January 16, 2022

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Greater online transparency is the key to defending democracy

The writer is international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center

American democracy is under threat — so much is clear. That fundamental realisation took a long time to hit home in the US, but since the assault on the Capitol a year ago, it has finally taken hold.

The fact that no consensus exists about where the threat to the foundations of the republic comes from is testimony to the depth of the crisis. Some developments, however, are clear: plans to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden were hatched on Facebook; conspiracies were spread on YouTube; and the “Big Lie” that Trump did not lose the 2020 presidential election was amplified on numerous podcasts.

Over the past year, remarkably little has changed to ensure that hate speech does not again lead to violence. The legal and regulatory constraints on the big tech platforms remain unaltered — and as long as they do, basic democratic principles will continue to wither.

So here are three initiatives that should help to tilt the balance back and reinvigorate democracy, starting with the online realm.

First, transparency where the workings of social media platforms are concerned is critical, but rare. It took a team from ProPublica and The Washington Post over a year to get access to the documents and posts in Facebook groups that offered ample evidence of the fomenting of hatred and violence. About 10,000 such messages were posted weekly between the election in November and the storming of the Capitol.

More often than not, academics looking into our information environment quickly encounter obstacles when they seek access to data. For instance, Facebook cut off researchers from New York University last summer, and is still refusing to provide the documents that the House select committee on the January 6 attack would like to investigate.

The Platform Transparency and Accountability Act now before the Senate would create clear parameters for academic research. Similar provisions on access to information are needed for lawmakers, journalists and watchdogs.

Second, we must look beyond online speech to understand the sources of harm as well as the solutions to it. The harvesting and brokering of data give advertisers the ability to build incredibly detailed targeting profiles. This practice in which sensitive categories are collected and used invisibly to target advertisements, including political ones, is arguably at odds with anti-discrimination principles.

The US needs a federal data protection law and, at the very least, should ban advertising based on discriminatory categories. Facebook has committed to no longer using race, sexual orientation and religion when targeting ads, starting this month. But upholding the fundamental principle of non-discrimination should not depend on the goodwill of individual companies. It should be guaranteed by law.

Third, we need to move from incidental to structural accountability. After the assault on the Capitol, open-source investigations helped identify perpetrators with the images they had proudly posted online themselves.

Many of the trials of those accused of participating in the violence have not yet begun. Similarly, a national commission of inquiry into everything that unfolded on January 6 is still to receive congressional approval.

The question is whether the online amplification of calls for violence and the enabling of an attempted insurrection will have real legal consequences. Regulatory efforts have so far focused on addressing market failures, not democratic or public interest ones. But defending democracy is worth addressing head-on.

That would include clearer rules for online advertising and social media platforms, liability for tech companies who are shown to be reckless and the extraction of proactive commitments to not use shady tactics. Candidates running for office should pledge upfront that their teams and consultants will not disseminate unproven claims about electoral outcomes and voting requirements, nor spread and legitimise calls for violence.

Over the past year we have learnt that the greatest threat to American democracy is not foreign disinformation but domestic terrorism. Given that, we must focus on what the US can do at home to make its political system more resilient.

We can begin to strengthen democracy through more transparency and accountability in the digital realm, and an honest consideration of how our rights translate online and how we can protect them there.

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