Presentation at Wilton Park (May 2011)

I’m somewhat belatedly posting my notes for a presentation I gave at a convening in May 2011 on Media, Social Media, and Democratic Governance at Wilton Park (here’s a PDF of the conference programme, and POLIS Director, Charlie Beckett’s notes from his presentation are here.).

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“The Internet Is Not A Horse”: presentation at Wilton Park, May 2011

Over the past few months, I’ve been working with the human rights organisation WITNESS on a new initiative that aims to help those using video for human rights to do so more safely, more ethically and more effectively. As part of this initiative, we have produced a report [published in September 2011], called Cameras Everywhere, as WITNESS’ first toe in the waters of technology policy.

Why would an organisation that has focused on advocacy campaigns to expose and end specific human rights abuses suddenly decide to engage in the world of technology policy? Finding and sharing new ways to use new technologies for documenting and exposing violations remains a central part of what WITNESS does. But in the process of building and running human rights projects that involve technology, we have been forced to confront a range of extremely thorny technical, legal, editorial and ethical challenges woven through the evolving communication environment. And in conversations with technologists, say, we’d raise issues about ethics, and they’d say, “Well, we’d never thought about it that way.” And with policy-makers, “Ah, now I hadn’t really thought about the human rights impacts of copyright enforcement.” Or with NGO colleagues, “Well, we’d like to be more involved in debates about technology, but we don’t know where to start.”

We felt it important to share in an accessible way the lessons we have learned, and to try to stitch together a perspective for our partners, donors and fellow activists, for technologists building the tools we all use, and for policy-makers who set the laws and policies that govern these same technologies. Law and policy set and shape the parameters for what technology can do – indeed law is sometimes embedded within technology – and therefore what it is possible for activists (and citizens more broadly) to do, and what protections they can enjoy and exercise.

This report is based both on our own analysis and experience, and on more than 40 in-depth interviews with highly-placed experts from settings as diverse as academia, technology policy, grassroots activism and broadcast journalism. We hope that it will provide a springboard for further discussion and help bring these various stakeholders a few inches closer together in common understanding and dialogue.

And why, you may well ask, is the internet not a horse? Well, several of you have already expressed a number of times this morning your intent, or a generalised need to “harness the internet” – a view I find highly problematic.

Here, in preview of the report, are 5 of the biggest trends emerging from our 40+ interviews that relate to the media development and governance sectors.

1. Redefining quality:

We are seeing a huge increase in the quantity of content, but old markers of quality need to be redefined in this new era. Journalists are having to deploy traditional skills in new configurations and at different speeds, as well as sharing parts of their role to their networks on Twitter and elsewhere. Curation, facilitation and amplification are becoming core skills, alongside new forensic techniques for evaluating the accuracy and reliability of information. This could mesh powerfully with long-standing approaches within media development, such as foregrounding the perspectives and demands of those on the front lines of poverty and marginalisation, or increasing the diversity of sources. It’s incumbent on the media development community to engage with these new modes of doing journalism, and to help to shape the new markers of quality and value.

2. A new ethics of information and communication

When billions can communicate in real-time through text, audio and images, and images formerly seen only within a country’s borders or by a select few are now available instantly around the world, media literacy and information ethics become ever more important. Ethical practices in journalism are part of the picture, but it’s bigger than that – it’s more fundamentally about how we communicate, how we film, photograph, document our and others’ lives, and how we share this information, for example on social media networks. [Update: A journalist wonders, for example, about the ethics of using material posted to social networks, and whether there might be a signal of intention missing between “public’ and “private”.] Services like Facebook are trying to make it as easy and “frictionless” to share content as possible, but might “friction” – for example, considering whether I really should post that picture – be a good thing? And as more and more citizens acquire the ability to stream live video, for example, how will technology providers, regulators, NGOs, media, and citizens respond? How will “local cultural sensitivities” change and adapt in a truly globalised communication environment? Several of our interviewees suggested that looking at these issues through the lens of human rights provides a robust new basis for a new information ethics. Alongside these ethics, we will need to rethink how and when we might extend, for example, some of the statutory protections afforded to journalists to others engaging in similar work, but not affiliated with publications, and not working in traditional media forms. How might this benefit governance, for example? [Update: Here’s a case from December 2011 where a blogger invoked, but was judged not to have followed professional practices necessary to, statutory legal protections journalists might have access to.]

3. Privacy, identity and technology are inextricable

Our privacy, our identities and our technology are increasingly linked and bound up with each other. Participating in new networked technology – using a mobile phone, having a Facebook profile, using a free email service – and taking advantage of its social aspects means trading aspects of your privacy, and linking formerly separate parts of your identity. Doing this unwittingly, whether you are an activist, official or journalist, presents new types of risks. It is clear that neither policy-makers nor civil society organisations understand these technologies well enough, if at all, or how they work – and therefore their understanding of the vulnerabilities and risks inherent in them is cloudy at best. We all need to understand these technologies, the people that build them, and the impacts they have better – whether by learning the basics of computer code, or about how mobile phones work, or how data is collected on web users – rather than seeing them as somehow “magical” or dismissing them as insubstantial. [Here’s one excellent analysis, from October 2011, of how journalists could do better, by OSI Fellow Christopher Soghoian.]

3. All our eggs in one privately-owned basket

Technology, and video increasingly, is a critical part of civil society’s infrastructure. We need to invest continually in making sure civil society has the capacity to use it effectively, as it can magnify the impact of resources, mitigate isolation, act as a protection and so on. But as I have noted, it’s also a risk generator… Much civil society content is stored on private commercial web services, some of whom have less than stellar records on protecting freedom of expression. This content is also vulnerable when commercial web services are shut down – in these circumstances these services rarely consider donating their content to a public domain site like Archive.org [non-profits also fail to do this, but they host far less of other people’s content]. Content is also vulnerable to takedown on the grounds of copyright – parodies, an honourable tradition in internet video, for example, are especially vulnerable to poltically-motivated copyright takedown. But copyright policy debates are dominated by the film, music and publishing industries and by polarised rhetoric, and policy-makers rarely have access to a balanced set of research and resources to help guide digital-era policy. We’re in the early days of addressing this public/private conundrum – and media development practitioners and donors might have helpful lessons to share from their experiences of more inclusive definitions of the public interest, bridging public and private media.

4. Agility

Programming cycles in civil society are too long and inflexible, and unsuited to the nature of more fluid and iterative project development (some might say, to the nature of reality.) Whether this is a result of donor requests for deeper and more robust evidence of impact, or some other root-cause, it is leading in some cases to risk aversion, and to a fear and masking of failure. Venture capitalists and technologists thrive on acknowledging and understanding failure – civil society and donors need to own up to, understand and use failures much more clearly, especially in the iterative ICT domain, which rarely responds well to rigid long-term logframes… Similarly, legislative cycles are too long and unwieldy to be able to cope adequately with new developments in technology and new uses for technologies. It means that policy coherence is fractured across and between different domains of government and intergovernmental policy, and that legal and regulatory mechanisms are increasingly out of step with the reality of practice. And legal communities and judiciaries around the world (here in the UK too) need to understand these developments better too, not least in helping to develop evidentiary standards for social media.

5. Civil Society

I’ve already said a lot about civil society, but here’s something specific that came out of a lot of the interviews: civil society needs to collaborate more and to compete less when it comes to the internet and the media. Civil society’s collective knowledge, understanding, networks and influence are enormous – CSOs are among the most trusted organisations and institutions in the world. But lack of coordination, lack of collectiveness, and lack of forward-planning are hampering this potential influence. We need to infuse spaces (and the companies that own them) such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook with the human rights ethics and values we espouse, but at the same time, we need to learn from other sectors in becoming more fluid, more porous and more collaborative – and if we are to exercise more credible influence, we need to understand the technologies and spaces we are talking about better, in the same way we understand trade negotiations, or HIV/AIDS, or the environment – or indeed, governance.

6. Donors

Finally, a word about donors. Donors – whether governments, foundations, individual philanthropists or crowd-funding sites – need to be more mindful and less risk averse in how they approach and evaluate funding for human rights and ICTs. They need to help rethink the programmatic model for a more complex, instant age, bring together groups of grantees more systematically, and function more clearly as brokers of ideas and as field-builders and -strengtheners. They also need to use their long and evolving understanding of M&E to help build less burdensome, more shared systems for documenting and measuring the effects of what they fund. Interviewees also called on donors to fund the development of a more systematic evidence base in this field. Finally, they need to use their long experience to help peers and grantees to avoid repeating mistakes of the past, particularly in instrumentalising, or “harnessing” the internet. [Here’s a presentation I gave a few months later with recommendations from the final report on what donors can do specifically.]

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