Monday, March 28, 2016

Seminar 5 Position Statement: Prof Vian Bakir

Resistance to State Mass Surveillance:  The Trumping of Civil Society by the Global Digital Tech Elite

Prof. Vian Bakir

Political Communication & Journalism, Bangor University

Civic and Technological Resistance to State Mass Surveillance

In the DATA-PSST! Seminar on Media Agenda-Building, National Security, Trust and Forced Transparency we examined whether civic practices needed strengthening to generate a more informed public debate on the pros and cons of Snowden-revealed state mass surveillance (most participants agreed that they did). The following DATA-PSST! Seminar on Visible Mediations of Transparency explored a range of cultural practices that could constitute civic resistance to state mass surveillance, as well as querying the adequacy and desirability of such resistance. In my recent article for Media and Communication, I concluded that civic practices to counter mass state surveillance are weak, including whistle-blower protection, encouraging debate in public fora, and participatory projects such as those involving Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). The only evidently strong resistive practice is technological, this led by the digital tele-communications industry in their innovations to the communication platforms and devices on which state surveillance piggy-backs. Since Snowden’s revelations in 2013, as well as lobbying for changes to surveillance and transparency laws and practices, major players in the digital tech industry (e.g. Apple) have developed their encryption technologies (using end-to-end encryption) so that the state cannot compel them to disclose people’s communications. This has caused intelligence agencies to publicly express much concern about the internet ‘going dark’.

The struggle between corporations seeking to retain consumer trust in the privacy of their digital communications, and the state’s secret demands for access continues to play out in the development of the UK’s Investigatory Powers (IP) bill, currently under scrutiny in Parliament.  A few months ago, I attended a round-table policy discussion on the IP bill. I learned that the IP bill is intended to set a global gold standard for issues of data surveillance. However, tech and security companies and academics at the table expressed a wide range of concerns with the bill as it currently stood. Some noted the lack of convincing or detailed evidence provided by government that such surveillance actually helps prevent terrorism. Technology companies charged with implementing and complying with the law worried that the IP Bill’s provisions and definitions were too vague to be readily useable by them. The IP Bill continues to attract public legal criticism, for instance, the recent letter from British lawyers and legal academics to The Guardian. Concomitantly, civil servants and regulators worry that large global digital technology corporations will simply not comply with UK law.

The Anti-regulation Global Tech Elite

Field trips across 2016 to SxSW interactive in Austin, Texas, and to California’s digital tech centres, lays bare the anti-regulation stance of the US-based global technology industries. For instance, Jacquelline Fuller, director of Google’s philanthropy arm,, and Nicole Wong, Google’s Vice President and Deputy General Counsel from 2004-11, see regulation as too slow given technological progress that is so rapid that we don't know what we should be regulating. They questioned whether we should regulate how we collect data when we don't even know what the algorithms are, or what the social consensus is. The slowness of government jars with the tech companies’ mentality that when the tech breaks it needs to be fixed, and quickly. Furthermore, they see government as highly inefficient with respect to its procurement rules. Repeatedly across SXSW as I attended panels presented by industry movers and shakers and start-ups in big data, marketing, virtual reality, Internet of Things, and wearables, I heard their preferred alternative to regulation: self-regulation. However, recognising that regulation is not going to go away, they favour maximising corporate input. Their solutions proffered comprised letting big players work it out through lobbying Congress at federal and state levels, and putting a tech corps in government to improve understanding between Washington D.C. and Silicon Valley.

The Influence of the Global Tech Elite

The influence of the big tech corps cannot be underestimated. Certainly for the UK’s IP Bill, the big tech players were consulted. Formative consultation documents - the Anderson Report and the RUSI Report - consulted with The Internet Services Providers’ Association, BT, Vodafone, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, Apple, BT, TalkTalk, EE, Three, Telefonica, Virgin Media, and Reform Government Surveillance (an alliance of some of the world’s most influential Internet companies).
With political-intelligence elites’ concern to dissuade telecommunications companies from making the internet ‘go dark’, it would seem that the digital tech corps’ desire to retain their customer’s loyalty remains the strongest bastion of resistance to state mass surveillance. Google, for instance, does not want its users to reduce their use of Google services, as heavier usage provides a richer digital footprint that can be sold to online advertisers. Meanwhile, companies like Apple, whose business model is based more on brand superiority than online advertising, can see that there is money to be made from privacy and data protection, hence its touting of end-to-end encryption. Technological innovations driven by the global digital tech elite, then, appear to be a stronger resistive force to state mass surveillance than civil society practices (involving whistle-blowers, the press and NGOs).

This state of affairs has profound implications for democratic health. If business models were to change, or if the founders and CEOs of the pro-privacy, global tech corps so decided, this strong technological resistance to state mass surveillance could cease. Given the weakness of civil society, this would be highly detrimental to the public accountability of political-intelligence elites.

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