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The Digital Republic: On Freedom and…
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The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century (edition 2022)

by Jamie Susskind (Author)

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"Not long ago, the tech industry was widely admired, and the Internet was regarded as a tonic for freedom and democracy. Not anymore. Every day, the headlines blaze with reports of racist algorithms, data leaks, and social media platforms festering with falsehood and hate. In The Digital Republic, acclaimed author Jamie Susskind argues that these problems are not the fault of a few bad apples at the top of the industry. They are the result of our failure to govern technology properly. The Digital Republic charts a new course. It offers a plan for the digital age: new legal standards, new public bodies and institutions, new duties on platforms, new rights and regulators, new codes of conduct for people in the tech industry. Inspired by the great political essays of the past, and steeped in the traditions of republican thought, it offers a vision of a different type of society: a digital republic in which human and technological flourishing go hand in hand." --… (more)
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Title:The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century
Authors:Jamie Susskind (Author)
Info:Pegasus Books (2022), 304 pages
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The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century by Jamie Susskind

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When the worldwide web was born, the American government saw a Silicon Valley filled with fragile and vulnerable startups. It came together to agree not to regulate them, but to let them grow as boldly and as big as they could. And they did. Today, they are household names globally, the biggest companies in the world. Several are the first to be valued at over a trillion dollars. Unfortunately, that has given them the power and the arrogance to solidify their positions, at the cost of injuring their customers/users and all potential competitors. Jamie Susskind, a barrister (litigation lawyer) in the UK, has pulled together a remarkable and enormously busy book called The Digital Republic, to deal with the inequities and the dangers.

The biggest threat Susskind sees is unaccountable power. This is power without restraint, without penalty, without constrictions of law, regulation or even decency. He says Derek Chauvin showed unaccountable power when he put his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes while rational humans could only plead with him from the sidewalk. That is the kind of power wielded by Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Apple, among far too many others. But Susskind says “I reject the notion, and you should too, that we can only enjoy the wonders of digital technology if we submit to the unaccountable power of those who design and control it.” At that point, readers absolutely must finish the book, because he does show how.

Their power means all of us are unfree. We must do as they say. We must sign away any rights we think we have in online “agreements” that no one has the time to read, let alone understand. If you’ve ever read one, you know they are purposely vague and filled with undefined jargon the companies can interpret however they want when necessary. It is immediately obvious there is no point in reading those documents. It’s not as if you could negotiate the deletion of a clause you don’t agree with. You either give up all your rights before entering, or you cannot enter. Normally, such onesided contracts don’t stand up in court.

Yet this astounding onesidedness is approved throughout the judicial system, which doesn’t look at unfairness in tech issues. It only looks to see if there is an “agreement”. Next case, please. Susskind says “the idea that ‘consent’ empowers the individual is nonsensical. It is hard to conceive of a system that would give ordinary people less power than they currently have.” “We are visitors in the ‘legal universe’ they have created.” No one should have that power.

But that’s just the beginning. In what he calls computational ideology, engineers have gone off the rails with their algorithms. People who type in their names without capital letters are far more likely to default on a loan. Job applicants are evaluated by their zip code. Companies cut credit if marriage counseling shows up as a charge. Renters are rejected by the spelling of their names. Chubbiness is a marker of corruption. All of it is offensive and needs to be regulated. Algorithms need to be examinable, and restricted in their excesses. Gigantic datasets do not represent individuals, but that’s how Big Tech swings.

Susskind longs for human “naughtiness” – the tendency for everyone to avoid and bend the rules. Humans will exceed the speed limit, skip paying a metro fare, try to see two films while at the cinema, not signal a turn when no one is in sight and so on. But Big Tech has a lock on users’ behavior. Fees are deducted before delivery. Self-driving cars obey every requirement of the road. In Smart stores, soda dispensers will remember your face and refuse a refill, and verify your child’s age with an eye scan. And already, reputations are being be ruined by others rating their every movement and interaction. The world run by Big Tech is an ugly one.

He examines a blizzard of these examples in crisp short chapters – nearly 40 of them. He lays out the problem in simple language, clear for everyone. He tells you how it fits into the scheme of things, and what’s coming up next in the seemingly neverending condemnation of this new world. It is a rapid-fire education for those who don’t live it all day every day. And even for those who do, it is awe-inspiring to see it all in one eloquent place.

Susskind revives the concept of republic, nothing to do with American Republicans, but rather with the Ancient Greeks, whose republics required combined efforts and mutual respect to manage properly. He calls for mini-publics, ad hoc committees pulled together to deal with single issues. They would have the power to require a new law, or call a referendum, or ban some practice. And then disband and go about their lives again. This, which also goes by the name democracy, is a way to keep lobbyists and special interests out of the process. There are no parties, no re-election campaigns, no fundraising. It is a matter of members of the republic judging the state of their situation and dealing with it. I have written of this far too often over the years, but Susskind actually sees evidence of it popping up all over the world, successfully changing bad situations for the better. I am delighted with that news. I’m with him all the way on this, as with most everything in the book.

In terms of Big Tech, mini-publics could require certified complaint procedures, enabling class actions, and banning blanket data resale. In hardware, the right to repair could be made mandatory, forcing design changes to pretty much everything. And delightfully, smart contracts could see Big Tech paying microfines of say a dollar a minute if they didn’t answer the complaint within the hour, or didn’t implement the solution in a timely manner. The money would be deducted immediately, just as it would on a consumer credit card.

He classifies the overall problem into five main points over the first half of the book. Everything falls into these buckets:
-Big Tech wields real power that it should not have unregulated.
-Technology is not neutral, objective or apolitical.
-Digital technology is framed entirely in terms of the market economy, encouraging its worst instincts.
-There is nothing natural or inevitable about Big Tech, any more than there is about Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Ag, or Big Pharma.
-We have catered to Big Tech companies in terms of market individualism instead of regulating them as service corporations.

A lot of his criticism is aimed at Facebook, for its lies and hypocrisy (Zuckerberg took his name off one policy after it failed, and put someone else’s on it). Facebook’s privacy policy “is almost as difficult to understand as Immanuel Kant’s 1781 treatise Critique of Pure Reason, a book so impenetrably dense that philosophy students tremble at the very thought of it.” He also points out the farcical performance of its content management, despite all its commitments and promises: “Facebook likes, comments and shares from outlets that regularly publish falsehoods have roughly tripled … The top-performing link on Facebook in the first three month of 2021 was a bogus article about the fatal effects of the coronavirus vaccine.” It has also applied for a patent to measure the creditworthiness of people in a member’s network, reflecting their ratings on the member’s.

But there is also some unfortunate truth: “Social life and social media became inseparable” with the coming of Facebook.

He tackles the content moderation issues from a number of angles, because they merit it and he must. He says “Neutrality towards abuse, harassment and extremism means supremacy for abusers, harassers and extremists. Neutrality and justice are not the same thing.”

Another topic I have written about numerous times is the all but complete lack of government presence. Laws on antitrust and agencies like the Federal Trade Commission have been sidelined since the Reagan era. By repeatedly cutting their budgets, administrations have forced agencies to abandon their mandated responsibilities. They are no longer able to spend precious resources on prosecutions. Instead, American citizens have had to step up themselves. Susskind says from 2000-2010, 97% of lawsuits to enforce federal statutes were filed by private claimants. That is just wrong. Government needs to reassert itself and carry out its own legal responsibilities. It can’t simply leave everything to the rich.

Bizarrely, Susskind has decided this lack of enforcement is due to fear that the other political party will do damage with these powers, these civil service regulators. Giving no references or evidence whatsoever, he maintains this is the real reason for no regulatory action, and not that almost every president since Reagan has cut back their budgets, preventing them from doing their jobs, and eventually making them look like a total waste of time and money, in order to close them down completely. From the IRS to the EPA to the post office, this has been the strategy. It is the small government ideal. That is the reality of it, and it appears to be quite bipartisan in nature. Where he got that other idea about party fear of others controlling regulators is not explained, or true. It is the only place I totally disagree with Susskind.

On the solutions side (the second half of the book), Susskind would like to see privacy designed in from the beginning, not a patch or afterthought. “’Notice’ and ‘choice’ are both illusions. Meaningful consent is impossible when individuals cannot know what their data will reveal in different contexts, or combined with other data; for example, older data or that of other people.” Let Big Tech work around designed-in privacy. Make upfront assumptions in favor of users/customers, rather than making it difficult or impossible for them to opt out (of ultra-complex cookie policies, for example). “Beneath the surface, many consumer technologies are a seething mass of biases and ideologies,” he says. From systems that reject job seekers to those that reject loan applicants, built in prejudices are everywhere. No taxation without representation updates to no automation without legislation. It’s a revolutionary wake-up call from Jamie Susskind. And it’s very doable.

Susskind wants to turn everything in Big Tech into a profession. Accountants and lawyers need degrees and licenses; they display them prominently. Why not require software engineers to do the same? Also user experience professionals, privacy professionals, platform professionals, ecommerce professionals and so on down the line. If they could lose their right to work or be fined or publicly humiliated, the internet would look very different.

The internet is so important to society, it is scarcely believable that no one needs any kind of certification to build or run it. There are no educational requirements to gather and sell everyone’s personal data to advertisers for whatever they want to do with it. There is no certification to offer a totally onesided contract that everyone must agree to at the gate. Certification and the threat of decertification could fix that.

Then, at the top, regulators should check those credentials, measure what is out there against published regulations, and discipline those who transgress. It is how the modern world works – except in Big Tech. So this is not some unprecedented misadventure in fantasy governance. It is widely implemented and replicable in Big Tech.

In the end, The Digital Republic shows a couple of things. One, the problems are many and gigantic. And two, they are, for the most part, manageable with a large dollop of logic mixed with common sense. Admittedly, administering this medicine is even harder than COVID vaccinations, but thanks to Jamie Susskind, it is at least scoped out and available.

David Wineberg ( )
1 vote DavidWineberg | Jun 19, 2022 |
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"Not long ago, the tech industry was widely admired, and the Internet was regarded as a tonic for freedom and democracy. Not anymore. Every day, the headlines blaze with reports of racist algorithms, data leaks, and social media platforms festering with falsehood and hate. In The Digital Republic, acclaimed author Jamie Susskind argues that these problems are not the fault of a few bad apples at the top of the industry. They are the result of our failure to govern technology properly. The Digital Republic charts a new course. It offers a plan for the digital age: new legal standards, new public bodies and institutions, new duties on platforms, new rights and regulators, new codes of conduct for people in the tech industry. Inspired by the great political essays of the past, and steeped in the traditions of republican thought, it offers a vision of a different type of society: a digital republic in which human and technological flourishing go hand in hand." --

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