Vince Cable on internet regulation

In the years before the 2008 crash, Vince Cable built a reputation for seeing further ahead than most in politics and economics. Vince’s essay in the new Social Liberal Forum book “Four Go in Search of Big Ideas” enhances this record.

Writing before recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica, he identified: “the heart of the worries growing deeper about the data giants: that by filtering the information we receive they can influence not just the goods and services we consume but how we vote and, indeed, what we think”.

Vince sets out the threat to democracy: “Even if the owners of the platforms are benign and well-intentioned, the systems they have created and now monopolise may threaten democracy as we know it”. “Their systems can be used for surveillance by building up a profile of targeted individuals. Elections in many countries often revolve around which candidate has the largest, engaged, Facebook following while the US President’s Twitter following has become a means of short-circuiting the checks and balances built into media coverage”.

Vince’s concludes that “the Internet is being constructed around a handful of companies of immense and growing power, notably Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Netflix, along with their Chinese equivalents, Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu”. “We are dealing with a particular case of regulated natural monopoly. If there are historical parallels it is with nineteenth-century railway companies which dominated the economy and society of the regions they opened up”.

So, what is to be done? Vince’s key principle is: “the giant platform companies cannot continue to be allowed to dominate markets and many aspects of our lives as they currently do”.

He insists on “transparency. The algorithms used by the data companies and logs of the data fed into them should be available for inspection by regulators acting for democratically elected government.

“The companies will have an explicit legal responsibility for policing their platforms, be it for hate speech, pornography or terrorist activity and for reporting on their policing activity.

“Users to have a clear understanding of how their personal data will be used, and to protect their privacy (including ‘the right to be forgotten’).

“These interventions, combined with robust action by competition authorities to prevent the abuse of size, represent the first necessary steps to regulate the new data-based economy in the wider public interest than that of the handful of giant platform companies. It is better that this regulatory activity be taken at European or global than national level to prevent a fragmentation of the Internet and it is better that it allows for continued private sector innovation than stifles it”.

This short summary can’t do full justice to the detail of Vince’s analysis and his proposals. You’ll have to buy the book!

Vince’s essay “REGULATION AND COMPETITION IN THE WORLD OF DATAFICATION” appears in Four Go in Search of Big Ideas” available via the Social Liberal Forum website for £9-50, p &p included.

* Cllr Gordon Lishman is a member of the Federal Board and Acting Chair of the Social Liberal Forum, although neither body can be assumed always to agree with him,

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8 Comments

  • Andrew Daer 2nd Apr '18 - 10:08am

    The revelation that our minds can be read by algorithms developed by psychologists (using freely available data like our purchases or ‘likes’ in social media) and that this can then be used to individually target us with political messages we will find it hard to resist, is alarming. But the real threat to democracy is not that this happens – we all try to read the minds of voters when we are canvassing, and then try to tell them what we think they want to hear – but that a few rich men are paying for it, and that it can be done on a vast scale.
    I hope I am not alone in having recoiled in horror when I read Carole Cadwalladr’s interview with Arron Banks a few months ago. Told the Electoral Commission would be investigating irregularities by Leave campaigners (like him) during the EU referendum, he replied that he couldn’t care less. In his view, he’d won the vote, and the law of the land was something he felt able to dismiss with conspicuous (and completely intentional) contempt.
    The way democracy is supposed to work is that we all try to manipulate the minds of the voters, but doing it physically on the doorstep creates an equivalence between the commitment of the political parties and the outcome; if we have two canvassers in a particular constituency and Labour have 200, they are more likely to win. That seems broadly a fair way to ensure a kind of ‘democracy’.
    We now need laws (and very soon) to stop wealthy people like US citizen Robert Mercer and South African Arron Banks buying the outcome they want. Both are largely unknown to the British electorate, and have never had to reveal a manifesto. Allowing them to have a say in British elections or referendums is absurd.

  • I don’t buy into the argument. Also if it really is a huge factor then as young people as well as the professional middle classes use the social media the most extensively then logically they would be the most influenced. So if you believed to be true, then what would it actually say about voting patterns? What I see is another the great authoritarian moral panics that greets every newish technology especially those connected to mass communication . Fear and claims that people are being manipulated and that only those of moral fortitude can resist this terrible pull, thus control must be exerted by the great and the good to protect the weak minded masses from themselves. The other problem is that democratically elected governments do not always behave democratically, already have sweeping powers and are usually far from transparent or open to inspection themselves. I like Vince Cable a lot, but IMO he’s a bit off on this.

  • Laurence Cox 2nd Apr '18 - 11:33am

    I’m a bit alarmed at “the US President’s Twitter following has become a means of short-circuiting the checks and balances built into media coverage”. Is he really saying that politicians should not be allowed to say what they think if it has not been filtered through the media? Where would all our Lib Dem bloggers be if they were not allowed to blog their own views but had to rely on sending letters to their local newspaper in the hope of publication? How would we know about the level of anti-semitism in the Labour party if all we had to go on was the one Ken Livingstone interview on LBC? Is there really any difference between Donald Trump and Jonathan Calder tweeting apart from the number of their Twitter followers?

    I think that Vince is mixing up two issues: one is free speech, which I hope that other Liberals would support providing that it does not break the law in respect of hate speech, libel, defamation, etc. and the other is the dominance of a small number of internet companies which, like him, I see as a genuine problem.

  • Propaganda works not so much by delivering a convincing message of its own, but by denying access to alternative messaging; either by swamping alternatives through sheer volume, or by creating an atmosphere in which alternative viewpoints will not be listened to, or by creating an information bubble into which alternatives are simply never admitted, and, therefore, never heard.

    A model of information distribution and processing which ignores these facts in favour of a theoretical but non-existent “marketplace of ideas” is not going to produce any sort of fair regulation. It will simply sell captive minds to the highest bidder.

  • Andrew Daer 2nd Apr '18 - 12:23pm

    It’s interesting to see that some people don’t buy into the worry about social media, and targeted political messages. I’m afraid the facts are out there, whether or not you choose to believe them. Research by scientists like Daniel Kahneman and hit team demonstrate conclusively that influencing people’s decision-making is dead easy, if you know what you are doing. I don’t mean by offering convincing arguments they they weight up, I mean by ‘priming’ their thinking in ways they are unaware of. This is easily done with alarming messages (which can be either very selective versions of the truth, or blatant lies) for those whose (previously researched and evaluated) make-up responds to alarming messages.
    No-one is saying every voter is got at in this way, but with both the Trump win and the EU referendum the result was close enough for the effect to have been decisive.

  • Andrew Dear
    My point is that if the priming works it works both ways. It’s also a fact the groups most likely to vote Remain were the most likely to use social media a lot.

  • Vince’s concludes that “the Internet is being constructed around a handful of companies of immense and growing power, …. If there are historical parallels it is with nineteenth-century railway companies which dominated the economy and society of the regions they opened up”.

    Surely the parallel is with the news media, hence why Vince was opposed to Fox’s takeover of Sky. The internet, like the railways facilitated entities that previously were regional (eg. brewers and newspapers) to become national and in the case of the Internet global. The trouble is that with the Internet, taking the railway analogy, it would seem we are trying to run the country from the shire councils, without a central government and its enforcement agencies.

  • Phil Beesley 3rd Apr '18 - 4:09pm

    @Andrew Daer: “It’s interesting to see that some people don’t buy into the worry about social media, and targeted political messages. I’m afraid the facts are out there, whether or not you choose to believe them.”

    I believe that targeted messaging works. I’m unconvinced about internet theories.

    Andrew Daer: “Research by scientists like Daniel Kahneman and hit team demonstrate conclusively that influencing people’s decision-making is dead easy, if you know what you are doing.”

    The question is awkward many times. Firstly, psychologists argue about what people think. Secondly, they have to consider how people act on those thoughts.

    Andrew Daer: “This is easily done with alarming messages (which can be either very selective versions of the truth, or blatant lies) for those whose (previously researched and evaluated) make-up responds to alarming messages.”

    So easily done.

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