11 April 2018 — Return of the Public
Facebook is once again in the news. Last month a joint investigation by the Observer, the New York Times and Channel 4 revealed that a UK company, Cambridge Analytica, had used information about Facebook’s users to target voters during Donald Trump’s successful campaign to become president in 2016. But the threat that the data giants’ business model poses to individual autonomy and to democratic process is not news.
In 2013 a US government contractor called Edward Snowden leaked documents showing how Facebook and the other digital platforms had been effectively integrated with the NSA’s global intelligence apparatus. The US-UK secret state was hoovering data from Facebook and Google’s servers and could use it for anything from population-wide analysis to the stalking of individuals. Somehow the moment passed without substantial reform.
This time things look a little different. Right-wing outliers have now used social media to frustrate the agenda of the broad centre of political and economic power in both the US and the UK. Trump and Brexit were not supposed to happen. These upsets followed the surprisingly strong performance of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and Jeremy Corbyn’s astonishing transformation from obscure backbencher to plausible future Prime Minister. The same technology that permits right-wing billionaires to refine their propaganda has also given the left the means to discover itself as a political constituency. In other words, the platforms are now a problem to people who matter.
It is important to grasp that their problem is not ours. The mainstream of economic and political power in the US and elsewhere would like to see Facebook and Google more fully integrated with the state apparatus. The platforms will play much the same role as the television networks. They will be venues in which professionally produced and corporately managed journalism is systematically favoured and the impact of ‘fake news’ is minimised. Facebook and Google will remain dominant but they will be subject to regulation that aligns them with the needs of the rest of the propertied class. (Property here includes political office.) We can already see how Google is trying to accommodate itself to this regulatory agenda. If this weakens the democratic left at the same time as it marginalises the disreputable right, then this is, from their point of view, a price worth paying. Let’s be honest, most of them, including those who think that they are on the left, will see it as a bonus.
What then does the emerging majority that began to assemble around the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns do at this moment? Certainly, we can disengage from Facebook and seek to develop alternatives. Facebook is itself creature of the US universities. Students are well placed to try out alternatives. They are much more concerned with the networks they are building in real life than with the billions of profiles already in the Facebook fold – let them use their own platforms to plan their parties and whatnot. Besides, it seems increasingly odd that young people are graduating without learning about the network technology that increasingly determines their life chances. Linux was created by young people with too much time on their hands. It isn’t unrealistic to imagine that a cross-disciplinary project at one or more universities could do something much less technically challenging. The existing institutions of the left, perhaps especially the UK’s reviving labour movement, could also play an important part in a project like this. If we really are preparing for transformative administrations in first the UK and then the US, then we need to understand the possibilities of technology, and figure out what the hell technically competent people are talking about when they talk about algorithms and encryption.
But the main thrust of our response must be political. The state is where the fate of network media will be decided. Experimental alternatives to Facebook can have an important demonstration effect. But they will not break through unless our governments are compelled to support them and to help them reach scale. In this respect each national context is different. In what follows I discuss the situation in the UK, although some of what I propose might be relevant elsewhere.
In Britain the BBC remains the dominant source of politically significant speech. So far it hasn’t embraced the emancipatory potential of new technology, hampered as it is by both its risk-averse and top-heavy management culture and by a wider political context in which private interests were listened to when they complained about ‘crowding out’. It is time we rejected this flat out and insisted on the creation of a ‘public option’ in social media. A reforming administration would be well advised to create a British Digital Corporation (BDC) to develop, along with much else besides, this public option in partnership with the BBC.
A public network would have communicative equality and privacy built into its basic infrastructure. Wherever possible, communication would bypass central aggregation and data would be stored on the users’ own devices. The members of this BDC network could choose how they related to others and what kinds of data they shared. They could also decide how they engaged with institutions, including the BBC. The BBC’s output, of course, would be a compelling reason for individuals to engage with the BDC platform.
In such a system, the BBC would remain central to setting the news agenda but with this important change; at the moment the corporation uses newspapers as proxies for public opinion, in this new model the public will participate directly in the production of news and analysis through the exercise of defined powers to commission and promote content. At the same time, the BBC’s governing structures would be reformed so that we are able to maintain effective oversight of the country’s key communicative resource.
In the exercise of these powers the public becomes conversant with itself, in the sense that each user can understand something of the preferences and assumptions of others. Mediating institutions remain, of course, indeed proliferate. But the body politic ceases to be a collection of more or less isolated individuals and becomes instead articulate and legible as a whole and as a collection of collectivities.
This British Digital Corporation could develop this public option as part of a suite of resources designed to eliminate price-gouging and rent-seeking by private monopolies. Wendy Liu has made a number of proposals in this regard. For example, a publicly owned payments system combined with a renationalised Royal Mail could provide the backbone of a co-operatively owned e-commerce platform to compete with Amazon. We might also want to create and license a Linux-derived operating system for use in computers and mobile phones that don’t spy on us. By challenging the Windows/IOS/Android oligopoly this would reduce the cost of computing and, in conjunction with public social media, reduce our exposure to data harvesting.
An e-commerce platform could also, combined with the BDC’s social network, become a space where collective aspirations are discovered and met. It is becoming increasingly obvious that much that we prize, from beautiful housing in thriving communities to mental and physical health, can only be secured by the majority if we are able to pool resources and co-produce them. Money currently spent to alleviate distress would then be used to increase the total stock of happiness. You could call this democratic socialist planning or a simple expansion of republican self-government, according to taste.
This public option for tech is an important way in which the new, nationally oriented left can transcend the limitations of postwar social democracy and begin grappling with the transnational problems created by climate change, financialised capitalism and militarism. The resources developed by the British Development Corporation could be shared with those who want to develop a democratic and egalitarian alternative to oligarchic surveillance in other countries. If the right want a Global Britain, then perhaps the left should give it to them.