Rethinking Consumers in the Digital Age and Their Role in Shaping Policy, Regulation and Practice

A personal response to Communications Consumer Panel consultation of 25 April 2019

Bill Dutton

12 May 2019

I was a former member and Chair of the Advisory Committee for England, and have followed the Consumer Forum for Communications (CFC) for years. Having returned from working in the US for four years, I’ve also attended the last several meetings of the CFC as an unaffiliated individual. My major involvement in communication has been as an academic, involved in teaching and research on the social implications of the Internet and related media, communication and information technologies. 

Image Courtesy of Arthur Berger

I am pleased to learn of Ofcom’s decision to increase support for the Communication Consumer Panel (CCP), particularly in light of diminished support for the Consumer Forum for Communications (CFC). I have been impressed with the breadth of expertise and exceptional commitment of members of both organizations. However, I have comments on how the work of the CCP might be improved in the coming years.

Let me preface this by noting that the various schemes for organizing committees and individuals outlined in the consultation document on ‘strengthening the consumer voice in the communications sector’ appear to be wedded to a previous era of communication in which there were clear demarcations between the telecommunications industry and its consumers. This distinction is less meaningful today as the general public acts in a variety of roles, such as in producing, providing, sharing, using content, and more—and not just as consumers. 

The mission of the CCP recognizes this in part when saying the body is designed “to protect and promote the interests of consumers, citizens and small businesses in the communications sector by giving advice to Ofcom, the EU, Government, industry and others.” For example, people are increasingly talking about ‘digital citizens’ and using other broad terms that go beyond ‘consumer’. Clearly, the interests of consumers are a huge aspect of the public interest, but serving the public interest in communication is no longer limited to meeting the needs of consumers. And the regulation of communication is increasingly tied to multiple agencies and public officials. Is there a way to move away from this overly simplistic and dated dichotomy between industry and consumer, while also broadening the scope of our definitions of communication? I have a suggestion. 

Instead of creating an ‘industry forum’ and/or creating ‘focused, direct engagement with consumers’, why not create a truly broad communication forum, open to all actors in the design, production, and use of media, communication and information technologies and services, from the post and phones to the Internet of Things? There are tools available today for organizing collective intelligence across the nations of the UK on any topics that actors in this increasingly complex ecology wish to address. If well moderated from the outset, with clear rules of order, such as not posting anonymous comments, and supported by Ofcom, then there is no reason not to have it open to everyone interested in how communication can better serve the public interest. 

An open communication forum – not simply a blog or website – would enable direct involvement with the entire ecology of actors, surface issues before they become problems, and create a source of insights for the CCP that it would never otherwise be able to have at its service. As a forum of Ofcom, this would have the ability to attract input from key actors, and be able to translate what is learned into meaningful discussions at Ofcom and other appropriate agencies with the potential for effecting policy and practice. Given the growing number of industries, companies, SMEs, consumers, and other individuals playing multiple roles in our new communication ecology, why would you not want to exploit new communication technologies to tap the wisdom of civil society to identify and discuss contemporary communication issues in the public interest? 

An open communication forum would not replace the various advisory committees of Ofcom, but complement and inform all of them, and also the officers of the regulator and related agencies and ministries involved with communication, broadly defined. It is possible that state of the practice, off-the-shelf software could be purposed for this role. However, an open forum would need the engagement and leadership of the CCP to enable a national forum for communication in the public interest to thrive. 

Quello Center Advisory Board

Great first meeting as a new member of the Quello Center Advisory Board, 9 May 2019.  It was a great opportunity to thank Gary Reid, who is retiring, for his contributions to the Center, and to see members of the Board, who continue to contribute to the Center’s success.

Merit Innovation Award to the Quello Center at MSU

Wonderful to see the growing range of research activities, anchored in some major projects, including the award winning ‘Michigan Moon Shot Project’ being conducted with Merit Network. This project began when I was still at the Center, but it has surpassed all expectations in overcoming the challenges of academic-practitioner collaboration in developing such a large scale project. I’ll post a photo of the award, which is well deserved and fun. The Center is also continuing a set of lectures and roundtables, bringing in a number of absolutely major authorities, such as Professor Laura DeNardis, a member of our Quello Advisory Board. 

The second half of the meeting was anchored around a roundtable discussion of emerging issues. Not surprisingly, key technical innovations seemed to draw the greatest attention, including advances in AI, IoT, and 5G, but members of the Board were refreshingly skeptical of much of the hype, such as that surrounding 5G. Discussion also moved to the growing focus on ethical questions about what should be done with AI and related technologies, and how to grapple with the so-called ‘techlash’ that has replaced the euphoria over the Internet and related ICTs. 

My sense was that the rise of new regulatory initiatives, driven largely by this techlash, will bring debate right to the heart of the Quello Center – which was born around the discussion of policy and regulation. 

Congratulations to Professors Johannes Bauer, the new Director, Laleah Fernandez, Assistant Director, and Keith Hampton, Research Director, for sustaining and building on the strength of the Quello Center.

Pluralist Empowerment versus Populism or Democratic Elitism

A rising discourse on the dangers of ‘populism’ seems to be expanding the concept in ways that literally demonise the empowerment of citizens – the people. There is evidence of a rise of populist parties, but that is being used as a hammer to bash a more general empowerment of individuals or citizens and networks among the public as dangerous.

This may be a consequence of too simplistic of a dichotomy being drawn between the empowerment of individual citizens and the empowerment of democratic institutions, such as elected and appointed officials, or a tradeoff between the ‘people’ versus ‘elites’. Instead, the role of the Internet and social media in helping individuals to be more informed and better able to hold politicians, business and government more accountable is also an element in the increasing vitality of democratic pluralism.

To make my case, it is useful to go back to some of the key terms in describing different forms of democratic control? So let me try, and ask others to correct me if I don’t get this right.

Pluralistic forms of democracy emerged inductively from studies of power structures. It conveys the degree that ideal forms of democracy are an impossible dream, but one feasible approximation of democratic control in practice is through governance by a pluralistic set of elites. While the few who are active, knowledgeable and committed to an issue are likely to govern the many, in the sense of Michel’s (1915) ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’, elite empowerment in modern liberal democratic states is relatively democratic in that it is specialised across separate sets of elites. Elites influential in education, are not influential in defence, and so on. We have separate and pluralistic elites, including politicians and public officials, and this pluralistic control is more democratic than influence being concentrated in a single set of elites. The concept of pluralistic democracy is linked to many, but perhaps most often to Robert Dahl and his classic, Who Governs? (Yale Un Press, 1961), which described the power structure of New Haven, Connecticut.

Pluralism is most often contrasted with elite control, which generally assumes that power is concentrated in a relative small set of economic elites. While government most often held formal symbolic power in cities and nations, real, informal power was lodged primarily in the hands of a so-called ‘power elite’ of those with the wealth and institutional resources to control public affairs. This concept has been linked to the work of Floyd Hunter’s Community Power Structure (Un of North Carolina Press, 1969), as case study of Atlanta, Georgia, and before this, to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 1956).

Compared to an elite power structure, pluralism was good news. Economic elites might be powerful with respect to some issues, some of the time, but others are powerful as well, including public officials, the press, educators, and so forth in their particular areas of expertise and focus. But an interesting normative twist on the value of pluralistic democracy was the notion that this is not only the most feasible form of democratic control in practice, but also the most desirable. This is because, according to those adhering to what has been called ‘democratic elitism’, it is only the elites in society that will protect democratic institutions and processes. This and other elite theories basically assume that:

‘the masses are inherently incompetent’ … and ‘at best, pliable inert stuff or, at worst, aroused, unruly creatures possessing an insatiable proclivity to undermine both culture and liberty.’

Peter Bachrach, The Theory. of Democratic Elitism: A Critique (Little, Brown and Company, 1967: 2)

Citizen therefore should rely on a pluralistic set of elites to govern, as they have the expertise and judgement, honed by democratic values, to rule. For example, while Americans might agree with freedom of expression as a basic human right in the US, they are unlikely to protect freedom of expression in particular, concrete circumstances, such as by not allowing an extremist to speak in one’s community or online. So those who adhere to the concept of democratic elitism generally support pluralistic elite rule as not only feasible but also desirable, given that the public at large is by and large too fragmented, unorganised, and ill-informed to govern, except in limited respects, such as voting for elected officials (also E. E. Schattschneider, 1960).

In the digital age, the rise of the Internet, social media and related information and communication technologies, such as mobile Internet, has been associated with the empowerment of individuals and networks of citizens, what I have called the rise of a Fifth Estate (Dutton 2009). Put in the most simple terms, the idea of the Fifth Estate is that use of the Internet and social media can enabled digital citizens to get access to information and network in ways that can enhance their communicative power relative to others and enable them to hold governing elites more accountable. The empowerment of individuals does not mean that these digital citizens are antagonistic to elites, but that they realise that intelligence is widely distributed and that the Internet enables them to get access to information and networks more easily and effectively than ever before.

For example, when a patient goes to a doctor, they might search for information about the problem diagnosed by the physician to learn more about what problem they have and how it is treated. This does not mean that they quit going to a doctor, but that they can have a more informed discussion with their doctor, such as by being able to ask intelligent questions. In other words, information and expertise is more distributed, less concentrated in the physician.

In contrast, populism tends to view elites self-interested or corrupt to the point that they do not trust such elites as elected officials or scientists. This is the problem as populists may fail to listen to experts and authorities in particular matters because they don’t trust elites in general. The reaction to rising signs of populism has been an increasing reification of democratic institutions and processes, and a demonisation of the people – a return to democratic elitism but in the digital age.

I’m an inductivist and see pluralist democracy as achievable and desirable, and more pluralism as a positive step for democratic control. The empowerment of digital citizens, such as suggested by the rise of a Fifth Estate, is therefore a contribution to the ideals behind democratic control. A fear of the people gaining more influence generated by the rise of populism is feuling the return of a democratic elitism unfit for the digital age. Just as populists are wrong to dismiss experts and authorities, it is wrong for elites to dismiss the people as a modern day digital mob.

 Trust in the Public
Trust in Elite InstitutionsLowHigh
HighDemocratic ElitismPluralist Democracy
LowBroken DemocracyPopulism

Democratic pluralism suggests that we use the Internet and related ICTs to inform, educate, and empower digital citizens, not to distrust them as incapable or unruly and dangerous. Likewise, it suggests that digital citizens retain a learned level of trust in elites and institutions, while being comfortable with maintaining a level of scepticism in any given pronouncement, opinion piece, or policy, because they are equipped with the tools to discover information and participate in networks of individuals that can inform and empower their understanding of policy and practice.

The Fifth Estate can broaden democratic processes at every level, from the household or neighbourhood to globe, but only if digital citizens respect the role of other actors, including experts, as sources of information and learn how to distinguish the valid arguments from deluded conspiracies.

References

Bachrach, Peter. (1967), The Theory of Democratic Elitism: A Critique. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company).

Dahl, Robert A. (1961) Who Governs? New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Dutton, William H. (2009), ‘The Fifth Estate Emerging through the Network of Networks’, Prometheus, Vol. 27, No. 1, March: pp. 1-15.

Dutton, William H. (2015), ‘The Internet’s Gift to Democratic Governance: The Fifth Estate’, pp. 164-73 in S., Moss, G., and Parry, K. (eds),Can the Media Save Democracy? Essays in Honour of Jay G. Blumler. London, Abington: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Michels, Robert (1959), Political Parties, trans. by Eden & Cedar Paul. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Mills, C. Wright (1951), The Power Elite. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schattschneider, E. E. (1960), The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston).

Voices from Oxford – a New Spring

While not surprising, one of the delightful aspects of returning to Oxford has been seeing the continued success of Voices from Oxford (VOX), which I helped found with Sung Hee Kim and Denis Noble in the early years of directing the OII. During the four years I was back in the USA, Sung Hee and Denis did not just keep VOX alive and well, but grew it in stature and impact within and beyond the University. VOX is independent of the University of Oxford, driven by the voluntary contributions of Denis and Sung Hee, and myself, but with the aim of bringing the ideas and work of faculty and students at Oxford to the wider world by way of accessible videos of key events, lectures, and interviews. While the idea began to take shape in 2003, VOX has accumulated approximately 1,000 productions available freely online.

In April, on the 19th, a group of 110 L’Oreal executives from Korea came through Oxford, and VOX worked with the organisers to visit Balliol College and hear from Professor Chris McKenna, a Reader in Business History and Strategy from the Saïd Business School, given at Rhodes House, focused on the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. Professor McKenna is involved with a project on the history of capitalism, and his lecture captured the centrality of growing scale, innovation, path dependencies, and the social construction of technology throughout the history of industrialisation.

Continue reading

Nominate an Early Career Research to Become a TPRC Junior Fellow

The TPRC is seeking to select up to 6 TPRC Junior Fellows – early-career researchers engaged in research on the Internet, telecommunication and media policy in the digital age. Please nominate individuals whom you think might make outstanding fellows. Those who have wond student paper awards at the TPRC conference as well as those who served Benton Award winners could be candidates, but we are open to anyone you feel to have the potential to do outstanding research on key issues for the TPRC, and engage other early-career researchers in our activities.

The TPRC Junior Fellows Program was designed in part to award excellence but also tobring new members into the TPRC community. Those appointed will be honoured and serve as ambassadors for TPRC, working pro bono and appointed to two-year terms by the Board. Junior Fellows will be emerging scholars with good connections to their peers, including but not limited to successful TPRC paper presenters and alumni of the Graduate Student Consortium and Benton Award.

TPRC hopes that Junior Fellows will help broaden the TPRC community, and improve the participation of underrepresented groups, such as young academics, certain disciplines not traditionally involved in telecom research who are engaged in new media and digitial policy, and those engaged in new research areas, as well as those who bring greater diversity to our community, including women, minorities, and under-represented groups.

The TPRC Board anticipates that Fellows will disseminate information about TPRC on their personal networks, and identify and engage 1-1 with prospective attendees and encourage them to participate in TPRC. In return, TPRC will recognize Fellows on the TPRC web site, and publicly welcome new appointees during the conference, and provide material and mentoring to support their outreach mission. Of course, the Early Career Fellows will be able to list this service on their resumes. Each Fellow will have a designated Board liaison, who will check in periodically to discuss support needed and progress made. TPRC will aim to support your career.

Desiderata

We’re looking for people that meet as many of the following criteria as possible. None of them are required qualifications; we don’t expect that anyone will check all the boxes.

  • From under-represented groups, including women and minorities
  • Working in new research areas and those under-represented at TPRC
  • Academic talent and promise
  • Good network of contacts, e.g. active on social media
  • Able and willing to advocate for TPRC

For information about the TPRC, see: http://www.tprcweb.com/

If you have ideas, you may contact me on this site, or by email at william.dutton@gmail.com

Naming and Blaming Does Not Foster Compromise

One of the key points in Robert Fisher and William Ury’s insightful book about ‘Getting to Yes’ was that you should make every effort to focus on the issues and not the individuals in a debate. What are the assumptions, facts, unknowns, major decisions? Once you begin focusing on the positions of individuals, those individuals are more likely to be less amendable to compromise. It makes great sense. Fisher and Ury refer to this principle as one of separating the people from the issues.*

One of the most decisive aspects of the Brexit debate is the degree that it has devolved into a politics of blame and of calling out the positions of individual parliamentarians, former politicians, and public figures. It is all about naming and blaming, rather than focusing on the issues at stake.

It is never too late to begin moving the discussion away from the personalities and egos involved to focus on the issues. But all of their seven principles might be worth revisiting as soon as possible in the Brexit debate.

*See: https://www.beyondintractability.org/bksum/fisher-getting

Cybersecurity and the Rationale for Capacity Building: Notes on a Conference

The fifth annual conference of Oxford’s Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre (GCSCC) was held in late February 2019 at the Oxford University’s Martin School. It engaged over 120 individuals from the capacity building community in one full day of conference sessions, preceded and followed by several days of more specialized meetings.*

The focus of the conference was on taking stock of the last five years of the Centre’s work, and looking ahead to the next five years in what is an incredibly fast moving area of Internet studies. So it was an ideal setting for reflecting on current themes within the cybersecurity and capacity building community. The presentations and discussions at this meeting provided a basis for reflections on major themes of contemporary discussions of cybersecurity and how they come together in ways that reinforce the need for capacity building in this area.

The major themes I took away from the day concerned 1) changing nature of threats and technologies; 2) the large and heterogeneous ecology of actors involved in cybersecurity capacity building; 3) the prominence of cross-national and regional differences; and 4) the range and prevalence of communication issues. These themes gave rise to a general sense of what could be done. Essentially, there was agreement that there was no technical fix to security, and that fear campaigns were ineffective, particularly unless Internet users are provided instructions on how to respond. However, there was also a clear recommendation not to throw up your hands in despair, as ‘cybersecurity capacity building works’ – nations need to see capacity building as a direction for their own strategies and actions.

Bill courtesy of Voices from Oxford (VOX)

I’ll try to further develop each of these points, although I cannot hope to give justice to the discussion throughout the day. Voices from Oxford (VOX) has helped capture the day in a short clip that I will soon post. But here, briefly, are my major takeaways from the day.

Changing Threats and Technologies

The threats to cybersecurity are extremely wide ranging across contexts and technologies, and the technologies are constantly and rapidly changing. Contrast the potential threats to national infrastructures from cyberwarfare with the threats to privacy from the Internet of Things, such as a baby with a toy that is online. The number of permutations of contexts and technologies is great.

The Complex Ecology of Actors

There is a huge and diverse set of actors and institutions involved in cybersecurity capacity building. There are: cybersecurity professionals, IT professionals, IT, software, and Internet industries; non-governmental organizations; donors; researchers; managers of governments and organizations; national and regional agencies; and global bodies, such as the World Economic Forum and the Internet Governance Forum. Each has many separate but overlapping roles and areas of focus, and each has a stake in global cybersecurity given the risks posed by malicious actors that can take advantage of global weaknesses.

One theme of our national cybersecurity reviews was that the multitude of actors within one country that were involved with cybersecurity often came together in one room for the very first time to speak with our research team. Cybersecurity simply involves a diverse range of actors at all levels of nations and organizations, and with a diverse array of relationships to the Internet and information and communication technologies, from professional IT teams and cybersecurity response teams to users. Developing a more coherent perspective on this ecology of actors is a key need in this area.

National and Regional Differences

Another clear theme of the day was the differences across the various nations and regions, including the obvious issues of the smaller versus larger nations in the scale of their efforts, but also between the low and high income nations. We heard cases of Somalia juxtaposed with examples from the UK and Iceland. And the range and nature of actors across these nations often differed dramatically, such as in the relevance of different global facilitating organisations, such as the World Bank.

Communication in So Many Words

Given this ecology of actors in a global arena, it might not be surprising that communication emerged as a dominant theme. It arose through many presentations and discussions of the need for awareness, coordination, collaboration (across areas and levels within nations, across countries, regions), as well as the need for prioritizing efforts and instruction and training, both of which work through communication. Of course, the conference itself was an opportunity for communication and networking that seemed to be highly valued.

What Can Be Done? Capacity Building

However, despite these technical, individual, and national differences, requiring intensive efforts to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate nationally, regionally, and globally, there were some common thoughts on what needs to be done. Time and again, speakers stressed the lack of any technical fix – or what one participant referred to as a silver bullet – to fix cybersecurity. And there was a general consensus that awareness campaigns that were basically fear campaigns did not work. Internet users, whether in households or major organizations, need instructions on what to do in order to improve their security. But doing nothing was not an option, and given the conference, it may not be surprising, but there did seem to be a general acceptance that cybersecurity capacity building was a set of instructions on a way forward. Our own research has provided empirical evidence than capacity building works, and is in the interest of every nation.**

A short video of the conference will give you a more personal sense of the international ecology of stakeholders and issues: https://vimeo.com/voicesfromoxford/review/322632731/ec0d5e5f9f 

Notes

*An overview of the first five years of the centre is available here: https://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/cybersecurity-capacity/system/files/GCSCC%20booklet%20WEB.pdf 

**An early working paper is available online at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2938078