On Power

Though online power is less tangible and less visible, the internet has been a boon for those that hope to see more powerful, free citizens, argues Jamie Barlett.

The core purpose of Demos has always been to identity and understand power: who has it, and how they use it. When I joined back in 2008, I was mostly interested in examining or challenging traditional powerbases: the mainstream media, unelected members of the House of Lords, un-transparent government bodies, behemothic corporate interests.

But digital technology was already chipping away at these institutions, starting to shine a light on unaccountable power and redistributing it in new and mysterious ways. With social media, more people suddenly had a voice: citizen journalists were suddenly competing with boardroom editors in determining the news. Secrets – of state snooping, of cover ups – were being exposed to the world with increasing regularity. Governments starting losing its power to censor and control information that might be of interest to citizens. At its most extreme, autocratic governments in parts of the Arab world that had once seemed immovable fixtures were tumbling.
But although the net feels like a neutral, free and open space, it is course a complicated web of interest and control. Everywhere there are invisible centres of power: governments who can monitor what you do; big tech companies that collect all your data in large centralised servers and sell it; invisible US-based regulators that exercise control over what happens on the net. As it was pulling down unaccountable powerbases, the net was erecting new ones in their place. And they were often very difficult to spot.

First, there are the big technology companies that exercise an increasing amount of power over our daily lives. Take the current FBI – Apple deadlock. The tech giant is refusing to comply with an FBI request to change its software so they can access phones under lawful warrant. By changing its software, says Apple, we’ll weaken it for everyone. On this occasion, I happen to agree with Apple (just about). But it’s a worrying development. Apple is accountable to a group of shareholders. Governments are accountable to citizens. And if the US government struggles with these companies, what hope does the British, or any other government have? This matters because so much information that is relevant to the governing of the UK sits on Californian servers or boardrooms. Apple might be doing us all a favour by seeking to defend our privacy rights. But what happens if one day in the future Apple’s CEO decides to do something else? What recourse would we have?

At the heart of this is data. In exchange for (usually excellent) free services, we hand over a lot of personal information about ourselves to internet companies. We’re now mostly locked in to this data-for-services exchange, with little choice about it. It’s the economic model for a growing number of digital business. But data means power. All that information we share about ourselves every day online, on our phones, on our apps, can and is bought and sold by companies around the world in order to learn more about us. Few of us know who has information on us, nor what they might do with it. But there are already some worrying hints: insurance companies using social media to adjust your premiums or investigate claims. Some loan companies are making decisions lending based on who you’re friends with on Facebook. And who knows what else, or where next?

This has direct consequences for politics, too. Because we’re so used to them, we’ve come to imagine Facebook, Twitter, Google and the rest as a public utility, something like a digital commons. They are the modern speakers’ corner, where the debates of the day are now publicly thrashed out. Subsequently, we imagine them to be neutral and apolitical. Empty “platforms” to be filled with our clamoring. Except they are not of course. They are private companies based in California. I think that Facebook, Google, Twitter et al take their commitment to being free and open spaces very seriously. But they are faced with difficult decisions in which their own interests (commitment to free expression; obeying various national laws; and shareholder demands for profit) will sometimes clash. They have to make tricky judgements about which groups should be allowed or banned on the platform, which user gets a sacred blue tick, which users have a ‘right to be forgotten’. These decisions are very important for the functioning of democracy in the UK.

Then there’s the algorithms. They are vital to the internet because they help to order and arrange vast volumes of data at a scale and speed impossible for a human. These formulas influence the media we read, the products we buy, and with whom we socialize. Most of us have no idea what they are or how they work. True, an algorithm is just a simple formula which must be followed to calculate the answer to a mathematical problem, and it’s easy to imagine they are therefore neutral. But formulas can be tweaked to meet certain ends, and even a minor adjustment to the parameters of an algorithm can have major ramifications. Author Ali Pariser thinks that, by trying to perfectly predict our preferences with his search function, Google limits our opportunities for serendipity, discovery, and exploration. And what does that do to us politically, if we all just read things that corroborate our existing world view? I suspect it makes us more polarized. And what if those algorithms were tweaked to change slightly what political stories we read? According to one recent study, if you tell your friends on Facebook you’ve voted, they are more likely to vote too. But imagine if Facebook changed its algorithm to only show Democrat supporters these proud declarations of civil duty, and no Republican ones. That power could affect the result of an election (and may well have done in the 2000 US election). I have no reason to believe Facebook would ever do that. But the point is that it’s possible, and you wouldn’t even know if they did.

The overall ledger is a positive one. The internet has been a boon for those of us that hope to see more powerful, free citizens. And the old centres of powers still matter of course. Newspaper editors also have the power to influence elections. But most of us know that. Online power is less tangible, less visible. But it’s still there. Power has changed – both what it is, and who holds it. Suddenly the coders, the hackers, the tech geeks, the mathematicians are the architects of our new social and political worlds: they run the platforms and own the keys (not to mention the lock picks). Where does this leaves the poorest, the most vulnerable, the digitally illiterate people trying to live decent, save lives online? Identifying these new sources of power over our political, social and economic life remains every bit as important now as it was before the internet transformed our lives. For the functioning of a free, open and healthy democracy, citizens need to be alert and vigilant as to who has power, how they use it, and how accountable they are when they do. This is as true today as it was a decade ago; and still will be in a decade from now.