Posts by Fair Vote Project

Looking Ahead for 2021

14/01/2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Looking Ahead for 2021”

Happy new year! 

With a re-intensification of the pandemic in the UK and anti-democratic violence in the US it has not been the start we were all hoping for! 

Regardless, 2021 is set to provide much for democracy reformers and campaigners to focus on and, yes, be hopeful for.

On the 20th of January we will have Joe Biden’s inauguration to celebrate. With Democrats having flipped the Senate in Georgia’s key runoff elections, Biden will have the numbers in Congress to enact positive change. Even before last week’s violence it looked likely that democratic reform and tech regulation will be on the agenda. 

Now it is of the utmost urgency.

If America leads the chances are better that others will follow. UK elections (devolved, mayoral and local) in May will be an opportunity for digital-era reforms to get the public attention they need. Fair Vote UK will be leading a coalition of like-mindedly concerned civil society organisations in promoting a “Fair Play Pledge” for candidates to sign.

Recent suggestions that the elections may be delayed (in the case of England’s local and mayoral elections for a second time!) are shocking considering we’ve had a year to prepare for this. Fair Vote UK published a report in June 2020 that outlined a safe strategy for a COVID-19 era election. From staggered voting days to “pop up” polling booths, other countries have shown that it is possible to hold a safe election in these times. 

Regardless of the circumstances, you cannot go on and on suspending democracy.

In 2021 Fair Vote UK will also be leading a coalition of civil society organisations to inspect and scrutinise the development of the Government’s Online Harms Bill. This legislation will be a major attempt to introduce some rules into the dangerously unregulated digital world. It is extremely important that the rules hit the right targets and are genuinely enforceable.

Fair Vote UK will continue to build on the achievements of 2020, holding the powerful accountable and promoting sensible democratic reform in every corner of the UK and beyond.

2021 could be the beginning of the end of the dark days of rampant and dangerous big tech.

Let’s make it happen.

Who is to Blame for Yesterday’s Attempted Coup?

07/01/2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Who is to Blame for Yesterday’s Attempted Coup?”

Yesterday’s incidents were shocking but they were not surprising.

Fair Vote UK and fellow campaigners for digital and democratic reform have been warning of such an event for years. This was an assault on the democratic process but it was created by the deterioration of democratic culture.

Who is to blame? Trump, Trump’s enablers and the rioters themselves all share responsibility.

Yet the threat that exploded yesterday is one that was created, nurtured and maintained by social media. Social media radicalised these people and then helped them recruit, organise and eventually plan this attack.

There are no excuses now. What happens online has real world consequences and every country must do something about it.

Wholesale regulation is now urgently essential.

Pressuring Twitter or Facebook to clean up their act (which, surprise surprise, today they proved they can do but only will do when faced with a PR crisis) is important but it is not enough. Many of the more extreme organisations were finally kicked off these platforms last summer but their followers have simply moved to less discerning sites. 

Facebook say they have banned Trump from their platforms “indefinitely” but even now they are still prevaricating, suggesting the ban could be lifted after Biden’s inauguration. Regardless, it is too little too late. We won’t forget this.

And why should we be reliant on the ad hoc “self-regulation” of a private enterprise? Would we trust any other industry to regulate themselves? 

Only Government regulation of the whole system will fix this.

In the UK there is an opportunity to do just that with the upcoming Online Harms legislation. It must be comprehensive and robust.

Government Announces Online Harms

15/12/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Government Announces Online Harms”

The UK Government’s full response to the Online Harms White Paper, outlined today by the Home Office and Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, is well-intentioned and its scale – in some areas – admirable. In other areas, however, the proposals are vague and worryingly restricted.

Under the proposals, digital companies will have a duty of care to protect their users online. They will be held responsible for both the illegal and legal (but harmful) content that appears on their platforms.

Fair Vote UK welcomes the scale of the fines (up to £18 million or 10% of global annual turnover, whichever is the higher) that the newly appointed regulator Ofcom will be able to administer. The differentiated landscape – with the largest tech companies given extra responsibilities – is also to be welcomed.

There are significant areas of ambiguity and weakness, however, that civil society should focus on reforming before the bill is put to Parliament next year.

  1. Too much responsibility is being delegated to big tech. Allowing the likes of Facebook to decide what is the “legal but harmful” content allowed on their site is essentially the system we have now and it is one that doesn’t work.
  2. The proposed exemption for journalistic content (and the comment sections on journalistic content) is fraught with problems and will blur/complicate regulation.
  3. Only including “disinformation and misinformation that could cause significant harm to an individual” is too narrow. This will exempt disinfo/misinfo that, for example, is harmful to democracy at large or to minority and marginalised groups.
  4. Using artificial intelligence to moderate content is not a panacea and should not be celebrated as so. The training and resourcing of human moderators should be prioritised.
  5. It is still unclear what exactly is meant by “harmful content” and what will fall within its parameters. We need a better idea of this before the legislation is put to Parliament next year.

The EU Commission today has also outlined comprehensive new regulations for the tech world and they provide a useful point of comparison. Companies operating within the EU will soon, like in the UK, be required to do more to prevent the spread of hate speech. 

Yet the Commission’s proposals go much further than the UK’s in many areas. The differences can perhaps best be described as one of focus. The UK’s Online Harms legislation will purely concentrate on the content that is hosted on tech platforms. The EU, in contrast, is targeting the industry’s problematic operation as a whole; anti-competition, monopolistic tendencies, advertising etc.

The two new regimes are similar in that key questions remain unanswered with regard to enforcement. Both policy proposals have lofty ambitions but the devil is in the details and we will continue to monitor how these proposals evolve through their respective legislative processes.

The USA vs. Facebook

11/12/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “The USA vs. Facebook”

The US Federal Trade Commission and 46 of 50 states are suing Facebook on the grounds it operates a harmful monopoly.

The lawsuit has been in development for over a year and is promisingly bold, specifically calling for Facebook’s empire (which includes Instagram and WhatsApp) to be broken up. It has also been called extremely tech-literate by experts, in an encouraging rebuff to the sceptics that sometimes question the state’s ability to grapple with these questions.

The case rests on the argument that Facebook’s monopolistic dominance of social media (they have boasted that 90% of all social media usage takes place on one of their platforms) has allowed the company to erode privacy protections that were once relatively robust.

This is a vindication of what privacy groups and civil society have been saying for years!

Yet we know that these cases can take very long and that Facebook will throw everything at the defence. Now the job for people that want to see a fair and democratic society in the digital age is to keep making noise and to pressure lawmakers in other countries to follow the USA’s lead.

Matt Hancock & Mark Zuckerburg

10/12/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Matt Hancock & Mark Zuckerburg”

Who did you vote for: The UK Government or Facebook?

Sometimes it isn’t very clear.

On Tuesday it was revealed that in 2018 Matt Hancock, then the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), had held a secretive meeting with Mark Zuckerburg, CEO of Facebook, in which the former made obsequious promises about the UK Government’s willingness to get cosy with big tech.

Hancock offered to change the Government’s approach from “threatening regulation to encouraging collaborative working to ensure legislation is proportionate and innovation-friendly”.

This occurred despite the fact Zuckerburg had recently flouted Parliament, declining to attend a hearing of the DCMS Select Committee to which he had been called to answer questions about Facebook’s democratic responsibilities.

In public, Hancock had criticised Zuckerburg for this. In private the tone was much different, with Hancock going out of his way to ensure Zuckerburg that Facebook had the UK Government’s full support.

Before attending the meeting Zuckerburg had to receive numerous assurances from Hancock’s team that the meeting was going to be positive. In the meeting he threatened to pull UK investment.

Does that sound right to you? Elected representatives should be the ones making demands of powerful businessmen, not the other way round.

But what more can you expect from a Government that has done next to nothing to regulate big tech and protect our democracy, even after years of mounting evidence that something needs to be done?

We only know about this meeting because the Information Commissioner’s Office ordered DCMS to release the minutes after the Bureau of Investigative Journalism had been requesting to see them – as they have every right to do – since November 2018!

The whole situation stinks and the UK deserves better.

Big tech needs regulation – Facebook said so themselves in our 2019 consultation! – and the UK Government needs to deliver it. This will of course require a degree of dialogue between Westminster and Silicon Valley but it is not a dialogue between equals. One party is a private business. The other is a democratically elected Government. The democratic representatives set the terms, not the unelected billionaires.

Just today it was announced that a forty state coalition in the United States will be challenging Facebook over its monopolistic practices.

More of that in the UK please.

A Statement in Solidarity with Timnit Gebru

09/12/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “A Statement in Solidarity with Timnit Gebru”

Timnit Gebru is known worldwide as one of the leading minds in tackling the racism and gender bias that plagues AI. She is also a Black woman in an industry that too often proves unsafe for racialized people. Her research has shifted policy on AI internationally and she was co-lead on the Ethical AI programme – until Google fired her.

Google is one of the largest companies the world has ever known. It has immense power. Using that power to silence Gebru reflects the fragility of Google’s stated commitment to AI ethics.

We stand in solidarity with Gebru and all Black people working in tech. Along with the Google Walkout organisers, our organisations call on Google to strengthen its commitment to integrity, anti-racism, and adherence to the company’s own AI Principles in its research.

Happy 20th Birthday to the Electoral Commission!

03/12/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Happy 20th Birthday to the Electoral Commission!”

On Monday the Electoral Commission turned 20! 

Celebrations at the independent regulator were likely subdued, however, after an autumn that has seen senior Conservatives ramp up attacks on the Commission with threats to bring it under political control and even abolish it.

The Electoral Commission was established in 2000 to bring much needed transparency and accountability to the UK’s broken and unregulated political donations environment.

Who remembers the 1990s? When every week seemed to bring a new scandal around party financing.

You don’t even need time travel to see what an unregulated electoral environment looks like. Just check across the Atlantic, where electoral regulation is weak and politics is awash with unaccountable money and untransparent lobbying. It’s part of the reason why special interest groups – like the gun lobby – can do so well despite holding minority positions.

The Electoral Commission is respected around the world and does a good job with the little resources and power it has.

But the world has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. The internet has reintroduced the bad old days of hidden money and dodgy campaigning. The Electoral Commission wasn’t designed to deal with this. How could it have been?

Let’s make it a great birthday and give it the powers it needs to protect us for the next 20 years and beyond.

Our report – Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age – outlined the twenty ways to do just that, from increasing fines to giving the Commission prosecutorial capabilities.

In the UK the pensions regulator is allowed to prosecute but the regulator charged with protecting our democracy isn’t… Does that seem right to you?

How to End Infodemics

25/11/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “How to End Infodemics”

The Forum on Information & Democracy recently published a comprehensive report – How to End Infodemics – that details what action governments can take to tackle this scourge.

Spoiler alert: it is yet more evidence that we need regulatory reform. To make it more digestible, Fair Vote UK’s team have put together a summary here.

Infodemic is a term given to the rapid spread of misinformation. In the internet age, tech giants have turbocharged an old problem by creating platforms that privilege sensationalistic and untrustworthy content over factually reliable news.

In 2020 the problem has been dramatically highlighted by the rapid spread of extremely harmful COVID-19 misinformation.

Going forward it is imperative that we tackle this problem forcefully. Not just to ensure the COVD-19 recovery is not hampered but to protect democratic culture full stop. 

Misinformation creates a fractured and untrusting public. And a fractured and untrusting public is incapable of agreeing on the problems facing society, let alone on what should be done to fix them. That is very bad for democracy.

We have seen that tech self-regulation does not work. The Forum on Information & Democracy’s report calls on governments to do more to tackle this problem and outlines four key areas to focus on:

  1. Transparency.
  2. Regulation of Content Moderation.
  3. Platform Design.
  4. Closed Messaging Safeguarding.

 

Many of the report’s conclusions independently mirror the recommendations that we published in January.

Consensus is building on the need to do something about this problem. Now is the time for advocacy to evolve into policy. The health of the public and the health of democracy depends on it.

Elections are democratic events. Democracy is a way of life.

12/11/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Elections are democratic events. Democracy is a way of life.”

“Elections are democratic events. Democracy is a way of life.”

→ Kyle Taylor, Founder & Director of Fair Vote UK.

Kyle was speaking at an Aspen Institute Live Webinar on the 22nd of October and the words have already taken on heightened meaning. The conversation, ‘The Future of Data and Democracy’, is now available to listen to here.

The news from the USA may be good but the fight is not over.

Indeed, with establishment Republicans showing a worrying willingness to indulge Trump’s election lies, that fight may have already arrived and it’s not even been a week.

Yet even when Biden is finally secure in the White House (which is not a foregone conclusion), that should not be a sign to rest on our laurels. All progressives and reformers must push his administration to implement the reforms to democracy, regulation and big tech that are so desperately needed.

There have been some promising early signs that this is on the Biden team’s agenda.

Let’s keep them to their word.

Here in the UK the fight is also heating up.

Despite spending years degrading the news and information landscape to devastating effect, Facebook have had one of its top executives put on a panel to advise on UK broadcasting rules by our Government.

Do we want a Government that has the interests of citizens or the interests of big business and big tech at heart? The two are increasingly mutually exclusive. 

Biden’s victory in the USA is being talked of as a turning point. 

It can be, but only if we remain vigilant.

Trump’s Desperate Lies & The Future of Democracy

05/11/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Trump’s Desperate Lies & The Future of Democracy”

Many of you – like us at the Fair Vote UK Team – are likely sleep deprived and a little anxious today.

Nothing is certain yet but one definitive statement we can make at this stage is: The current American President does not believe in the rule of law and does not believe in democracy.

Trump’s shameful and dishonest behaviour since Tuesday must be a final wake up call to us all.

The good news: The democratic process will continue despite his desperate attempts to subdue it.

Whatever the final result ends up being, we must now fight to preserve and strengthen the culture and the institutions of democracy. That means:

  • Taking on the anti-democratic power and influence of big tech;
  • Supporting, resourcing and celebrating the key democratic organisations: regulators, postal services, public institutions;
  • Reintroducing transparency to the heart of the democratic process.

 

This is a fight for the US, the UK and the whole world. It may not be sexy to talk about election safeguarding but there are few things as significant. Democracy is more than Elections. Democracy is our way of life. Is there anything more important?