I decided to call this session “newer” issues — although those covered here, like freedom of expression and privacy of last week, are age-old. I personally feel that the escalating digital developments have brought some questions into the sphere of media reform. However, in many cases, you might argue, we are moving away from the media and, de facto, reforming democracy in other ways, just with communication technology. (We have already talked a bit about algorithmic challenges so to keep this session simple, I removed the topic from the main agenda for today — or did I? You’ll see.)
This week, I hope I can inspire some thinking about where the limits of “media” and “communication” are in our exceedingly mediatized world. There is only one “required” reading, linked to you at the end. But it’s a heavy-duty one. There are also two Week 4 extras in the Google Drive, one more general, the other more elaborate, on the relationship between the media and human rights. As always, if you feel inspired let me know what you think in the comment section…
0. Preface – Global Rights?
We already talked about the paradigm shift from diversity to rights and we have discussed how that is manifesting in our immediate media environments. This week, we will look a bit further, also geographically. As noted, FoE and privacy are mentioned as human rights in the UN UDHR, and some reference is made to intellectual property rights there as well. So one could argue that sets some global guidelines on the increasingly connected globe of ours.
Most media reform stakeholders and activities in the past decades have focused on national contexts — mass media, after all, were structured around national systems. But the philosophical grounds are shared in many countries. Ever since the Greco-Roman tradition of public communication as a tool for problem-solving and decision making (think Aristotle & Socrates) the ideas and ideals of communication and democracy have been closely linked. The rise of mass media in the 19th century took that idea to another level when information could be shared, at least potentially, not only by the elites, but by vast groups of people, regardless of economic or social standing. No wonder the printing press was influential in educating and activating the proletariat.
Later on, in the 20th century, many countries chose to establish a public broadcasting system to ensure several components that had to do with the media’s relationship with democracy: universal access to media contents; diversity of all kinds of contents (famously, the trinity originally attributed to the BBC: public media should inform, educate and entertain); as well as a variety of voices and viewpoints, also those of minorities. (It’s also good to remember that the British Empire exported the public broadcasting to other countries, such as India.) In the academic contexts, the normative model of the public sphere by Jürgen Habermas was often used in defense of such thinking: a democracy needs a diverse functioning media to guarantee a public sphere where citizens (virtually) meet to debate (rationally) and agree (consensus) on common issues.
The above discourses on media and democracy have a Western conceptual history, but with globalization have become prominent in international contexts. The idea of Development Communication often included the idea of (more) universal access and, hence, establishment of vehicles of public service media.
To illustrate this: here’s a 3 min. poignant video about the role of the media in international development — something that is increasing in importance for the Global North and South alike:
In terms of the global outlook, the idea of democracy and democratization now embraced the concept of ICT4D. The context of the United Nations and global debates on the role of the media reflect the above development.
While the UDHR of the post WWII did not specifically mention the media, the discussions on Right to, and Freedom of, Information entered the debate in the 1960s — when the role of governments and states were questioned and the rights of individual citizens to information were brought forth.
Around the same time, the lesser developed countries begun to bring up the Right to Communicate: They wanted to challenge the Western domination of mass communication. Active partners in the conversation were UNESCO, proposing the New World Information and Communication Order and the so called UN McBride Commission (1980).
In the 1990s, the idea of the Right to Cultural Identity was added to UNDHR — and challenged in fora such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) , and later in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in terms of copyright agreements. (A fun fact: Here’s the fake website by anti-globalization activist that describes what GATT/WTO does).
At the same time, the UN recognized the increasing importance of the Internet and organized two major meetings on the issue: The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). It soon became clear, also with the beginning of the UN-driven Internet Governance Forums, that Communications Rights was the term several stakeholders started to use as an umbrella term for the new challenges of the networked era. Read more here from a short summary article on the historical developments above, and, if interested, here my blog post on WSIS 10 years after…
Much of the recent debate has focused in the Internet and Human Rights. In late 2009, Finland declared broadband access a legal right. The UN followed in 2011 in declaring the importance of access:
Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all states,”
– Frank La Rue, a special rapporteur to the United Nations, in his report to the UN Human Rights Council
But while human rights seem universal, they can also been seen as relational and contextual, even when we think about the Internet. For instance, the question of access may include challenges of corruption and concentration of ownership, as some African activists argue. This became very obvious when Facebook tried to push its media reformist project internet.org , offering free internet, to India and some African countries. Such neo-colonialism did not go over well — and many internet rights activists claimed it violated such principles as network neutrality and uses the shady principle of zero rating.
Several global media reform not-for-profits have created, or are in the process of creating, internet or digital rights declarations. But it is noteworthy that, when UN launched its 17 new Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, it did not include the media, ICTs, or digital rights in the mix — despite of hyperactive lobbying by media reform organizations. It’s perhaps symptomatic that information technologies are mentioned vaguely in relation to innovation and peace-justice.
1. Access, the Old-Fashioned Way
An example of a media reform challenge that has been often connected with global development is access to communication technologies. Access/right to information and communication has always been a site of concrete and discursive power struggles. (Think of the medieval times in Europe: Those who could read and write interpreted God’s will to lay people.) Ever since the the proliferation of the Internet, access to technology has become ever more crucial. For decades, we have discussed the so called digital divide, between the Global North and South (that still exists, see the Internet World Stats, as well as within countries (divides that are caused by age, geography, income).
But it seems that no matter how much more affordable technology and access become, some always have more access than others. As this policy brief for the New America Foundation, based on a global overview, shows, the so called “mobile leapfrogging” and Mobile Internet doesn’t allow quite the same opportunities than high speed broadband with the latest Mac.
This has been a concern for the SciDevNet – a news source for tech and science in development work. Take a look at their amazing interactive visualization of what access and the lack thereof really means. Packaging information (hint hint!) can indeed be considered a form of activism/advocacy.
2. Access, as Facilitated by Comm Tech
Please first screen these two videos, the latter (by Clay Shirky) perhaps for the first 10 minutes.
Ushahidi is one of the first crowdmapping efforts — a blogger’s quest that evolved into a global tool. One could call this alternative media — “Be the media” — as well as “Change the media” — a simple form of citizen journalism. One could also say that Ushahidi serves as a public service media platform, fulfilling a crucial role of public interest information dissemination by informing citizens about crises. It could be also called an effort in Digital Humanitarianism:
A fantastic blog on cutting-edge tech and development is iRevolutions, covering Big Data, Crisis Mapping, Crowdsourcing, Drones/UAVs/Robotics, Humanitarian Technology, Information Forensics, Disaster Resilience, Satellite Imagery, Social Computing, and Social Media. Check it out if this topic is of your interest.
Another public service feature could be seen in online education efforts that bridge access challenges for many. There are projects for education and advocacy in media and internet policy, especially inclusive of the Global South. The Association for Progressive Communication is one of the most famous, and powerful ones. There is journalism education. There are university MOOCs, and reformers that offer them (although the worry is educational colonialism that comes with these efforts).
The latest trend in development and tech is reforming the financial transactions. Think about it: There are many, many people in the world without access to banking, for a variety of reasons. A solution to this started with mobile phones…
… And continued with the networked model of the blockchain technology. Using cryptography, encryption, and code, crypto currencies are a form of programmable money that uses Blockchain technology in a way where we would no longer need to trust in powerful middle-men (e.g., banks, credit card companies) currently needed to perform exchanges of value:
Governments are weary of crypto-currencies due to its popularity within black markets. It is infamous for being used as a cipher for drug transactions, sex worker advertisements, illegal genome sequence analysis, gambling, fake ID’s, and just about any malicious thing you can think of to be sold on the so called Dark Web. But, a global payment method immune to political pressure and monetary censorship might just be a tool for media reform, too:
It used to be that people had secrets and the government was transparent; now it’s the people that lack privacy and the government has secrets. Freedom of payments is an extension of financial privacy and digital cash-like transactions without financial intermediaries become a critical piece of that foundation. Money was never intended to act as a form of identity tracking or payments restriction and this is why the option for anonymous and untraceable transactions is so vital as society moves to a world of digital currency.
3. Access to Everything
Access could arguably be said to be the most important factor in media democratization. If you look at our matrix of reform issues in the mass media era, each of them would today, in the digital era, require access to communication technologies and platforms. (Well, the cultural environment would also require access to control harmful content somehow.)
It is perhaps no wonder that one of the most well-known, global Internet rights advocacy organizations is called AccessNow.
There are yet other aspects to access. As we know, access to platforms give access to (potential) audiences — and this very issue of media reform merges with the issue of media as a reform tool. Not only are revolutions organized on Facebook and Twitter, Google Docs have become activist tools for social justice.
OK, I was testing borders of media and access here. But just consider this interview I did for a course in digital rights a few years back, with Johannes Koponen of Demos think tank:
[Another] set of challenges is posed if we continue to think about the Internet of Things, or, as I think is more accurate, about the Sensor Revolution. If this phase isn’t thought through carefully, we will end up in a state of digital feudalism. All these developments, like the Amazon Dash Button, make our everyday lives so much more convenient and comfortable. But at some point we need to begin to question what this does to us as humans. If Tinder recommends a bride, and another site suggests the location at which we should get married… At which point do I make the decision? And the challenge is: Decision-making is a tough process and we’d love to avoid it as long and as often as we can.
The Internet is already almost like water. If it doesn’t flow, we’re in trouble. The discourse on [Internet] rights has taken interesting twists and turns, especially when much has been justified with freedom of expression. Those have been important discussions. But as radical as it may sound, I believe we must begin to bring some of the decision-making into the real of public policy, not only private enterprise. We need to guarantee access, and then we can begin to bring in the responsibilities that come with it, for organizations, businesses, as well as individuals.
Johannes didn’t talk about this: Access always has a prize. Your “must” reading for this week is this dystopian vision of what “free” access does to us. We all know this, you may have read about this last week by Bauman et al., and yet, when written and theorized in this manner, it all seems novel, shocking. The story is from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, by the Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff. She writes, for instance:
Among the many interviews I’ve conducted over the past three years, the Chief Data Scientist of a much-admired Silicon Valley company that develops applications to improve students’ learning told me, “The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behavior at scale. When people use our app, we can capture their behaviors, identify good and bad behaviors, and develop ways to reward the good and punish the bad. We can test how actionable our cues are for them and how profitable for us”.
She talks about this phenomenon as a new form of capitalism, surveillance capitalism — Google is thus worse than any repressive government.
The already visible trend is that any actor with an interest in monetizing probabilistic information about our behavior and/or influencing future behavior can pay to play in a marketplace where the behavioral fortunes of individuals, groups, bodies, and things are told and sold. This is how in our own lifetimes we observe capitalism shifting under our gaze: once profits from products and services, then profits from speculation, and now profits from surveillance. This latest mutation may help explain why the explosion of the digital has failed, so far, to decisively impact economic growth, as so many of its capabilities are diverted into a fundamentally parasitic form of profit.
Surveillance capitalism does not erode these decision rights –– along with their causes and their effects –– but rather it redistributes them. Instead of many people having some rights, these rights have been concentrated within the surveillance regime, opening up an entirely new dimension of social inequality. The full implications of this development have preoccupied me for many years now, and with each day my sense of danger intensifies.
Is the biggest media reform issue perhaps here?
4. True Open Access [to Data]
No, I didn’t forget this aspect of access. Our special guest on 3rd May will be Teemu Ropponen from Open Knowledge Finland. I leave this topic to the expert — until then!
5. Assignment: Let’s Continue Mapping
The irony is not lost on me: Here we bash Google and crowdmap media reform organizations.
This week, please add 5 other issue projects, inventions, groups, organizations that deal with media and comm tech reform, beyond FoE or privacy. Access? Education and empowerment? Participation? Please mark them, say, with green tag.
PS: Reminder about the Final Project… What You Know So Far…
Next week, after we have talked about engaged scholarship, I’d like you to comment on your final project idea. So just as a reminder:
For the final paper, you can choose to:
- Focus Option #1: on RDR as a project; analyze its results more in-depth / discuss the methodology and other strategies and tactics (I’m sure RDR folks would be available for interviews, for instance); or
- Focus Option #2: Use RDR as a springboard to a broader research of one of the issues: Freedom of Expression; Privacy; or Corporate Governance. (Those interested in journalistic freedom or hate speech can find one starting point here as well: What is the role of these intermediaries; what is intermediary liability? FoE and privacy are naturally tightly connected to harmful content online).Included in both options: What do you want to change? You are to write an academic or applied research paper that informs change, whether it is that of theory, or a practical media reform question.
- Use the RDR themes — privacy, FoE — as your inspirations. You can also directly write about RDR (analyse impact, methodology, provide critique…).
- Feel free to express your stance, your opinions, your alliances.
- Feel free to offer normative and/or practical advice/suggestions, based on your work.
10-15 pages, with references. Due 15.5.