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.

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.

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The Chatham House Rule Should be the Exception

Can We Make the Chatham House Rule the Exception?

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May I quote you?

It is common to debate the definition and correct implementation of the Chatham House Rule. My issue is with its over-use. It should be used in exceptional cases, rather than being routinized as a norm for managing communication about meetings.

To be clear, the Chatham House Rule (singular) is: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”*

One of the central rationales of this rule was to enable more transparency by freeing governmental and other officials to speak without attribution.** Clearly, there are cases in which individuals cannot speak publicly about an issue given their position. Think about the many cases in which news sources do not wish to be identified by journalists. Similar situations arise in meetings, and it is good that The Chatham House Rule exists to use in just such occasions to promote greater transparency.

However, it is arguable that The Chatham House Rule is used in ways that do not promote transparency. For example, it is often misunderstood and used to prevent members of a meeting from conveying information provided at the meeting. Clearly, the original rule left participants ‘free to use the information’, just without identifying the source. This expansion of the Rule runs counter to the aim of the rule’s establishment.

In addition, all too often the Rule is invoked not because the content of a meeting is particularly sensitive, but because it creates a sense of tradition, and an aura of importance. It conveys the message that something important will be discussed at this meeting. However, the function of this is more in marketing a meeting rather than creating a safe setting for revealing secret, confidential, or new information.

A related rationale is that it is just ‘the way we do things’ – the tradition. In this case, there is likely to be no need for less transparency, but a case of blindly following tradition, resulting in information being inadvertently suppressed.

In many ways, the times are making The Chatham House Rule more problematic.

First, history is pushing us toward more transparency, not less. The spirit of the Rule should lead us to apply it only when necessary to open communication, such as around a sensitive issue, not to routinely regulate discussion of what was said in a meeting.

Secondly, the authenticity of information that comes out of a meeting is often enhanced by knowing more information about its source. If a new idea or piece of information is attributed to an individual, that individual can become a first source for authenticating what was said, and for follow up questions.

Thirdly, technical advances are making it less and less realistic to keep the source of information confidential. Leaks, recordings, live blogging and more are making transparency the norm of nearly every meeting. That is, it is better to assume that any meeting is public than to assume any meeting is confidential.

Over a decade ago, I once organized and chaired a meeting that included the UK’s Information Commissioner (the privacy commissioner, if you will), and it was conducted under The Chatham House Rule. At the break, I checked with my IT group about how the recording was going, as we were recording the meeting for preparing a discussion paper to follow. Lo and behold, the meeting was being Webcast! This made for a good laugh by the Commissioner and all when we reconvened, but it also reminded me that everyone should assume the default of a meeting in the digital world is that all is public rather than private.

Finally, there are better ways to handle information in today’s technical and political contexts. Personally, I usually record meetings that are about academic or applied matters, as opposed to meetings about personnel issues, for example. So if we convene a group to discuss a substantive issue, such as a digital policy issue like net neutrality, we let all participants know that presentations and discussions will be recorded. We do not promise that anything will be confidential, as it is not completely under our control, but we promise that our recording will be used primarily for writing up notes of the meeting, and that if anyone is quoted, they will be asked to approve the quote before it is distributed publicly.

Of course, when individuals request that something remains confidential, or confined to those present, then we do everything we can to ensure that confidentiality. (As with The Chatham House Rule, much relies on trust among the participants in a meeting.) But this restriction is the exception, rather than the rule. This process tends to ensure more accurate reports of meetings, enable us to quote individuals, who should get credit or attribution, and support transparency.

The Chatham House Rule was established in 1927 with Chatham House being the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. The worries at that time were more often about encouraging government officials to participate in a discussion about sensitive international concerns by assuring anonymity. Today there are still likely to be occasions when this rule could be useful in bringing people around the table, but that is likely to be exception and not the rule in the era of the Internet, distributed electronic conferencing, and live Tweeting.

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Chatham House, London

Notes

* https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule

** As noted by Chatham House: “The Chatham House Rule originated at Chatham House with the aim of providing anonymity to speakers and to encourage openness and the sharing of information. It is now used throughout the world as an aid to free discussion.” https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule

 

Broadening Conceptions of Mobile and Its Social Dynamics

Wonderful to see a chapter by me, Frank Hangler, and Ginette Law, entitled ‘Broadening Conceptions of Mobile and Its Social Dynamics’ in Chan, J. M., and Lee, F. L. F. (2017), Advancing Comparative Media and Communication Research (London: Routledge), pp. 142-170. It arrived at my office today.

The volume evolved out of an international conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2015. But the paper’s origins date back to a project that I did during my last months at Oxford in 2014, and early in my tenure at MSU, as the Principal Investigator with Ginette and Frank, of a project called ‘The Social Shaping of Mobile Internet Developments and their Implications for Evolving Lifestyles’, supported by a contract from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd to Oxford University Consulting. This led first to a working paper done jointly with colleagues from Oxford University and Huawei: Dutton, William H. and Law, Ginette and Groselj, Darja and Hangler, Frank and Vidan, Gili and Cheng, Lin and Lu, Xiaobin and Zhi, Hui and Zhao, Qiyong and Wang, Bin, Mobile Communication Today and Tomorrow (December 4, 2014). A Quello Policy Research Paper, Quello Center, Michigan State University.. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2534236 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2534236

The project moved me into a far better understanding and appreciation of the significance of mobile, but also its varied and evolving definitions. Before this paper, I was skeptical of academic work centered on mobile as I considered it one area of Internet studies. However, by the end of the project, I became convinced that mobile communication is a useful and complex area for research, policy and practice, complementary to Internet studies. In the working paper, we forecast the disappearance of the mobile phone device, which seemed far-fetched when we suggested this to Huawei, but is now becoming a popular conception. So look forward to a future in which that awkward scene of people walking along looking at their mobile will come to an end, in a good way.

This paper illustrates the often circuitous route of academic work from conception to publication, which is increasingly international and collaborative. So thanks to the editors, my co-authors, Oxford Consulting, and Huawei for your support and patience. Academic time is another world. But it was all worth doing and the wait.

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     Frank Hangler, Co-Author

 

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Ginette Law, Co-Author

Conference on Emerging Media at Peking University

The new department of Emerging Media at Peking University, Beijing, China, held a conference on 15 September 2017 on its subject, ‘Emerging Media’, subtitled Connection, Innovation, Transformation. Peking University is at the top of universities across China, so its establishment of this department about four years ago is reminiscent of Oxford University establishing the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) in 2001. I expect that this new department will have an even larger impact on the development of the field of Internet and new media studies across China and around the world. It was an honor to give one of the keynotes around our research on the political implications of search.

My thanks to the Dean, Professor XIE Xinzhou, and his colleagues at Peking University, including Professors WANG Xiuli (Charlene), Professor LI Wei and TIAN Lily, from Peking Un, and many helpful students, such as Rita Ji, who helped me throughout my stay. Their team pulled together colleagues from around the world, including James Katz (Boston College), S. Shyam Sundar (Penn State), Leopoldina Fortunati (Un of Udine), ZHOU Baohua (Fudan), WEI Ran (Un of South Carolina), Erik P. Bucy (Texas Tech), WANG Xiaoguang (Wuhan Un), ZHANNG Hongzhong (Beijing Normal Un), Kuang WenBo (Renmin Un), HAN Gang (Iowa State Un), Gil De Zoniga Homero (a former OII SDP student, now chaired professor at Un of Vienna), Eriko Uematsu (Musashino Gakuin Un), Neta Kligler-Vilenchik (Hebrew Un of Jerusalem), YU Nan (Un of Central Florida), and my former colleague while visiting the OII, Professor JIN Jianbain (Tsinghua Un).

They organized an engaging several days of talks and visits, such as to the Headquarters of Sina Weibo, giving all of us a personal sense of current developments around the Internet and social media in China.

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The 21st Century Science Challenge: Communication with the Public

On my last trip to China, I was meeting with a former social science colleague at Tsinghua University, Professor JIN Jianbin, who received a new research grant to study public perspectives on science, such as around research on genetically modified crops. Our conversation about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) quickly touched on a variety of other issues, such as the public’s acceptance of research on climate change, on which sizeable proportions of the public in China, the US and other nations often dismiss, if not distrust, scientific opinion.

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Bill Dutton and JIN Jianbin at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, 17 Sept 2017

Of course, some level of public distrust of scientific authorities is not new. I recall some famous work by political scientists in the US who studied the politics of conspiracy theories around the fluoridation of water that was prominent across American communities since the 1950s, but which – surprisingly – carries on to this day. So while it is not new, distrust of the political motivations behind scientific opinion is arguably growing.

Some indicators have suggested that diffuse public support for scientific institutions is not declining.[1] However, there is some limited and more recent evidence that universities and academics are being perceived as more partisan.[2] And anecdotally, science is increasingly questioned as biased by researchers who are claimed to be in the pockets of the sponsors of their research, illustrated by controversies over pharmaceutical research.

Such assaults on the integrity of science have led universities and research institutions to place a higher priority on the prevention and detection of conflicts of interest rising in the conduct of research. Finally, symptoms of this growing distrust seem evident in the divisions over a rising number of issues, with GMOs, climate change, vaccinations, and evolution, being among the more prominent. Perhaps the controversies surrounding science simply reflect the many issues that have broad public implications, such as for the digital economy or public health, while issues such as the moon landing were more removed from immediate public impact on the redistribution of resources.

The bad news is that these controversies are likely to slow progress, such as on efforts to reduce man made climate change. In some cases these controversies are dangerous, such as in leading parents not to vaccinate their school children.

However, there might be some positive outcomes here, if not good news. One positive outcome of this developing problem might be that scientists will place a greater priority on better explaining their work to a wider public. Already, the study of science communication is a burgeoning field around the world, illustrated by new research being launched by my colleague JIN Jianbin, Professor of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University in Beijing. And an increasing number of research councils and foundations stress the importance of public outreach.

Of course, scientists explain their research findings and their implications as a matter of practice. Not to be forgotten or dismissed is perhaps the most effective albeit long-term form of science communication, which is teaching in colleges and universities. Yet there are questions about whether top scientists, whatever their field, are as closely involved in teaching as they could be. For example, my former university, the University of Southern California, placed a priority on putting top senior scholars into the entry level undergraduate courses, which I thought was brilliant, but which is exceptional.

But arguably, most communication about scientific issues remains focused on peer-to-peer rather than public facing communication. Peer-to-peer communication is conducted   through journal publications and academic conferences and presentations. And when public facing, it is often limited to top-down or what I have called ‘trickle-down’ science, with scientists expecting their publications to be read and interpreted by others, and not themselves – the primary researchers.[3]

However, and here I could be wrong, it seems that the worse possible development might be what I see as a trend toward scientific persuasion, often based on appeals to authority and scientific consensus or by lobbying, such as through petitions, rather than by effective communication of research. Any scientist is quick to dismiss or place less credibility in appeals to authority. Why should the public be different? Where is the evidence? And once scientists move into the role of a lobbyist, petitioner, or activist, they diminish their credibility as scientists or researchers. Surely this kind of context collapse, when a scientist becomes political, or a doctor runs for a political office, invites the public to view scientists and academics as partisan political actors rather than scientific actors, and see them in ways that parallel other political actors and lobbyists.

How can scientists explain their work to a larger public? First, they need to recognize the need and value of effectively communicating their work to a broader public. This aim is rising across academia, such as in research councils insisting on research including components on outreach, and academic quality being judged increasingly by its impact. Unfortunately, this can sometimes drift into a tick box exercise in budgeting for conferences and seminars involving business and industry and the government, while serious efforts to communicate to the general public with an interest in the topic needs to be tackled directly. Academics need to guard against this tick box mentality.

Another concern is that this need for public outreach might simply lead to a greater focus on media coverage, getting the press to pick up stories on a scientist’s research. There is nothing wrong with this, universities love such coverage, and it can be helpful, but news coverage is generally overly simplistic, too often misleading, and potentially adding to the problems confronting good scientific communication. Researchers need to hold journalists and the media more accountable, and address inaccuracies or overly simplified messages in the press, cable news shows, and mass media.

Another, and a possibly more effective and more recently practical approach, is to communicate directly to the public. Join the conversation. Write reports on your research findings that are understandable to those in the educated public that might be seriously interested in your work now or in the future. You can reach opinion leaders in your areas of research, and thereby foster effective two-step flows of communication to the general public. Don’t worry about a mass audience, but aim to reach a targeted audience of those with a serious interest in your topic. When they search online for information about your topic, make sure that accessible presentations of your research will be found.

Unfortunately, too many academics are taught not to join the conversation, and to avoid blogging or writing for a general audience. Instead, they are taught to focus more than ever on only reaching the top peer reviewed journals in their field and being read and cited by their peers. As noted above, this too often leads to a weak form of trickle down science, which is not in the long-term interest of the scientific enterprise.

We should question this conventional wisdom in academia. Personally, I don’t believe there is a necessary risk to scientific publishing by also trying to communicate to a more general audience. That is what teachers do, and when researchers try to teach and communicate with their students, they can find problems with their arguments, and ways to improve how they convey their ideas.

So – scientists – offer up your best ideas to the public, not as your peers, but as smart and educated individuals who do not know about your work – even why it is relevant. Some of my most meaningful experiences with communication about my research have been exactly when I – focused on Internet studies – sat next to a physicist or mathematician over a meal who asked me about my research and vice versa. What am I working on? Why is it important? If we can do this over lunch or dinner, we can do it for a larger public online.

Perhaps this is more difficult than it sounds, but we need to accept the challenge. Arguably, the scientific challenge of the 21st century is effective communication to the larger public.

References

[1] See: https://www.nap.edu/read/21798/chapter/4#12

[2] See: https://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/annabel-scott/pew-poll-majority-republicans-think-colleges-have-negative-impact-us

[3] Dutton, W. (1994), ‘Trickle-Down Social Science: A Personal Perspective,’ Social Sciences, 22, 2.