Remarks by Taylor Owen: International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy

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Published: 28May2019

Remarks by Taylor Owen, Beaverbrook Chair in Media, Ethics and Communication and Associate Professor in the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University

May 27, 2019, Ottawa

Co-Chairs Zimmer and Collins, Committee Members;

Thank you for having me, it is an honor to be here. I am particularly heartened because even three years ago a meeting like this would have seemed unnecessary by many in the public, the media, the technology sector, and by governments themselves.

But we are now in a very different public policy moment, about which I will make five observations.

First, self-regulation (and most forms of co-regulation) have and will continue to prove insufficient to this problem. Like in the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis, the financial incentives are powerfully aligned against meaningful reform. These are publicly traded, largely unregulated companies, whose shareholders and directors expect growth by maximizing a revenue model that is itself part of the problem. This growth may or may not be aligned with the public interest.

Second, the problem is not one of bad actors but one of structure. Disinformation, hate speech, election interreference, privacy breaches, mental health issues, and anti-competitive behavior must be treated as the symptoms of the problem, not its cause. Public policy should therefore focus on the design and the incentives of the platforms themselves.

It is the design of the attention economy which incentivizes virality and engagement over reliable information. It is the design of the financial model of surveillance capitalism which incentivizes data accumulation and its use to influence our behavior. It is the design of group messaging, which allows for harmful speech, even the incitement of violence, to spread without scrutiny. It is the design for global scale that has incentivized imperfect automated solutions to content filtering, moderation and fact checking. And it is the design of our unregulated digital economy that has allowed our public sphere to become monopolized.

If democratic governments determine that this structure is leading to negative social and economic outcomes, then it is their responsibility to govern.

Third, governments that are taking this issue seriously are converging on a similar platform-governance agenda. This agenda recognizes that there are no silver-bullets, and that instead policies must be domestically implemented and internationally coordinated across three domains.

Content policies which seek to address a wide range of both supply and demand issues about the nature, amplification, and legality of content in our digital public sphere.

Data policies which ensure that public data is used for public good and that citizens have far greater rights over the use, mobility and monetization of their data.

And Competition policies which promote free and competitive markets in the digital economy.

Fourth, the propensity in the platform governance conversation to overcomplicate solutions serves the interests of the status quo. There are actually many sensible policies that could and should be implemented immediately.

The online ad microtargeting market must be made radically more transparent, and in some cases suspended entirely.

Data privacy regimes should be updated to provide far greater rights to individuals and greater oversight and regulatory power to punish abuses.

Tax policy can be modernized to better reflect the consumption of digital goods and to crack down on tax base erosion and profit shifting.

Modernized competition policy can be used to restrict and rollback acquisitions and to separate platform ownership from application or product development.

Civic media can be supported as a public good.

And large-scale and long-term civic literacy and critical thinking efforts can be funded at scale by national governments.

That few of these have been implemented is a problem of political will, not policy or technical complexity.

Finally, there are three policy questions for which there are neither easy solutions, meaningful consensus nor appropriate existing institutions, and where there may be irreconcilable tensions between the design of the platforms and the objectives of public policy.

The first is how we regulate harmful speech in the digital public sphere. At the moment, we have largely outsourced the application of national laws, as well as the interpretation of difficult tradeoffs between free speech and personal and public harms to the platforms themselves – companies who seek solutions that can be implemented at scale globally. In this case, what is possible technically and financially, might be insufficient for the public good.

The second is who is liable for content online? We have clearly moved beyond the notion of platform neutrality and absolute safe harbor, but what legal mechanisms are best suited to holding platforms, their design, and those that run them accountable?

Third, as artificial intelligence increasingly shapes the character and economy of our digital public sphere, how will we bring these opaque systems into our laws, norms and regulations?

These difficult conversations should not be outsourced to the private sector, they need to be led by democratically accountable governments and their citizens. But this is going to require political will and policy leadership – precisely what this committee represents.

Thank you again for this opportunity.

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