THE DIGITAL REPUBLIC: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century
Author: Jamie Susskind
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Anyone who lived through the dot-com boom of the late 1990s remembers the cyber-utopianism of the early days. I felt it myself as a young journalist traversing Silicon Valley to report on the new world being born. I wrote a book about eBay, based on interviews with its visionary founder, Pierre Omidyar. In keeping with the heady spirit of the times, I gave the book, which stressed eBay’s ability to be a force for global economic opportunity, the idealistic title The Perfect Store.
Many of those early dreams about the internet’s potential came true. The list of positive changes the digital age ushered in is endless: Online libraries available to people around the world, smartphone GPS that has made getting lost a thing of the past, telemedicine and a whole lot more.
The snake, however, was always lurking in this online Eden, and the fall came quickly. Now, when we think of the internet we are as likely to focus on its dark side: Identity theft and cyberstalking; proliferation of fake news and vitriol that is eroding American democracy; and the damage social media is doing to the fragile psyches of young people.
Everyone talks about the dangers, but almost no one is suggesting what to do about them. That makes The Digital Republic, by the British lawyer and academic Jamie Susskind, a welcome arrival. Mr Susskind does an excellent job of diagnosing the problems and offers an array of well-constructed solutions, though some are more practical than others.
As his title suggests, Mr Susskind embraces republicanism (small “r,” most emphatically), a philosophy diametrically opposed to market individualism. Republicans (in Mr Susskind’s definition) “oppose social structures that enable one group to exercise unaccountable power, also known as domination, over others.”
Not surprisingly, Mr Susskind sees domination throughout the current digital world. A few large corporations and platforms control our digital lives. They capture our personal data, storing it and selling it at will. They facilitate the spread of false information and hateful ideas. They use secret algorithms that discriminate against some users.
Crucially, Mr Susskind’s republicans believe these problems are not the fault of a few “bad apple” corporations or individuals, but rather the result of a whole superstructure. “They object,” Mr Susskind explains, “to the idea of someone with Mark Zuckerberg’s power, not Mr Zuckerberg himself.”
Mr Susskind is a keen observer of the digital world’s dangers and his analysis is enhanced, for American readers, by his outsider’s eye. He brings the perspective of a European who is more sceptical of the market and corporations than many Americans, and more open to bold solutions to the problems large tech companies create.
As Mr Susskind makes clear, the problem of big tech will not be solved by lobbing barbed critiques or by waiting for corporations to do the right thing. What we need are new laws that will force the companies to be less dominant and do less damage. Mr Susskind offers an array of solutions, and they are the most important part of the book.
Many of his proposals could do a lot of good. Congress should, as he suggests, require tech companies to be more transparent about their inner workings. Audits of their algorithms and procedures, like inspections of industrial plants, would allow regulators and users to understand how tech products operate and assess what harm they may be doing.
Another promising idea is establishing a system of premarket certification for digital products. In the same way the Food and Drug Administration clears drugs for the market, a regulatory body could review and evaluate software and other digital products before they are released to ensure they comply with the law, and perhaps evaluate how they comport with community values.
Some proposals, however, seem more suited to the ivory tower than the real world. Mr Susskind calls for a vast system of “deliberative mini-publics,” groups of ordinary citizens that would develop policies in areas like taxation of data processing. It’s an idea that no doubt has great appeal in the seminar room, but I’ve taken to looking at my fellow subway passengers and wondering how they would do hammering out data-processing taxation policy. I’m sceptical.
Mr Susskind also proposes a system for regulating the moderation of websites, including checklists of things moderators must do. He suggests “disciplinary mechanisms” by which moderators could be subject to fines or disqualification. As we saw this spring with the debacle of the Department of Homeland Security’s advisory board to combat disinformation, Americans, at least, have a deep resistance to the idea of government getting too involved in deciding what speech is acceptable. Even if Mr Susskind’s idea is a good one, its Orwellian overtones would doubtless make it, at least in the United States, a political nonstarter.
Mr Susskind notes that he was “too young for 1990s cyber-utopianism,” but at times he seems to be engaging in a 2020s version, such as his vision of citizen panels churning out policy edicts to fix big tech’s problems. Still, in trying to make the world right, an excess of idealism is not the worst thing. As we take on the task of pushing back against the Internet’s baleful influences — which we must — Mr Susskind’s intelligent book can serve as a valuable guide.