17 Conference Report #techonomy17

The Internet Under Attack


  • Techonomy2017 Conference in Half Moon Bay, California, Tuesday, November 7, 2017. (Photography by Paul Sakuma Photography) www.PaulSakuma.com

  • Techonomy2017 Conference in Half Moon Bay, California, Tuesday, November 7, 2017. (Photography by Paul Sakuma Photography) www.PaulSakuma.com

  • Techonomy2017 Conference in Half Moon Bay, California, Tuesday, November 7, 2017. (Photography by Paul Sakuma Photography) www.PaulSakuma.com

  • Techonomy2017 Conference in Half Moon Bay, California, Tuesday, November 7, 2017. (Photography by Paul Sakuma Photography) www.PaulSakuma.com

  • Techonomy2017 Conference in Half Moon Bay, California, Tuesday, November 7, 2017. (Photography by Paul Sakuma Photography) www.PaulSakuma.com


Mark Anderson
Founder and CEO, Strategic News Service

Peder Jungck
Chief Technology Officer - Intelligence & Security sector, BAE Systems

Rebecca MacKinnon
Director, Ranking Digital Rights at New America


David Kirkpatrick
Founder and CEO, Techonomy

Session Description: As countries seek extreme advantage in the newly-networked world, many are limiting speech, imposing restrictive rules, and taking control of digital infrastructure. Can the internet remain an engine of global economic growth and free information exchange? What happens to the internet in places like China?

An excerpt of the panel can be found below, with the full transcript available here.

Kirkpatrick: We did not intend this conference to be a relentless assault on Facebook, Amazon, and Google. If you read the article that I wrote in our magazine, you’ll see that I try to be nuanced myself, but it is interesting the degree to which the concerns have risen close to the surface in the last couple days. I did tell the panelists backstage, one of the things I’d like them to talk about, since they’ve all been here, is what they think about the dialogue we’ve had over the last couple days at any level or really on any topic since this is the penultimate session. In terms of what we’re approximately up here to discuss, even though the title is “The Internet Under Attack,” I think of it probably more to be about how we now have an interstitial tissue for global society which we call the internet, which has fundamentally changed the landscape of society, politics, and the economy. What does that mean and where does it go next, given the panoply of challenges and threats that exist—and there are many, as you will hear us discuss.

Maybe we should start by addressing either one of those two things; it’s your prerogative. let’s start with Rebecca MacKinnon.  Most people have heard Rebecca MacKinnon talk at some of our sessions, she runs the Ranking Digital Rights project at New America, which really aims to assess what technology companies are doing and how well they’re doing it, particularly in the area of privacy, but in other areas as well.

Peder Jungck is the Chief Technology Officer of BAE Systems Intelligence and Security. BAE is a giant British aerospace company that has a very big government contracting business in the U.S., which is the part that he works for and is the Chief Technology Officer for. He has a long background in the advertising industry, which gives him an interesting perspective, as you’ll hear.

Mark Anderson is the CEO of Strategic News Service, a longtime journalist, consultant, pundit on technology, and the operator and host of probably the only other conference I know of where the things we’ve talked about so freely here would routinely come up, called Future in Review, that’s been happening for 13 years now. So he and I are somewhat blood brothers in this business. Now, Rebecca.

MacKinnon: Thank you, David.

Kirkpatrick: Also, she used to be CNN’s Beijing Bureau Chief—

MacKinnon: Yes, long ago.

Kirkpatrick: —And has done a bunch of other interesting things. She wrote a book called Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom,.

MacKinnon: Thank you, David. As it happens in Consent of the Networked, which was published more than five years ago now, I had several warnings in that book, and one of them I illustrated with a slide that I often gave in talks that I think would be useful to reprise here. The slide has a circle with democratic countries here, and authoritarian countries here and the assumption, the narrative not just in Silicon Valley but in policy circles, in media for a very long time—which I contributed to back in the ‘90s when the internet showed up in China, and it was like “there’s no way the Chinese Communist Party can survive this.” Boy, were we wrong—but there’s been this assumption that you’ve got democracy here and you’ve got authoritarian societies here, and that because the internet and because capitalism, the authoritarian societies are inevitably and inexorably going to end up over here in the democratic side.

What I’ve been worrying about for some time is that if we’re not careful, actually, we’re going to meet in the middle. That you’re going to have authoritarianism adapt to the internet, not only survive and thrive, but adapt the internet to its purposes, and we see China as exhibit A for how that works. Meanwhile, democracy kind of moves towards, you know—driven by populist leaders, all kinds of different forces, surveillance capitalism, etcetera—ends up becoming less democratic and is in this kind of manipulated, maybe you call it authoritarianism, maybe you call it populist quasi-democratic, whatever you call it. But basically, the differences between authoritarian society and democratic society are going to break down unless we very consciously and actively work to prevent that from happening, and I think events of the past year have shown where that’s going.

There’s a couple other trends that are going on that we need to think about, and you suggested that we think beyond just bashing the tech companies, and I think we need to be careful about some of the regulatory reactions and responses. And I think there have been some very important proposals put forward at this conference and elsewhere about the need for more transparency around algorithms, around data collection, around advertising and so on, but there’s also been a lot of regulatory proposals by well-meaning politicians in democratic societies placing greater liability on internet platforms, calling for censorship, essentially. Censorship systems that are going to be very welcome around the world by many non-democratic nations as making it easier for them then to impose laws on Facebook and Twitter and Google’s properties to crack down on society.

Kirkpatrick: Yeah.

MacKinnon: And this is part of the problem. “Internet Under Attack” is really civil society under attack because civil society in the past decade has been very successful in using the internet in challenging authority, and now authority is fighting back. They’ve figured out how to use the technology to fight back, and at the same time you’ve got a clash of kind of nation states clashing with global sovereignties of internet companies and nation states figuring out how to use these globally internet platforms to carry out information wars against one another. And we don’t we have either legal and regulatory systems, or political systems, or ways of holding power accountable that’s actually going to serve the further human rights, democratic and open societies, and we need to figure this out, fast, or we’re going to meet in that middle and get stuck there.

Kirkpatrick: One quick point to underscore—this idea that the societies are fighting back—it’s been reported but it’s not as widely discussed as perhaps it should be, that Facebook was about to launch in China in partnership with Baidu in the spring of 2011. There was a lot of movement; they were very far along that path. The Chinese leadership saw what happened in the Arab Spring that winter, and they put the kibosh on it. And that’s exactly the kind of movement you’re describing. They were very wise; they knew what was coming; they understood—they acted in their own interest.

MacKinnon: And they don’t need Facebook, because they’ve got Chinese alternatives.

Kirkpatrick: Well, that’s something else.

Jungck: The one thing I would react to is, I would say that I don’t know how governments will all merge and how the population will get to the middle, but the internet is definitely in the middle of both of these worlds: the authoritarian governments and the West. What I would say, though, is we need to be aware—and I think you can see that for $200 dollars’ worth of rubles you can influence something—that the open ecosystem of social media we have created, and the copies like VK and Alibaba and all the rest that exist around the globe, were built to produce brands, whether to defend them or to be able to go and socialize those things. And governments care about producing brands and feelings within people and we’ve made it so it’s the lowest cost to be able to go sell something, which might be a vision, a message, a riot, whatever it may be, from that piece. What we need to step back, is to take a look at not even just “here’s the technology,” because we can regulate Facebook, but are you going to regulate every one of the other thousand social media companies that aren’t even based in the West.

You’re just going to see the influence of something going around. But realize, what you have is, while in China they might want to go and control what the social media company does, in many ways they’d like to figure out much more what their dissidents are doing outside of that country and what we’ve done is serve them up on a platter as an ad. Let me find everybody who’s got this type of interest, where they go and do. And I think this is where we need to get to, as this conference has talked about, the openness of the data and who is producing what types of questions, who is producing what types of things within these systems, so that people can truly have transparency. Because the thing that we at least have on our side is the willingness to be transparent. And I think that is really where you get it, so that then everybody can get into the dialogue, and the notion that we can just—you know “we’re going to control it, we’re going to do it”—realize we are serving up these tools for a global stage to be able to interoperate with. And I think that’s where we need to step back and understand, what are those ideals and what are those goals of everybody around the globe with all these types of technologies and these data repositories? And then, are they sticking bad data into it to make it have bad decisions, or are they going in and asking it questions about people that maybe isn’t the right type of thing that we care about.

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