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Our most famous internet entrepreneur is adding her voice to the call for a stronger public interest presence in the digital world. We should listen and act.

I have been privileged to see an advance copy of Martha Lane Fox’s Dimbleby lecture which is being broadcast tonight on BBC1.  It’s an important speech combining strong opinion, personal insight and thoughtful analysis. I don’t want to give away too much but the most important element is that Martha joins a chorus of voices seeking to strengthen the public interest in the world of digital communication. She argues for ‘a new national institution that would lead an ambitious charge – to make us the most digital nation on the planet’. The agency’s remit would include helping us ‘navigate the multiple ethical and moral issue the internet is presenting’.

If you want to know more about Martha’s proposal then tune into her entertaining and thought provoking lecture tonight. But it is surely significant that here idea comes a few weeks after the proposal by the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value to create a ‘Digital Public Space’; ‘guaranteeing secure and equitable access to all forms of digitised content and resources’ which would ‘enable individuals and organisations to discover, enjoy and contribute to our creative inheritance and cultural producers, consumers and curators’.

The Warwick proposal was among other ideas discussed at a recent seminar held here at the RSA. There is clearly some very interesting thinking going on in the BBC although whether it is reaching the top of the embattled Corporation is another matter.

In this thinking there are two broad questions that need better, more consistent, answers than we have at present: First, what are the big internet related public interest problems that we need to solve? Second, what kind of solution might we want to develop?

This charming short video from Tim Berners Lee’s initiative ‘Web we want’ is a pretty good starting point on question one. Key (overlapping) issues include the exploitation of personal data and free content and the manipulation of information for commercial profit, surveillance and privacy, security and trust, rights and transparency, and the interests of those not connected or digitally literate. If you want a bit more depth, Jon Ronson’s new book is an entertaining and alarming guide to how the internet can ruin your life and how the capacity to pay for on line reputation management is becoming an important new dimension of inequality.

The common law of the internet – such as it is - emerges from a swirling vortex of commercial, state, political and criminal interests. Thus in relation to what is arguably the greatest shared asset created by humanity, if the public interest is met (and often it isn’t) it is by accident not design.

The question then is ‘what can be done?’ One answer is the need for state intervention. The problems here include the fact that the state is part of what we need protection from and also that there are severe limits on what national states (especially democratic ones) can achieve in what is by definition a global space. Another answer – Martha’s – is the need for some kind of new agency part funded and part licensed by Government but independent and using persuasion, thought leadership and partnership, rather than regulation, to drive change. A third approach is to hope for the emergence or success of powerful not for profit platforms which successfully compete with commercial providers while keeping a safe distance from state interference.

There are of course important internet presences that stand between state and commercial interests – Mozilla Firefox as a web browser, Linux as an operating system, Diaspora as a social network are all examples, albeit at very different scales. However, the major powers dominating the on line world are global commercial corporations and state agencies. The capacity of the Googles and Apples of the world to buy out threatening models and the way the idea of the sharing economy has been appropriated and exploited by commercial providers like Uber shows how hard to it is to for new ethically motivated entrants to get to the critical mass point achieved early on by Wikipedia.

I suspect what we need is, in fact, a combination of all three strategies: With the initial sponsorship of Government, a new independent agency with a public interest remit but relying primarily on a methodology which encourages and protect bottom up social innovation by tech heads and entrepreneurs.

How to promote the public interest in the digital world is a vitally important, complex and fast changing debate. I may not be an expert (as this post probably demonstrates) but I believe – as I implied in my ‘Power to Create’ annual lecture last year - that a fair, safe and open internet is a vital resource in enabling more people to live a creative life. To have someone with the background and credibility of Martha Lane Fox further opening up this conversation is welcome and could even be game changing.

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