July 14, 2022

Towards a Tech New Deal

Looking back to the start of the year,  the attacks on democracy that we — and many others — were predicting, have indeed come to pass.

Back in January, while Russian troops were already gathering around Ukraine’s borders. There were those who maintained that this was only posturing, but the reality proved security experts right. War really has returned to the European continent.

The attacks on freedoms and human rights we now see in the U.S. are as dire as predicted, and with more still to come. And we are still months from a divisive and polarising midterm election in the US.

In OECD countries inflation is already nudging 10% this year. And the world is staring down the barrel of a food crisis, exacerbated by Russia’s decision to blockade Ukraine’s ports. Russia and Ukraine between them account for 12% of the world’s calories. For the rest of the world, conflict in those countries means at best, food inflation, at worst, hunger. 

Our tongue-in-cheek subtitle to GDI’s start of the year forecast  was “You may want to sit 2023 out.” But we are now reminded of the saying  that “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to stay silent”.

Those of us who care about liberal democracy cannot afford to sit anything out. The fights we thought we had settled over the last 70 years need to be re-won by those of us who think that liberal democracy is the best form of governance we humans have yet invented. We have to fight our freedoms all over again. Some of us metaphorically, some literally.

Europe and NATO are now completely focused on Ukraine and the horrible dilemma of immediate reduction of harm from the war while seeking long-term peace. The U.S. may now be convulsed by a series of radical Supreme Court decisions. Even if the court reins itself in, the midterm elections will be determined by how many people are able — and willing — to exercise their right to vote, giving politicians and those who fund them on all sides incentives to stoke fear and division.

All this will leave little room for attending to what could be the world’s next backward slide from democratic values as China’s posture towards Taiwan hardens.

Underpinning these 3 geopolitical situations are the technology companies that serve up the content, news and otherwise, that gives most of the world its daily dopamine hit. The content we see about the war in Ukraine, politics in the U.S., in India and other situations in regions around the world are ever more polarising. The more enraged we are, the more engaged we are, and the longer we will spend online and more money we will make for the search engines, social media apps and gaming platforms. Therefore, algorithms that provide search results and social media feeds will always prioritise the most engaging content. Wars –  physical or cultural –  are catnip for algorithms. 

The advertisers whose ads end up next to this enraging content are often just dragged along for the ride. Most brand safety standards and tools give advertisers little control over where their ads end up, which is why GDI’s Dynamic Exclusion List is increasingly widely adopted. It provides peace of mind for the advertiser and the ad tech companies in the chain. 

It does not matter whether an adversarial narrative was created by a Kremlin-backed troll farm or an anti-vaccination crusader in their basement — the way that narrative is amplified and spread across the internet is driven by the same basic calculus — if it engages, it generates revenue, and so it gets amplified in the global conversation. The tech companies that control that amplification, that match content creators with readers around the world, are few in number and mostly U.S.-based. 

For this reason, the regulation of technology companies is an essential part of preserving democracy and promoting peace around the world. The tech companies did not create the harmful content that floods their products, but their algorithmic design choices have hugely magnified the damage caused. 

The next few years will be pivotal. We who value liberal democracy must move on from the under-regulated first 30 years of the internet into a new settlement with the tech industry. This new settlement must provide the tech companies with the regulatory tools required to reduce the harm caused by their products and free them from the invidious position of being arbiters of what content we can and cannot see. 

We must move to a world where:

  1. Disinformation is not defined by truth or falsehood but by the adversarial nature of the content and the harm it may cause. 
  2. The assessments of which websites [and content creators] push such adversarial narratives must be the work of neutral, independent organisations with no stake in the current ad tech ecosystem and no government control.
  3. Technology companies have a duty to demonetise websites and creators that pose a high risk of publishing adversarial narrative content. Free speech is a right, but profiting from it is a privilege. 
  4. Technology companies must provide full transparency about which websites and creators have earned the privilege of monetisation
  5. Algorithms that amplify content in search, news feeds or social media include signals of quality provided by independent third parties.   
  6. Technology companies must provide full transparency about political advertising. Who buys it, where it is shown, who sees it, how often and why.
  7. The scrutiny  of whether the technology companies are complying with these requirements must be done by independent and neutral entities
  8. A thriving marketplace of independent and neutral auditors of compliance with the new rules must emerge.

The international financial system is acknowledged to be critical to the functioning of our economies, and it is regulated around the world to reflect that fact. The information ecosystem of the 21st century is equally critical and arguably has even more ability to destabilise our societies. It must be regulated as the critical infrastructure it is.

The EU is leading the way here with the Digital Services Act and the Code of Practice on Disinformation, both due to come into force imminently. However both will succeed or fail depending on the quality and granularity of the implementation. 

GDI provides independent, neutral assessments of disinformation risk on the world’s news sites. It’s part of the data required in the new, regulated world to which we are moving.

The next six months will be a test for the EU, the technology companies and those of us in civil society organisations. Can we work together to create a new regulatory system which meets the tests laid out above? 

Our societies may depend on our success.

By Clare Melford and Danny Rogers

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