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Populism and Hi-Tech

At a recent panel discussion in Berkeley, USA, the topic—The Moral Economy of Tech—was explored. The panel discussed the way hi-tech people in general view themselves and their work, and even though I am not an engineer or a developer of software and algorithms I could very much relate to that.

I often mention the fact that I am proud to be a member of this industry, as it in general provides positive developments to society and the economy. Also in general, while the ICT industry can’t solve all the problems of the world, many of these problems can’t be solved without the assistance of ICT.

Of course, as with anything, ICT can also be used for evil purposes; but at least in western democracies we do have checks and balances in place to guide, monitor and adjust processes if needed. Within the broader global scheme, the fact that ICT is a universal tool means that there is also a minimal check on things at that level—perhaps a similar deterrent to that which is in place in relation to nuclear technology. And, as in the case of drones, for example, there are suggestions to explore similar treaties to the ones that are in place for nuclear issues.

However the panel added a new element to the moral issues of hi-tech.

As we already have seen with the security issues, governments have given themselves extraordinary powers to monitor their own populations, and these have been implemented without any specific mandate from the people. This still continues, and has become even more draconian, despite the fact that, as far as I know, most of the terrorist attacks went totally unnoticed by the security organisations who have such extraordinary powers and access to such extraordinary technology. It is good to see that at least some of these countries (France, Belgium) are questioning the effectiveness of their security agencies.

But I am using this example to draw attention to a different issue—the fact that governments can introduce such measures without the explicit consent of the people.

Imagine that populists such as Trump, the Bretix people, Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands and other ultra-right leaders in Europe are coming into power.

In the past we have seen that such regimes are expert at demonising minority groups. Look at what the Nazis did. The British surveillance state is the most advanced in the world—imagine what will happen if that falls into the wrong hands.

Let’s look at populist policies such as those in some countries, banning certain migrants—people from particular religions (Islam), LGBT people, women who have had an abortion, and so on. I am not making this up. Such measures are specifically promoted by several of those populist leaders in our democratic western countries, even very publicly on radio and TV.

Once in power, what prevents these populist leaders from forcing organisations such as Facebook and Google to allow the governments that pass laws or regulations to access their systems, to assist them in identifying these people? They simply declare this a security issue and extend their already wide-ranging powers on security issues to pursue this. They can completely bypass obtaining the consent of its citizens and do what they want. And, even if they can’t, or won’t, take it all the way, the fear and uncertainty that will be created will only lead to greater instability. A rather scary scenario.

Such scenarios also shed another light on privacy issues. Companies such as Google, Facebook and the telecom companies have a responsibility to ensure that the massive collections of private data that they have gathered cannot be used for such purposes. They should have some kind of ‘kill switch’ in place to avoid the misuse of that private data by politicians and others. So far these companies simply hide behind the fact that they can’t do anything about this as it is forced upon them by government. Hmmm ..... we have heard that before—for example, from well-known, still existing, chemical corporations who were forced to work with the Nazi government of Germany to produce gas for the concentration camps (and made big money while doing so).

These digital economy companies have an extra responsibility here as they more or less force people to supply their private data. As the panel discussed, opting out of such systems by the users is not a real possibility. Participation in the digital economy is a utility and opting out of it would be the same as forcing people to opt out of electricity—in theory it is a free choice, but in practice it is not.

Some of you might recall that I have addressed these issues in the past, when I mentioned that my father was put in a concentration camp during WWII for his resistance to the Nazi regime. So I know from his personal experience how dangerous these populist and ultra-right politics are.

I am certainly not suggesting that we shouldn’t proceed with our hi-tech developments. But what is important is that people involved in developing our hi-tech world should also confront these issues. They should be very much aware of their responsibilities here, and that it is equally important for our industry to find ways to best develop and incorporate checks and balances into the systems that will stop people from misusing technology.

I know that this is not easy, but, given that technology is good for society, it is crucial for those of us who are involved in these developments to consider some of the worst case scenarios—scenarios that are now far more realistic than they were a few years ago. This is clearly another reason to make sure that we keep the independent structure and the governance of the internet as it is. This will give us the best chance of making central control, and therefore misuse, of the internet more difficult.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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