, , , , , ,

Exploring the work of OKFFI last week already gave us a glimpse of the mediatization of many facets of our lives, and of needs for new practices and regulation. This week’s post seeks to highlight some issues that may be novel to our field, and/or that may not be entirely new but that have become of uttermost importance, or that are issues facing us in the future. For each case, a media reform / internet rights effort will be highlighted:

NEW & NOW: Access

(Reading: W6: Mobile Leapfrogging.)

Access/right to information and communication has always been a site of concrete and discursive power struggles. (Think of the medieval times in Europe: Those who could read and write interpreted God’s will to lay people.) Ever since the the proliferation of the Internet, access to technology has become ever more crucial. For decades, we have discussed the so called digital divide, between the Global North and South (that still exists, see the Internet World Stats, as well as within countries (divides that are caused by age, geography, income).

But it seems that no matter how much more affordable technology and access become, some always have more access than others. As the reading (a policy brief for the New America Foundation) shows, Mobile Internet doesn’t allow quite the same opportunities than high speed broadband with the latest Mac.

This has been a concern for the SciDevNet – a news source for tech and science in development work.  Take a look at their amazing interactive visualization of what access and the lack thereof really meansPackaging information (hint hint!) is indeed a form of activism/advocacy.


NEW & NOW: Privacy

(Reading: W6: After Snowden.)

The rise of the so called Surveillance Society has been perhaps the biggest blow to digital utopians hoping for a more democratic, inclusive, and open world due to the Internet and mobile communications. As the technologist-anti-technologist Evgeny Morozov has famously noted, the very same platforms and apps that foster democratic action also can be used for control.

But it’s not only governments that take part in surveillance. That is made possible by intermediaries — different platforms and other service providers.

The Ranking Digital Rights is a new research-advocacy project that measures how well companies protect individuals.  It launched the inaugural Corporate Accountability Index early November 2015. In this first phase, the project has assessed 16 internet and telecommunications companies according to 31 specific indicators.

Reviewing the ranking results, good news is hard to find. The highest scoring companies, the internet giants Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Twitter, and the telecoms Vodafone and AT&T simply get a pass in securing users digital rights. But it is no surprise that corporate commitment to human rights pays off in practice. The companies that create policies to ensure digital rights, that collaborate with other stakeholders, and that assess their own actions and provide remedy, also fare well in securing users’ privacy.

The same could be said for the losers of the ranking: faring badly in one category means faring badly in most of them.  On privacy, as well as on the overall score, it was the Russian Mail.ru Ltd., with its VKontakte social network, Mail.ru email platform, and Mail.ru Agent messaging platform, that received fewer points than any other company in the entire Index. Given the national context of Mail.ru, this result is not surprising. For instance, Russian law requires all user data to be shared with authorities. As the project researchers note, ‘the line between government and private requests is generally blurry, creating strong disincentives for companies to disclose any type of requests for user data’.

Some unexpected results come from Europe. While data protection laws in the EU are stronger than those in the U.S. the two European companies assessed, Vodafone and Orange, disclose significantly less information about the data shared with the authorities than their American counterparts. In addition, the South Korean mobile platform company Kakao ranks relatively well, right after the big companies, and demonstrates that a serious regard to digital human rights is not only a Western quest by the giants. It can be effectively implemented elsewhere as well, by smaller, national telecoms. But, sadly, the most surprising observation is that not a single company of the total 16 shares any data or statistics on the volume or nature of content they remove, or on accounts being shut down in enforcement of terms of service.

SOON: The Internet of Things

(Reading: PEW Report on IoT, 2014.)

The Internet of Things (IoT) has been a buzzword for a while. One operational definition of it is:

[T]he seamless data flow between the

  • BAN (body area network): the ambient hearing aide, the smart t-shirt, Glass

  • LAN (local area network): the smart meter as a home interface

  • WAN (wide area network): Telematics, ITS, Connected Car

  • VWAN (very wide area network): the smart city as e-gov services everywhere no longer tied to physical locations

IoT is not an isolated issue but very much connected to other media reform/communication rights questions. As one interviewee of the PEW Report noted:

There will be absolutely no privacy, not even in the jungle, away from civilization. I don’t like this, but people have shown over and over again that they are willing to trade away their souls for a ‘$1 off’ coupon. Conversation, which includes not only words, but also movement, eye contact, hearing, memory and more, is such a holistic, pleasurable experience that people will not give it up easily.

Here’s how an expert from Demos Finland expressed the issue:


Another set of challenges is posed if we continue to think about the Internet of Things, or, as I think is more accurate, about the Sensor Revolution. If this phase isn’t thought through carefully, we will end up in a state of digital feudalism. All these developments, like the Amazon Dash Button, make our everyday lives so much more convenient and comfortable. But at some point we need to begin to question what this does to us as humans. If Tinder recommends a bride, and another site suggests the location at which we should get married… At which point do I make the decision? And the challenge is: Decision-making is a tough process and we’d love to avoid it as long and as often as we can.

The Internet is already almost like water. If it doesn’t flow, we’re in trouble. The discourse on [Internet] rights has taken interesting twists and turns, especially when much has been justified with freedom of expression. Those have been important discussions. But as radical as it may sound, I believe we must begin to bring some of the decision-making into the real of public policy, not only private enterprise. We need to guarantee access, and then we can begin to bring in the responsibilities that come with it, for organizations, businesses, as well as individuals.”

Some organizations are already looking into the future in terms of advocating good practices and sound governance decisions. The IoT Council is a Europe-based network-meets-think tank of over 300 experts from the academia and industry, discussing IoT and its numerous implications, from threats to privacy to ways to improve agriculture, disaster management, and other development issues.


SOON: Artificial Intelligence

(Reading: the documentary Transcendent Man.)


As science-fiction-like as it may sound, the biggest development debated right now is Artificial Intelligence. It is, as you will see, related to IoT, but takes the development even further. One of the most fascinating thinkers, futurists, is Ray Kurzweil. He has coined the term singularity:

The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.


There are differing views about timing, but many technologists expect AI to reach human capacity before 2060.  Kurzweil has made numerous predictions on the development of technology, and here’s what he predicted in 2005 for the 2010s:

  • The decade in which “Bridge Two”, the revolution in Genetics/Biotechnology, is to reach its peak. During the 2020s, humans will have the means of changing their genes; not just “designer babies” will be feasible, but designer baby boomers through the rejuvenation of all of one’s body’s tissues and organs by transforming one’s skin cells into youthful versions of every other cell type. People will be able to “reprogram” their own biochemistry away from disease and aging, radically extending life expectancy.

  • Computers become smaller and increasingly integrated into everyday life.

  • More and more computer devices will be used as miniature web servers, and more will have their resources pooled for computation.

  • High-quality broadband Internet access will become available almost everywhere.

  • Eyeglasses that beam images onto the users’ retinas to produce virtual reality will be developed. They will also come with speakers or headphone attachments that will complete the experience with sounds. These eyeglasses will become a new medium foradvertising which will be wirelessly transmitted to them as one walks by various business establishments.

  • The VR glasses will also have built-in computers featuring “virtual assistant” programs that can help the user with various daily tasks.

  • Virtual assistants would be capable of multiple functions. One useful function would be real-time language translation in which words spoken in a foreign language would be translated into text that would appear as subtitles to a user wearing the glasses.

  • Cell phones will be built into clothing and will be able to project sounds directly into the ears of their users.

  • Advertisements will utilize a new technology whereby two ultrasonic beams can be targeted to intersect at a specific point, delivering a localized sound message that only a single person can hear.

Many of the above predictions are here already. Many companies are indeed investing on AI and the examples of the uses are present in our everyday lives. There are plenty of debates about the benefits and risks. Some claim that the people creating the technology are the problem, not AI themselves. Others predict that AI may take over the human race. It’s then no surprise that Cambridge University (UK) has just established a centre for AI Ethics. That will be the new frontier of advocacy and policy.


Assignment and an Important Tip:

Please post below, as a comment, the 250-word (tentative, draft) abstract/executive summary of your Policy Brief! (Understandably, you will still work on your brief until the deadline. But just give us a glimpse of what you envision will be the result.) Remember to note for whom you are composing the brief.

A Tip: I received a very smart question about what the recommendations should be. Can one suggest something that is not directly derived from research or equivalent? A policy brief is most often, if not always, based on empirical evidence. It can be academic research, or, more applied work. In your case, you are most likely gathering research that exists about your topic. (Doing your own, original research within this timeframe would be rather difficult.) That said: Very seldom do academic research efforts offer direct policy  solutions. You, writing the brief, are the expert distilling the take-aways, suggestions for solutions, options for action,  from the research. As noted, there are cases and contexts in which your suggestions might be more general (“Finland should invest more on Open Knowledge public-private partnerships”) or more specific (“The Ministry of Education should create an anti-bullying online campaign for 2017, for all ala-aste level students, entailing the following elements: XX YY ZZ….”). It depends who you represent and  for whom you are repackaging the information. In addition to the resources in the instructions, here are some more examples and templates:



In sum

What do these new issues have to do with media reform? Once again: the borders between communication and other aspects of life are blurring. Now, more than ever, we need to have a broad look at information, communication, the media, and knowledge.
What do policy briefs have to do with it? Given the exponentially complex set of issues, and stakeholders, creating solution-oriented knowledge, and packaging it appropriately to relevant recipients, will be a major task for researchers in the future.