To Fix the Internet, Look to How It’s Built

December 22, 2020

Nearly 20 years ago, the world learned of the 9/11 terrorist attacks through traditional media. While some news organizations had rudimentary websites, first-person accounts were recounted on Blogger, and a three-year-old Google could help find information about the events, the first social media companies were still years away and the internet was a fundamentally different place than it is today. 

That same year, 2001, political science professor Ron Deibert saw something of critical importance in this nascent technology. While an emerging field of internet studies was looking at the ways in which the World Wide Web was changing how we communicate, organize and express ourselves, Deibert focused his attention on how it was built. Influenced by famed communications scholar Harold Innis’s notion of materiality (the idea that the physical properties of the systems through which we communicate play a role in how those systems are used, and ultimately in the character of the discourse itself), Deibert built a new research institution called the Citizen Lab, to study the physical infrastructure of the internet. Doing so demanded a whole new way of collecting data and studying the design of our digital infrastructure, which included collaborating with computer scientists, hackers and developers to help us understand how this system works, and deploying new forms of infrastructure analysis and data collection. The goal, he describes in his recent book, Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society, was “to dig beneath the surface of our communications ecosystem and uncover the exercise of power that goes on in the subterranean realm.”

Long before most scholars, and certainly most politicians, were attuned to the vulnerabilities and potential harms embedded in the ways our technologies work, Deibert and his team were using innovative methods to reveal just this. They have shown how the design of technology, not simply the behaviour or intentions of those who use it, influence how it is used and abused. One of the key insights from Deibert and the Citizen Lab’s work over the past 20 years is that there are core vulnerabilities in our digital infrastructure that leave citizens open to abuses of power. These abuses can come from individuals, criminal organizations, or, as has often proven the case, both illiberal and democratic nation-states.

In 2018, the Citizen Lab found itself with a unique window into the murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government. The lab had been tracking the use of sophisticated spyware developed by an Israeli company called NSO Group. The tool that NSO Group developed could be secretly placed on a cellphone and then record everything done with the phone, even accessing its microphone and camera. The spyware was used by autocratic governments to crack down on civil society groups. Researchers at the lab developed a way to track the trackers and learned that an infected phone was based in Montreal. When they found the user, it turned out to be a high-profile Saudi YouTuber named Omar Abdulaziz, who had been communicating with Khashoggi. The day after a Citizen Lab report detailing Saudi use of this spyware to track dissidents was published, Jamal Khashoggi was reported missing. Days later, the world would learn that he had been killed and dismembered with a bone saw by the Saudi government.

It is, of course, not just autocrats who use these tools. Deibert’s work was also at the centre of revelations by Edward Snowden, the Central Intelligence Agency subcontractor who, in 2013, leaked classified information revealing the US government’s surveillance of its own population. The Citizen Lab was one of a handful of global research institutions that worked with the Snowden data, helping journalists to understand and contextualize its implications. In democratic societies, how these technologies are abused by the governments that we as citizens empower ultimately reflects on our society as a whole. As Deibert says of the Snowden disclosures in his latest book, they “offered not only a window into secret state spying … they offered a window into ourselves.”

Deibert’s investigations, and that of the Citizen Lab, drill to the core of the harms that can originate from the design of our digital infrastructure. As such, Deibert is uniquely positioned to speak to our current moment — one in which our social media infrastructure sits precariously atop an already shaky digital foundation, where it is creating a new set of problems.

And this is what Deibert speaks to in his book Reset. Building on two decades of work studying our digital infrastructure, he is sounding an alarm bell about this new layer of problems and the “painful truths” about social media. In Reset, Deibert presents a damning indictment that is, simply, how the biases inherent in the design influence the nature and character of discourse on the platform, and the behaviour of its users and those with power over them.

First, Deibert argues that the financial model developed by platform companies, which Shoshana Zuboff has framed as “surveillance capitalism,” has led to perverse incentives that direct how information flows through society. Second, he argues that these tools are built to addict us, leading to a wide range of mental health problems. Third, these platforms, along with a far wider range of internet-based tools, are wide open to enabling abuses by autocratic and democratic governments alike — whether it be Saudi Arabia’s murdering of a journalist, China’s detainment of Uighur Muslims, the use of facial recognition software by US Customs and Border Protection, or the employment of Amazon Ring camera data by local police departments. Finally, Deibert argues that these infrastructures are also causing widespread ecological problems, from the astonishing energy demands of machine-learning algorithms (training a single artificial intelligence model can emit more than 600,000 pounds of carbon), to the toxic e-waste from devices that is polluting landfills. 

I spend a lot of time working in the policy community developing solutions to these problems. But this conversation, in what is often called the field of platform governance, suffers from two challenges. The first is that it can become stuck in critique. For too long, concerns about the harms being caused by these technologies were dismissed by governments, citizens and, of course, the companies themselves. It’s therefore critically important for those concerned about these harms to raise awareness to them. But this awareness has largely been achieved. As Deibert’s book documents, these harms are clear, and now fairly widely understood. 

Second, the policy discourse around platforms can easily descend into a long list of potential solutions, each disconnected from one other, siloed in government departments, often contradicting each other, and without a guiding ideological or philosophical framework. This breadth and diversity of policies occurs simply because our digital infrastructure touches and shapes so much of our social, political and economic activity. A policy agenda seeking to engage with it must include a vast range of initiatives, ranging from hate speech laws and data privacy reforms to trust busting. But these are too often discussed without an underlying purpose or rationale. 

And here again Reset offers guidance. Deibert returns to materiality, this time grounded in liberal theory. “Republican theorists,” he argues, “recognized unambiguously that material factors play a major role in shaping political outcomes and practices, and should account for and sometimes adapt to these factors with institutional innovations.” But these material circumstances, much like the evolution of the internet, change over time, and as such, “particularly related to technological innovation, can throw up challenges to or even make obsolete the rational restraints of prior eras.”

To address this disconnect, Deibert argues that we should follow the republican notion of restraint. We need to develop measures that restrain government abuse of technology. Democratic governments need policies that restrain corporate abuses of monopoly power and control over our communications platforms. And, perhaps most importantly, citizens must be enabled to themselves ensure that the core, empowering values of the internet remain embedded in the tools built on it. For more than 20 years we have barrelled forward in our development and adoption of digital technologies. Governments have stepped back, and let the free market move fast and break things. As in previous periods of technological innovation, we have reached a moment when it is time to figure out how to bring these new systems into our norms, regulations and laws of democratic governance. To restrain them.

This philosophical framework, based on two decades of research into the nature of our digital technologies, will, I hope, guide the ambitious policy agenda emerging in governments around the world.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Taylor Owen is a CIGI senior fellow and the host of Big Tech with Taylor Owen. He is an expert on the governance of emerging technologies, journalism and media studies, and on the international relations of digital technology.