THE DIGITAL REPUBLIC: freedom and democracy in the 21st century
Author: Jamie Susskind
Editor: Pegasus Books
Anyone who lived through the dot-com boom of the late 1990s remembers the cyber-utopianism of the early days. I felt it myself as a young journalist crossing Silicon Valley to report on the birth of the new world. I wrote a book on eBay, based on interviews with its visionary founder, Pierre Omidyar. In keeping with the heady spirit of the times, I gave the book, which highlighted eBay’s ability to be a force for global economic opportunity, the idealistic title The Perfect Store.
Many of those early dreams about the potential of the Internet have come true. The list of positive changes brought about by the digital age is endless: online libraries accessible to people all over the world, GPS for smartphones that made loss a thing of the past, telemedicine and much more.
The serpent, however, was still hidden in this online Eden, and the downfall came quickly. Now, when we think of the Internet, we are just as likely to focus on its dark side: identity theft and cyberbullying; the proliferation of fake news and vitriol that erodes American democracy; and the damage that social media does to the fragile psyche of young people.
Everyone talks about the dangers, but hardly anyone suggests what to do about them. Which does The Digital Republic, by British lawyer and academic Jamie Susskind, a welcome arrival. Mr. Susskind does an excellent job of diagnosing problems and offering an array of well-constructed solutions, although some are more practical than others.
As his title suggests, Mr. Susskind embraces republicanism (small ‘r’, most emphatically), a philosophy diametrically opposed to market individualism. Republicans (by Mr. Susskind’s definition) “oppose social structures that allow one group to exercise inexplicable power, also called dominance, over others.”
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Susskind sees dominance in today’s digital world. A few big companies and platforms control our digital lives. They capture our personal data, store it and resell it at will. They facilitate the dissemination of false information and hateful ideas. They use secret algorithms that discriminate against certain users.
Fundamentally, Mr. Susskind’s Republicans believe that these problems are not the fault of a few “rotten” corporations or individuals, but rather the result of an entire superstructure. “They oppose,” says Mr. Susskind, “the idea of someone having the power of Mark Zuckerberg, not Mr. Zuckerberg himself.”
Mr. Susskind is a keen observer of the dangers of the digital world and his analysis is enhanced, for American readers, by his outsider’s eye. He brings the perspective of a European who is more skeptical of the market and companies than many Americans, and more open to bold solutions to the problems created by big tech companies.
As Mr. Susskind makes clear, the big tech problem will not be solved by hurling barbed criticism or waiting for companies to do the right thing. What we need are new laws that will force corporations to be less dominant and do less damage. Mr. Susskind offers a range of solutions, and they are the most important part of the book.
Many of his proposals could do a lot of good. Congress should, as he suggests, require tech companies to be more transparent about their internal workings. Audits of their algorithms and procedures, such as inspections of industrial facilities, would allow regulators and users to understand how technology products work and assess the damage they can cause.
Another promising idea is to establish a pre-market certification system for digital products. In the same way that the Food and Drug Administration licenses drugs for the market, a regulatory body could review and assess software and other digital products before they are released to ensure that they comply with the law, and possibly- be assessed for their compatibility with community values.
However, some proposals seem more suited to the ivory tower than to the real world. Mr Susskind calls for a broad system of “deliberative mini-publics”, groups of ordinary citizens who would develop policies in areas such as the taxation of data processing. It’s an idea that no doubt has a lot of appeal in the seminar room, but I started looking at my fellow subway mates and wondering how they would go about developing an IT tax policy. I’m skeptical.
Mr. Susskind also offers a system for regulating website moderation, including checklists of things moderators must do. It suggests “disciplinary mechanisms” by which moderators could be subject to fines or disqualification. As we saw this spring with the debacle of the Department of Homeland Security’s advisory council to combat disinformation, Americans, at least, have a deep resistance to the idea of the government getting too involved in choosing acceptable speech. While Mr. Susskind’s idea is a good one, its Orwellian overtones would undoubtedly make it, at least in the United States, a political dead end.
Mr Susskind notes that he was “too young for the cyber-utopianism of the 1990s”, but he sometimes seems to commit to a version of the 2020s, such as his vision of citizens’ panels producing political edicts to solve big tech problems. Yet, in trying to make the world just, an excess of idealism is not the worst thing. As we take on the task of fending off the nefarious influences of the Internet – which we must do – Mr. Susskind’s clever book can serve as an invaluable guide.