Ben Scott
Director, Policy & Advocacy, Governance & Citizen Engagement initiative

A New Social Contract for Digital Democracy

September 26, 2018

Over the last couple of years, we have been focused on studying how political culture is polarized and democracy is weakened by the structure and externalities of the digital media marketplace.  The solutions to this problem will be a combination of many different actions by companies, governments, and citizens. Changes to public policy will be a central and necessary part of steering the power of network technologies back nearer to the public interest.

A new study that I co-authored with Dipayan Ghosh (a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center) highlights what this policy agenda could look like -- outlining a new social contract for the internet rooted in transparency, privacy and competition. It builds on our first report from early 2018—Digital Deceit—which presents an analysis of how advertising technology is used as a tool of precision political propaganda and disinformation.

The paper is the first major study of the digital disinformation problem that offers a broad policy framework, building upon basic principles to recommend a set of specific proposals. The analysis is built on a framework of three central pillars: transparency, privacy, and competition.

Transparency: As citizens, we have the right to know who is trying to influence our political views and how they are doing it. We must have explicit disclosure about the operation of dominant digital media platforms -- including:

  • Real-time and archived information about targeted political advertising;
  • Clear accountability for the social impact of automated decision-making;
  • Explicit indicators for the presence of non-human accounts in digital media.

Privacy: As individuals with the right to personal autonomy, we must be given more control over how our data is collected, used, and monetized -- especially when it comes to sensitive information that shapes political decision-making. A baseline data privacy law must include:

  • Consumer control over data through stronger rights to access and removal;
  • Transparency for the user of the full extent of data usage and meaningful consent;
  • Stronger enforcement with resources and authority for agency rule-making.

Competition: As consumers, we must have meaningful options to find, send and receive information over digital media. The rise of dominant digital platforms demonstrates how market structure influences social and political outcomes. A new competition policy agenda should include:

  • Stronger oversight of mergers and acquisitions;
  • Antitrust reform including new enforcement regimes, levies, and essential services regulation;
  • Robust data portability and interoperability between services.

We are focused on working with government, civil society, and the private sector in countries around the world to engage with these issues.  The global scope of the digital marketplace and the transnational threat to democracy it poses requires an “agile multi-lateralism” to develop and implement meaningful solutions.  There are no single-solutions that fit neatly in a press release. Only a combination of public policies—all of which are necessary and none of which are sufficient by themselves—will begin to show results over time. Despite the scope of the problem we face, there is reason for optimism. The Silicon Valley giants have begun to come to the table with policymakers and civil society leaders in an earnest attempt to take some responsibility. Most importantly, citizens are waking up to the reality that the incredible power of technology can change our lives for the better or for the worse. People are asking questions about whether constant engagement with digital media is healthy for democracy. Awareness and education are the first steps toward organizing and action to build a new social contract for digital democracy.

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