The Democratic Value of the Filibuster

The Democratic Value of the Filibuster

The filibuster was not invented to serve some lasting and critical role in democratic governance, but unintentionally, it does perform that function.  The filibuster is a structure – one rule of the game in American politics – that plays a powerful role in supporting more stable democracy. And it is particularly critical in times of deep polarization in politics. 

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on Capitol Hill on June 8. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Critics of the filibuster tend to take one of two overly simplistic positions on this device. 

One is that the mechanism of the filibuster is simply antithetical to majority rule by allowing a minority of Senators to delay and thereby often block bills in the US Senate despite a majority in support. This position ignores key realities of democratic political processes, such as the importance of intense minorities, the pluralist nature of democracy. 

Democratic systems are rightly respectful of intense minority opinion, such as the respect normally accorded to protests that gain strong support, but by no means a majority. It is likely that, overtime, intense minorities have fought for the status quo, and thereby have a conservative bias. However, there have been intense minorities for change in many cases, from anti-war protestors to climate change advocates. Democracies ignore intense minorities at their peril. 

More generally, in a pluralist democracy, like that of the US and many other liberal democratic nations, policy is shaped by specialized sets of individuals who care about and have expertise in particular issues, what has been called a polyarchy (Dahl 1971). Those who govern education are different from those who govern defense or healthcare. You want this kind of pluralistic, polyarchical form of governance to insure a division of labor that supports greater competence and focus. Even when legislative or parliamentary bodies meet, each member does not understand every issue – they could not even read every bill that comes before them. They rely on committees, specialized experts and policy makers, and then take cues from their partisans on the committee reporting the bill. They take cues as a necessary short cut (Stimson 1975). So, minorities are making policy that is endorsed or rejected by majority voting.

In short, majority rule is an oversimplification of the democratic process even in leading liberal democratic nations. 

Secondly, critics of the filibuster ignore the central importance of democratic stability, perhaps the most important issue, by focusing on the issue of the day. 

In the aftermath of the second world war, a seminal study of the cultures of democracies (the US, UK, Germany, Mexico, and Italy) identified the US as being relatively more stable due to its ‘civic culture’ (Almond and Verba 1963).[1] In contrast, in the period prior to the second world war, Germany had democratic regimes that were notoriously unstable. Stability in the US was attributed to a political culture that supported consensus, enabled diversity of opinion and moderated change. Arguably, the US has lost its civic culture as its politics is typified more by polarization, tribalism, and distrust – none of which are compatible with consensus and moderation. 

However, the filibuster can incentivize moderation and compromise to find a consensus that goes beyond the tyranny of majority rule. It is true that the use of a filibuster has caused many politicians to dig in their heels even further and say the fight has only begun, but a small but growing number of promising politicians have seen the value of the filibuster in supporting compromises that promote greater stability in policy and in democratic structures. 

Most recently, US Senator Kyrsten Sinema helped lead a bipartisan compromise that resulted [if enacted] in support for a $1trillion package of measures to upgrade declining infrastructures across the nation. She herself expressed support for the filibuster before her election and before this bill in a wonderful opinion piece in The Washington Post, which countered conventional wisdom to argue that ‘we have more to lose than gain by ending the filibuster’, arguing that it ‘compels moderation’ and counters ‘instability, partisanship, and tribalism that continue to infect our politics’.[2]

This rising star of the US Senate also warned against changing democratic rules of the game based on the policy issues of the day. As a Democrat in the senate, she reminded her colleagues that the filibuster was used by them in defeating some major Republican efforts, when Republicans were in the majority. Her opinion piece is must-reading for those who oppose the filibuster, but have an open mind in considering a serious issue for the future of American politics. 

References

Almond, Gabriel A., and Verba, Sidney. (1963), The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Dahl, Robert A. (1971), Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Stimson, James A. (1975), ‘Five Propositions About Congressional Decision-Making: An Examination of Behavioral Inferences from Computer Simulation’, Political Methodology 2 (4): 415–36.


[1] Some critics of the time argued that Almond and Verba were simply describing American politics and ascribing the attribute of stability to it, rather than having a clear causal argument. But even if only descriptive of the era, that kind of civic culture is arguably absent in most cases of American politics today. 

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/06/21/kyrsten-sinema-filibuster-for-the-people-act/

A Mob, Protestors, or a Mob of Protestors at Capitol Hill?

A Mob, Protestors, or a Mob of Protestors at Capitol Hill?

In media coverage and interviews immediately following the 6 January 2021 protests on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, most media pundits, including the BBC, and politicians referred to the Trump supporters who surrounded or breached the building as a ‘mob’. The Guardian as a ‘pro-Trump mob’. That is a reasonably accurate choice of terminology in that the OED defines a mob as ‘a large disorderly crowd of people’, which clearly applies to this case. 

Crowd on Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021

However, in a strikingly analogous event, when protestors breached the Hong Kong Parliament in 2019, they were more consistently referred to as protestors, or pro-democracy protestors. For example, the BBC noted that: “Protesters have been removed from Hong Kong’s parliament after an hours-long siege.”[1] The same coverage referred to those occupying the parliament as demonstrators. (I doubt this was true in the case of coverage in the Chinese media, but I have not confirmed this.) 

Likewise, the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, saw a great deal of protest-related violence which also interrupted US democratic election processes. For example, one BBC account 50 years after the event referred to protestors, anti-war protestors, Vietnam War protestors, or demonstrators.[2] In this case, as all of my contemporaries will remember from watching these protests, that the protestors were not characterized as a mob. I searched online for “mob” in the context of the Chicago convention and nearly all the results noted that the text was missing the word ‘mob’, referring instead to ‘protestors’ or ‘Vietnam War protestors.’  

Clearly, there is a more or less intentional politics of language at play here, where a mob is far less legitimate than protestors. Maybe a mob is less purposeful, or more chaotic? Another OED accepted definition of mob is ‘the common people, the rabble’. Perhaps this is what is being implied about Trump protestors. 

To be fair, if one wished to be fair, it might be better to avoid either term by referring to ‘a mob of protestors.’ That might fit all of these situations and be more acceptable to all of the actors involved. What term would you suggest?

I have not done a comprehensive or systematic comparison of all media coverage of these and other similar events. It is too tangential to my work. That said, it seems blindingly obvious that we all indirectly legitimize or de-legitimize people and political actions by our choice of terms. It might be better to describe a mob of protestors in more neutral terms and then describe what they did – their actions. It may be a cliché, but let their actions speak for themselves without being prejudiced by framing them in a glorified or tainted way through a politically charged label, unless that is exactly what you wish to do. The contemporary term of this communicative act might be virtue signaling – making sure readers or listeners know that you are on the morally correct side? 

As I write, I fully realize I will be judged as morally incorrect by many for asking for more neutrality. I was on the ‘peace patrol’ during Vietnam War (the American War) protests at SUNY Buffalo, and that put me in a similar position – that time between protestors and the police, but a riskier position. In a way, I want to plea for a peace patrol now as well. As President-elect Joe Biden said, he wants to “be President for all Americans.”[3]These protests have created a pretty angry place from which to move ahead on that mission.

Protestor Sitting at Speaker’s Desk, fastcoastnews.com

Afterword

The day after I posted this blog, the Financial Times (8 January 2021: 1) quoted several politicians and others using even more dramatic and more exaggerated characterizations of the mob of protesters, such as domestic terrorists. Joe Biden was quoted as saying: “Don’t dare call them protesters. They were a riotous mob, insurrectionists.” I understand that the President-elect and other politicians have been shocked and frightened if not panicked by what happened on the 6th, but there should be some – surely in academia – who can step back and look analytically and empirically at the complex interaction of multiple choices by multiple actors that led to this debacle. The presence of persons preaching insurrection does not make everyone present an insurrectionist. 

Capitol Hill on 6 January was a disaster. There is a real need to dig into the details of this disaster to ensure that it is not over-simplified to fit political narratives. It was what I would call a ‘democratic disaster’ and like all disasters I’ve studied, they are the result of multiple problems. Rather than being resolved by one simple explanation, they are most often the result of multiple actors making multiple mistakes that interact in ways that lead to an unanticipated disaster. 

I guess a problem is that politicians and the media are pressed to jump to conclusions too quickly. Not to do so risks being labelled as weak or indecisive or on the wrong side. We need individuals or teams that have the resources to dig into the specifics, however complex or simple, and avoid drawing ill-informed lessons that could undermine freedom of expression and assembly, including lawful protests, that are central to the dynamics of democratic politics.

References

William H. Dutton, Donald MacKenzie, Stuart Shapiro and Malcolm Peltu (1995), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunications Disasters’. PICT Policy Research Paper No. 33 (Uxbridge: Programme on Information and Communication Technologies, Economic and Social Research Council. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3103433

Notes


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-asia-china-48821664

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-45226132

[3] https://www.axios.com/biden-president-for-all-americans-0486555e-ff3f-40aa-8332-53fc4a72b0ae.html


					

Britain’s Digital Nanny State

The way in which the UK is approaching the regulation of social media will undermine privacy and freedom of expression and have a chilling effect on Internet use by everyone in Britain. Perhaps it is because discussion of a new approach to Internet regulation occurred in the midst of the public’s focus on Brexit, this initiative has not really been exposed to critical scrutiny. Ironically, its implementation would do incredible harm to the human rights of the public at large albeit in the name of curbing the use of the Internet by malicious users, such as terrorists and pedophiles. Hopefully, it is not too late to reconsider this cyber harms framework. 

The problems with the government’s approach were covered well by Gian Voipicelli in an article in Wired UK. I presented my own concerns in a summary to the consumer forum for communications in June of 2019.[1] The problems with this approach were so apparent that I could not imagine this idea making its way into the Queen’s Speech as part of the legislative programme for the newly elected Conservative Government. It has, so let me briefly outline my concerns. 

Robert Huntington, The Nanny State, book cover

The aim has been to find a way to stop illegal or ‘unacceptable’ content and activity online. The problem has been finding a way to regulate the Internet and social media in ways that could accomplish this aim without violating the privacy and freedom of all digital citizens – networked individuals, such as yourself. The big idea has been to apply a duty of care responsibility on the social media companies, the intermediaries between those who use the Internet. Generally, Internet companies, like telephone companies, in the past, would not be held responsible for what their users do. Their liability would be very limited. Imagine a phone company sued because a pedophile used the phone. The phone company would have to surveil all telephone use to catch offenses. Likewise, Internet intermediaries will need to know what everyone is using the Internet and social media for to stop illegal or ‘unacceptable’ behavior. This is one reason why many commentators have referred to this as a draconian initiative. 

So, what are the possible harms? Before enumerating the harms it does consider, it does not deal with harms covered by other legislation or regulators, such as privacy, which is the responsibility of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Ironically, one of the major harms of this initiative will be to the privacy of individual Internet users. Where is the ICO?

The harms cited as within the scope of this cyber harms initiative included: child sexual exploitation and abuse; terrorist content and activity; organized immigration crime; modern slavery; extreme pornography; harassment and cyberstalking;  hate crime; encouraging and assisting suicide; incitement to violence; sale of illegal goods/services, such as drugs and weapons (on the open Internet); content illegally uploaded from prisons; sexting of indecent images by under 18s (creating, possessing, copying or distributing indecent or sexual images of children and young people under the age of 18). This is only a start, as there are cyber harms with ‘less clear’ definitions, including: cyberbullying and trolling; extremist content and activity; coercive behaviour; intimidation; disinformation; violent content; advocacy of self-harm; promotion of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); and underage exposure to legal content, such as children accessing pornography, and spending excessive time online – screen time.  Clearly, this is a huge range of possible harms, and the list can be expanded over time, as new harms are discovered. 

Take one harm, for example, disinformation. Seriously, do you want the regulator, or the social media companies to judge what is disinformation? This would be ludicrous. Internet companies are not public service broadcasters, even though many would like them to behave as if they were. 

The idea is that those companies that allow users to share or discover ‘user-generated content or interact with each other online’ will have ‘a statutory duty of care’ to be responsible for the safety of their users and prevent them from suffering these harms. If they fail, the regulator can take action against the companies, such as fining the social media executives, or threatening them with criminal prosecution.[2]

The White Paper also recommended several technical initiatives, such as to flag suspicious content, and educational initiatives, such as in online media literacy. But the duty of care responsibility is the key and most problematic issue. 

Specifically, the cyber harms initiative poses the following risks: 

  1. Covering an overly broad and open-ended range of cyber harms;
  2. Requiring surveillance in order to police this duty that could undermine privacy of all users;
  3. Incentivizing companies to over-regulate content & activity, resulting in more restrictions on anonymity, speech, and chilling effects on freedom of expression;
  4. Generating more fear, and panic among the general public, undermining adoption & use of the Internet and widening digital divides;
  5. Necessitating an invasive monitoring of content, facing a volume of instances that is an order of magnitude beyond traditional media and telecom, such as 300 hours of video posted on YouTube every minute;
  6. Essentially targeting American tech giants (no British companies), and even suggesting subsidies for British companies, which will be viewed as protectionist, leaving Britain as a virtual backwater of a more global Internet; 
  7. Increasing the fragmentation of Internet regulators: a new regulator, Ofcom, new consumer ‘champion’, ICO, or more?

Notwithstanding these risks, this push is finding support for a variety of reasons. One general driver has been the rise of a dystopian climate of opinion about the Internet and social media over the last decade. This has been exacerbated by concerns over child protection and elections in the US, across Europe, such as with Cambridge Analytica, and with Brexit that created the spectre of foreign interference. Also, Europe and the UK have not developed Internet and social media companies comparable to the so-called big nine of the US and China. (While the UK has a strong online game industry, this industry is not mentioned at all in the White Paper, except as a target of subsidies.) The Internet and social media companies are viewed as foreign, and primarily American, companies that are politically popular to target. In this context, the platformization of the Internet and social media has been a gift to regulators — the potential for companies to police a large proportion of traffic, providing a way forward for politicians and regulators to ‘do something’. But at what costs? 

The public has valid complaints and concerns over instances of online harms. Politicians have not known what to do, but now have been led to believe they can simply turn to the companies and command them to stop cyber harms from occurring, or they will suffer the consequences in the way of executives facing steep fines or criminal penalties. But this carries huge risks, primarily in leading to over-regulation and inappropriate curtailing of the privacy and freedom of expression of all digital citizens across the UK. 

You only need to look at China to see how this model works. In China, an Internet or social media company could lose its license overnight if it allowed users to cross red lines determined by the government. And this fear has unsurprisingly led to over-regulation by these companies. Thus, the central government of China can count on private firms to strictly regulate Internet content and use. A similar outcome will occur in Britain, making it not the safest place to be online, but a place you would not want to be online with your content with even screen time under surveillance. User-generated content will be dangerous. Broadcast news and entertainment will be safe. Let the public watch movies. 

In conclusion, while I am an American, I don’t think this is simply an American obsession with freedom of expression. This right is not absolute even in the USA. Internet users across the world value their ability to ask questions, voice concerns, and use online digital media to access information, people, and services they like without fear of surveillance.[3] It can be a technology of freedom, as Ithiel de Sola Pool argued, in countries that support freedom of expression and personal privacy. If Britons decide to ask the government and regulators to restrict their use of the Internet and social media – for their own good – then they should support this framework for an e-nanny, or digital-nanny state. But its implications for Britain are real cyber harms that will result from this duty of care framework. 


[1] A link to my slides for this presentation is here: https://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/online-harms-white-paper-april-2019-bill-dutton?qid=5ea724d0-7b80-4e27-bfe0-545bdbd13b93&v=&b=&from_search=1

[2] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/tech-bosses-face-court-if-they-fail-to-protect-users-q6sp0wzt7

[3] Dutton, W. H., Law, G., Bolsover, G., and Dutta, S. (2013, released 2014) The Internet Trust Bubble: Global Values, Beliefs and Practices. NY: World Economic Forum. 

The Politics of Language

The language of day-to-day politics in the news and in legislative bodies, such as the UK parliament, has been so vitriolic, such as around the Brexit debate from 2016, that many have been stopped listening. It can be toxic to some, while energising to others. I should add that I would single out no one, as this has been a phenomenon that crosses political parties, nations, and individuals. It seems like a trend in the use and abuse of language in politics. Why?

There are many possible explanations. There is the give and take of debate in which aggressive or insulting words evoke equivalent or ratchet up replies in a vicious cycle. There is the potential for inflammatory language to capture media attention. There are many possible reasons, but one seems to best capture for me the dynamics of what we are seeing unfold across Europe and North America – one that was long ago best characterised by an American political scientist, E. E. Schattschneider, in his short but wonderful book entitled, The Semi-Sovereign People.*

The essential notion of Schattschneider’s work is to compare politics with a spectator sport, but one in which there are major differences. Players can change the rules, for example, but even more dynamic is the potential and commonality of players switching sides. More significantly, perhaps, is the notion that spectators can come on the field and join one of the teams.

Considering these possibilities, it is obvious that if you are winning the game, you don’t want to change the rules, and you don’t want spectators to jump onto the field. Best to leave things alone if you are winning. And if two teams are in opposition, such as in parliament, it would be best to keep a low profile if both teams are winning through compromise, for example.

Alternatively, if you are losing, then there is an incentive to change the rules, which is most difficult if you are losing, or to get change the composition of the teams by getting players to switch sides, or getting spectators to come onto the field. It is risky, but you are losing anyway, and changing the teams on the field could tilt the game in your favour.

So what happens when – as in the case of Brexit debates in the UK – that no team is clearly winning. Every position is a minority position. Every team will have an incentive to change the rules, and to bring spectators onto the field. They are already losing, so each party is attempting to shake things up and change the dynamics of the politics in a way that might shift in their favour.

This seems to me to be a rational explanation of the apparently irrational politics of Brexit that is causing a national nervous breakdown in the UK.

*E. E. Schattschneider, (1960), The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. Wadsworth.

The Internecine Politics Undermining the Civility of Political Discourse?


Brexit has spawned a form of internecine politics in the UK that is a lose-lose for all – the politicians, parties, and the nations, and very likely, the public interest. Conservatives have referred to ‘blue on blue’ attacks on one’s own party members, but not as in military parlance, accidental. These are really intentional efforts to destroy other members of the parliament, and often in one’s own political party.

This blue-on-blue warfare was mentioned in the debate on 9 July 2019 between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, but that is but one example of a daily dose of hyper-personal, destructive, political, hatchet jobs that leaves everyone diminished. Today, the former PM John Major threatened to take the next UK PM to court if he were to try to force a no-deal Brexit. He did not simply express his view on a ‘no deal’ Brexit, but threatened the next PM.

Of course, politics in the USA is as vicious, if not more so – consider the warfare between the late John McCain and Donald Trump. All are diminished in such exchanges.

Has politics become more hyper-personal, vicious and internecine, or has the media and social media, as claimed by some, not only a cause of this dysfunctional communication, but is it also or primarily making normal politics more visible?

Optimistically, maybe it is the latter. Perhaps politics has always be as personal and corrosive, and what we see is a social media example of what was called by Joshua Meyrowitz a ‘no sense of place‘ of the mass media. Every insult, threat, or attack is immediately tweeted, blogged, leaked, and/or reported on the mainstream 24-hour news channels. No politician can escape the constant gaze of the media (often via social media) today. A positive outcome, arguably, is that we know too much to hold any politician on a pedestal. Politicians are very human with many faults.

So maybe it is the latter n – a media impact. That might mean there is hope that politicians, the press, and media can learn to hold their fire in the public interest. But the search for followers, likes, ratings, and viewers make this unlikely.

While this is unlikely, given that such internecine conflicts generate listeners, readers, and viewers, it is also in the self-interest of any politician to not indulge in, or try their best to avoid, these political attacks. So it may be down to the politicians to address this problem.

In earlier times, one was advised to go ahead and write the angry memo to your boss or colleague to get your grievance off your chest, but then put it in your desk drawer, and read it the next day. In the light of the next day, the logic goes, the overly vituperous memos or letters would be shredded and forgotten. Well, memos are rare today, as are desk drawers, and tweets work best in live action, so restraint will be more difficult in these times. But this is possible. Draft a tweet on any other media than Twitter, and then send it the next day!

All parties need to realise that clicks, views, and news coverage are not indicators of agreement or support of a comment. This member of the public is becoming exhausted and disappointed by these internecine, hyper-personal political hatcket jobs. Sadly, they alienate many of others among the public. Surely it may seem naive, but in everyone’s interest to be more civil, less personal, more restrained, and more empathetic. Politics is the art of compromise, and not war carried on by other means.

Coda

I was pleased to see some aspects of my concerns reflected in what might have been PM Teresa May’s last major speech as Prime Minister. She spoke about the decline of public discourse, talking about what she called the “coarsening [of] our public debate”, noting that “Some are losing the ability to disagree without demeaning the views of others.” While she attributes some aspects of this to online media, she did not put all the blame on digital or social media, but on an increasing factionalism and what she called an ‘absolutism’, which for example is so apparent in debates over Brexit. I find support in her voicing some of my concerns with public discourse albeit she has put these points across much better and to a far larger audience. 

Getting to No: Name-calling Politics

Every morning it seems I am stunned by any given political actor (celebrity, politician, journalist) in the UK or the USA calling another politician an idiot, a fascist, a communist, a liar, a populist, nationalist, …. the list goes on. What are they thinking?

You don’t need to have read Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In (Random House, first edition 1981) to realise that name-calling in politics is likely to end badly. It is blindingly obvious that this is not a route to agreement. So as Fisher and Ury argue, among other rules, you should focus on the problem versus the personalities involved in the dispute. Name-calling focuses everyone on the personalities in the dispute.

In the 1980s, I found that urban development conflicts were often facilitated by modeling – at that time the use of computer models of the fiscal impact of alternative development strategies (Dutton, W. H. and Kraemer, K. L. Modeling as Negotiating: The Political Dynamics of Computer Models in the Policy Process, Ablex Publishing, 1985). The modelling process focused the attention of contenting actors on the assumptions and data relevant to the model – the modelling process. In some cities this worked, but not all, but when it worked, it was a classic validation of Fisher and Ury.

With respect to Brexit, there have been attempts to focus on a process, such as a referendum, then a second referendum, or general election, to resolve the conflict between the leave versus remain alternatives. So arguably, the referendum did not resolve the issue, but actually has been blamed by many for the intractable position that the UK finds itself. But what about this idea of a citizen’s jury, which has been put forward by Rory Stewart?

My view is that it would be a potentially useful input to the process, but not a route to resolving the issue of Brexit. As one of a number of efforts to get to a yes, it could surface new ideas. However, if it is consider as the way to resolve the issue, it would be too politicised to be credible.

So a focus on any particular process rather than the personalities is not a panacea. It is important to find a process that garners support, that representatives of all aspects of the issue can actually participate in, and have sufficient transparency for the public and officials to ensure that it is accountable to members of the parliament, government, and the public at large. It that respect, the suggestion of a citizen’s jury is moving in the right direction: away from name-calling and towards a focus on a process for resolving disagreement.

Maybe everyone knows how commonsensical this advice might be. So what should we think of those who insist on name-calling? Generally, when it looks like someone is behaving irrationally, it often turns out that they are focusing on a different objective. For example, they may not be trying to find a solution or resolution to a negotiation. They may be simply trying to enhance their visibility to their supporters. My impression is exactly this. The name-callers among journalists, politicians, and celebrities are primarily seeking to be liked by like-minded people in their own self-interest, and not to solve a problem in the public interest.

Modelling Creating a Process for Getting to Yes

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. 

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).

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

 

 

 

Has Brexit Broken Parliament? No. This is Democracy!

The frustration of so many people over the machinations of the UK Parliament during the debates and votes over Brexit is understandable. So it is not surprising to see article after article, and opinion pieces piled on one another about how parliament, if not democracy itself, is broken. The GuardianJournal on 16 March notes: ‘Brexit – a niche production that brought the house down’. The Guardianon 16 March talks of the ‘UK Divided: Disbelief and anger as faith in politicians evaporates’ (p. 15). The political editor of The Guardian writes in The Observer on 17 March of ‘The Week that all but broke British politics (p. 38).’ As an American residing in Britain, I respectfully disagree.

British Parliament Debates Brexit

EU Parliament Debates Brexit

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is no doubt but that this debate is extraordinary, by British, or any liberal democratic standards. Of course, these are not normal, routine debates, but among the most serious in decades for the UK and Northern Ireland. But to say this is the democratic process at work, I am sure I will be branded an enemy of whatever position seems to be prevailing at the moment. Yet I am not evaluating the process on the basis of its likely outcome. No one knows what the outcome will be – still.

Let me explain why I believe this is democracy in a good way – not broken. First, and foremost, it is a real debate. Take a look at the British parliament and the EU parliament. Both are liberal and democratic bodies. But which looks better managed? Which looks like a more democratic process? Which looks more interactive? Given the scale of the EU parliament, the British parliament would be unworkable. But the British parliament remains the model of a democratic political body.

But, you may say, “the parties have lost control, there is no discipline”? Yes, factions have developed within the parties, and individuals seem to be following their own guidance at times. But I see this as a consequence of how serious the issues are (leading all members of parliament to inform themselves) and how much time has been devoted to the issues. In normal legislative processes, most members vote most of the time on the basis of cues. They do not have the time to read every paper on every motion or proposition put before their body. In most cases, they look for cues from their party leaders, from the committee that reports the motion, from experts in the area. In the case of Brexit, every member of parliament has had abundant time and motivation to develop their own positions on the matter. That is good in light of a classic rational model of democracy, but in the real world of politics it means that there are many individually honed and differing judgements on what to do. Therefore, it will take a great deal more time than normally expected to sort out what the collective body will decide.

However, we live in a time of live media coverage of every debate, every repositioning, motion, leak, speech, mistake, raised eyebrow, etc. In earlier days, so much of what is reported routinely today would never be seen or heard, much less broadcast live, and spread on social media. The saying that legislation is like sausage in that it often tastes good in the end, but you don’t want to see it being made. Well, we are seeing negotiations over Brexit unfolding in real time and it is not pretty, but it is what is necessary in order to find ways to accommodate multiple, intense, and firmly held opinions on the way forward. To say that this is not well managed is actually a compliment.

Somehow, whether it is this week, this year, or over decades, decisions will continue to unfold in the Brexit process, or UK-EU relationship. The process may be frustratingly slow, but the most critical issue is that the process seeks to accommodate as many interests or positions as possible and is (and is seen) as legitimate at the end of the day. Not managed. Not rammed down anyone’s throat. But led to accommodate as many individual, strong-minded parliamentarians as possible to achieve a majority – an inevitable compromise to all of the minority opinions in the mix.

In contrast, think whether you would be happy if this were brilliantly ‘managed’ and the position of any one parliamentarian reigned supreme in this process. The idea of having a citizen jury comes close to this idea of doing something, anything, to get this over with. No, the key is to ensure that the end will be the result from a truly democratic process.

Postscript

The day after I wrote this blog, the Speaker of the House of Commons ‘plunged’ the government into ‘constitutional chaos’ by stopping the Prime Minister from resubmitting her same motion to the House unless it included substantial changes. Given the many constraints on the withdrawal agreement from the EC, the DUP, and various factions of the Conservative party, this threw a proverbial wrench into the machinery of the legislative process. But it brought home the degree that Brexit will be the outcome of an ecology of many games being simultaneously played by actors competing and cooperating to achieve a variety of other goals. And in contrast to board or parlour games, in the real world ecology of games, players can sometimes change the rules, as Speaker John Bercow did by invoking his interpretation of a rule from the 17th century. But this is democracy. It is how it works.