Morozov

 

Technology companies are now becoming the primary vehicles through which we tackle important political and social problems. Let’s take health-care for example. In the future it will be based on the idea of preventive care, relying on various sensors which already invaded our cars, apartments, mobile phones and other electronic devices. These sensors can monitor how much we walk, sleep, what we eat, how much we exercise and as a result tell us in advance how we ought to behave in order to remain healthy.

Yet this technology is not only about using our devices to steer us towards a healthier life. It also changes the way we perceive social and political challenges. Problems we thus far tackled differently, through interventions of the welfare state or other social and political institutions, have now been pushed almost exclusively on the shoulders of citizens. A paradigm where technology companies become the primary means of problem solving is in itself a threat to democratic life, because companies are efficient in a particular manner: in tackling the consequences, not the root causes of a given issue.

For example, one could argue that the reason for the current obesity problem is our laziness and lack of exercise. This might be true, but there are clearly other, structural factors at play: the power of food companies, deficiencies in the health care system, lack of access to better food, etc. All of those factors are suddenly becoming less important in the public debate. The state no longer wants to inquire into why certain problems occur. Instead it just wants to pursue the most efficient route of tackling consequences of these problems which is by monitoring its citizens’ behavior. A lot of state institutions support the ideology behind that change, because it shifts the burden of responsibility from them to an individual and on top of that reduces the costs.

Problems we thus far tackled differently, through interventions of the welfare state or other social and political institutions, have now been pushed almost exclusively on the shoulders of citizens.

Evgeny Morozov

My fear, however, is that – if this program is fully implemented – we will all end up in a society with placid, boring and undemocratic public life. I’m not sure how much of solidarity will prevail in a country where every social problem is tackled not collectively but by individual consumers via some phone application.

Katarzyna Szymielewicz: We’re not speaking about technology itself, but about the opportunities created by technology based on a certain communication infrastructure, which is private. That’s the fundamental thing we have to realize. It sounds obvious, but we need to grasp what it means: it’s private infrastructure used for all kind of public purposes. That’s a unique situation with serious and less obvious implications. The state delegates more of its powers to private actors which assume the roles previously ascribed to state officials – gatekeepers, judges, police, etc.

Secondly, since the infrastructure is private it also needs to be profit driven. How does one make make a profit out of a product, which is in a sense free and accessible to all? Instead of paying for it in money we end up having another transaction – data for service.

The third and the broadest implication of the change we discuss is commodification of subsequent areas of life. We are no longer citizens, members of some communities – even though we still like to call online groups communities. We are either entrepreneurs competing for attention in social media, or we are passive products – traded as commodities by somebody else. In both cases our data is the essential measure of our value. The more we share, the more attractive we become.

Alek Tarkowski, Katarzyna Szymielewicz, Evgeny Morozov

Alek Tarkowski, Katarzyna Szymielewicz, Evgeny Morozov

The far reaching results these changes are not optimistic. They include anxiety, loneliness, feeling that we are being left alone in this cruel world. The state is now withdrawing from many of its functions towards citizens and saying it I can no longer deal with all those global challenges and international companies possessing our data.

Our fear increases because we know, we have to do the negotiating directly with the huge market players. But on the other side, the state feeds on our fear when developing its own security policy. So when it’s increasing its powers towards us, it’s using our fear to say “I will offer you some public security at the price of more data and more freedom”. Again you can see how this circle is “nicely” rounded against us, citizens. The more we are framed the more we are inclined to say “yes” to this offer of trading more freedom for more security. As a result we feel… less secure, because our human rights are limited and we become exposed to many dangers, including those coming from the state.

All these changes force us to rethink the role of the state. On the one hand I would like it to be limited when it invades our private lives in the name of security. On the other, I would like to see the state much more active where it comes to dealing with the market. We need somebody to represent our interests against global companies and also to negotiate what lies in the public interest with citizens themselves, who not always can see long-term consequences of commodification of their privacy.

Aleksander Tarkowski: Rather than thinking about good democracy, I prefer to think about good and bad Internet. David Eisenberg once called the Internet “a dumb pipe”. It’s a dumb technology! It sits in the middle and just sends packets of information – nothing else. Since it’s dumb it’s in a way neutral, you can even call it open or democratic because it doesn’t enforce anything.

But if all that was true, the dumb pipe wouldn’t be able to surveil us. And it is surveilling us. What happened, then? The dumb pipe is still there, but on top of it we’ve built all sorts of layers, that are no longer dumb, decentralized and evenly distributed. We increasingly depend on a single intermediary for certain areas: for cars, searches, shoes. How can we get out of it? One, maybe naïve answer is that we need a stronger public intervention. At this point I would like to name one actor who can solve this problem, but this is impossible. I bet a bit on the state and I wish I could bet more on the grassroots activity.

David Eisenberg once called the Internet “a dumb pipe”. It’s a dumb technology! It sits in the middle and just sends packets of information – nothing else.

Alek Tarkowski

A while ago I listened to a podcast on designing… fire escapes in buildings. In the 19th century USA there were virtually no fire escapes and no fire brigades to help save people from fires in buildings. And 150 years later we have fire brigades and fire escapes. Things do change over time if we talk about it. Someone in that podcast said, that a huge fire in New York, when over 100 people died, proved that architecture does not protect us. We need to protect ourselves from architecture. I think we can say the same thing about Internet and it does not mean the Internet or architecture is bad. Building is not evil – in some cases we just need to be smarter than it is.

Ivan Krastev: My interest in Internet and transparency started with two observations. First of all, to whatever country you go these days, when politicians are asked policy questions they cannot answer, they’re going to tell you they will solve it with more transparency. It doesn’t matter where you are and what the issue is – transparency is sold as a universal solution. It’s not an instrument anymore, it’s a goal. Second fact which made me ponder upon this issue was a decision made by a Bulgarian prime minister, Boyko Borisov. Immediately after being elected in 2009 Borisov declared all the meetings of the council of ministers would be accessible to public two hours after they finish. Borisov is not famous for a strong democratic instinct. Why did he do it, then? It was the best way to close the mouths of his ministers. Normally, discussions during government meetings were rather intense. But when you know that everything is going to be public, you realize, that any major disagreement means government crisis. As a result people control themselves.

We should not fall in love with the transparency paradigm. Something that was a desirable utopia yesterday, may turn into a nightmare when it becomes reality.

Ivan Krastev

I believe that the popular transparency paradigm is based on three illusions. First is the idea, that when people know everything – imagine it’s possible – they will come to the same conclusion. So there will be a decision by consensus simply because all of us have symmetrical information. This is not true. We can get the same information, but make different decisions based on our different experiences and values To try to reduce all political disagreements to the asymmetry of information is a false view of what policy is about and how society functions.

The second illusion is that we can combine fully transparent governments with private citizens keeping their privacy intact. Yet, even if the government is transparent, it is collecting information about its people. So citizens are going to be transparent too.

The last illusion concerns trust. Many of us will say the part of the problems democracy is facing today is the crisis of trust and that transparency automatically creates more trust. We somehow tend to forget that trust is not something simply based on the availability of information.

I therefore argue we should not fall in love with the transparency paradigm. Something that was a desirable utopia yesterday, may turn into a nightmare when it becomes reality.

Shalini Randeria, Ivan Krastev

Shalini Randeria, Ivan Krastev

 

Evgeny Morozov: To some extent I share Ivan Krastev’s point of view on transparency. In my last book I’m critical about efforts of the Pirate Party in Germany, which was keen to broadcast all parliamentary meetings and debates online. An argument can be made that people pushing for full transparency misunderstand the way politics and democracy function and that we need dark corners for deals and bargaining.

Five Star Movement in Italy also embarked on an agenda of radical transparency. They bring cameras even to meetings between the leader of the party and prime minister which normally would be private. However, their goal is not to make everything transparent in order to increase trust. It’s quite the opposite – their objective is to increase mistrust, because they think the system is entirely corrupt. They believe the more they reveal of this corruption, the sooner the system will fall and I think they are right. We need to distinguish between the kind of reformist transparency in the Pirate Party’s case and far more radical transparency in Italy, where demands for openness are part of a broader program of social transformation.

With regards to other subjects we tackled – I also would love to see the state being more active. The problem is I don’t believe in its ability or desire to do all those things. They have done the exact opposite and continue to do it. Not only in national capitals, but also in Brussels. The European Commission has become the primary vehicle for privatizing our telecommunication infrastructure. There is no reference to public interest in the vision they have for future of telecommunications. Why? Because citizens are not represented in the meetings in Brussels. The only people represented are the lobbyists of big telecom companies.

Karolina Wigura

Karolina Wigura

 

Katarzyna Szymielewicz: When I say “state” I don’t mean the government. Don’t ever confuse them. If we think about state in a broader way, as the only existing representative structure, we might try an intellectual experiment – how can we reclaim that structure for ourselves. In ecology we may not see good government policies, but we invented some regulatory mechanisms that at least allow us to effectively punish those companies which poison soil and water. It’s the same with privacy: the government may never pursue the right policy but there are bodies – like data protection authorities – which can make the voice of citizens and consumers difficult to ignore.

Ivan Krastev: Evgeny made an interesting point. Transparency could be a good revolutionary instrument but it is not a good instrument for reforming democracy. The moment radical protests movements entered the political life, they abandoned the type of horizontal, transparent, Internet community based political strategy, in favor of an old-fashioned party structure. Spanish Podemos and Greek Syriza have charismatic and powerful leaders alike those from the beginning of the 20th century.

Mistrust may also serve as a tool for political empowerment but when it becomes the default solution in any political discussions, the system quickly starts using it for its own benefit. During the anti-government protests in 2013 in Bulgaria the government never said “trust us” – they said “don’t trust anybody”. Then you won’t do anything together and change nothing.

Marcin Król

Marcin Król

 

Shalini Randeria: It’s time for questions handed in from the audience. First: is the Internet a possible platform for direct democracy?

Katarzyna Szymielewicz: For me the key question is framing the issues discussed on such a forum. Who will ask the questions people will then “democratically” answer? Who will moderate the discussion? Podemos, for example, has an Internet system for internal voting but only party leaders are allowed to pose questions. As some experts on Spanish politics point out, the issues are framed in a way which guarantees predictable and desirable answers.

We are either entrepreneurs competing for attention in social media, or we are passive products – traded as commodities by somebody else. In both cases our data is the essential measure of our value.

Katarzyna Szymielewicz

Ivan Krastev: There was big excitement when Iceland decided to outsource their constitutional process. This is an interesting experiment. But it has a problem: in this kind of participation you need to know who participates. Above all people with a lot of free time. Politics is a time-consuming activity and competent people usually don’t have much of it. Thus in Internet based political participation we end up with overrepresenting certain groups of society and underrepresenting other.

Evgeny Morozov: In thinking about democracy and Internet the right framework of reference is not necessarily democracy, but autonomy. Can we have an environment in the future in which local communities feel more autonomous and empowered than before? Technological preconditions for that are easy to specify. You can think of a future in which a community from the same neighbourhood, instead of relying on centralized bus service compare the travel routes on their phones, discover they all travel in the same direction and organize a bus route of their own. That would stress their autonomy and lessen their dependence on centralized structures, but for that to happen those people need to have access to the data they generate. Currently it’s not possible since the infrastructure and data are in private, corporate hands.

Alek Tarkowski: Our goal should be to decentralize communal systems. However, if you don’t create conditions in which everyone can participate, you’ll have the higher and middle class creating their own little technological cooperatives for their own services, which will lessen the need for public services and leave the worse-off basically with no services at all.

Shalini Randeria: On Tahrir Square 95% of participants had Internet access, while in Egyptian society in general Internet access was 8%. If the debate moved to the Internet, wouldn’t it create new exclusions?

Evgeny Morozov: I had the misfortune to publish a book entitled “The Net Delusion” a week after Arab spring began, so everybody thought I was the idiot saying the Internet does not matter. That was not the case. It’s not surprising that protesters took advantage of every infrastructure available, regardless of how insecure it was. However, I do not think that relying solely on the benevolence of VKontakte, Facebook or Twitter is a sustainable long-term strategy. You never know whether the state won’t come in and get their hands on the data company has accumulated.

Jarosław Kuisz, Aleksander Smolar

Jarosław Kuisz, Aleksander Smolar

Ivan Krastev: It’s quite interesting how technology companies can influence social movements. There is one thing about the social media, which I believe affects this type of political mobilization. How do you decide to go on the street? One of the reasons is the feeling that there is a new majority. And one way to get that feeling is through observing what is happening on your Facebook page. Let’s say you have 5000 friends from which 3000 is not interested in political issues at all. But when you see the rest 2000 suddenly speaking about revolution, you start to feel that something is changing in the whole society. Probably it is not because your Facebook fiends are only a tine fraction of this society, but your readiness to go on the street increases. And when suddenly you have thousands on the street, it can immediately changes the political dynamics. Social media can create imaginary majorities which then turn into real ones. At this point, however, other, more traditional media – like television – become more important.