Ben Scott On the Internet’s Evolving Role in Politics

Season 1 Episode 8
Ben Scott on the Internet’s Evolving Role in Politics

S1E8 / February 13, 2020


In this episode of Big Tech Taylor Owen sits down with Ben Scott, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Luminate, to discuss how the internet has evolved throughout Scott’s time in Washington, DC. Scott has worked for Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the State Department and then on her election campaign. Discussing Scott’s evolving role in digital policy, Owen says: “wherever the internet has been, you have been.”

While working on cable regulations in Washington DC in 2003, Scott realized that the internet was the next major form of communication technology, sparking an interest in net neutrality regulations. “And then in a very short period of years before it [the internet] becomes monetized and concentrated power takes it over, it becomes controlled by a handful of commercial interests and then people give up trying to fight against that and that becomes status quo. And we had intervened at that moment, stopped cable and telecom industries from grabbing hold of the internet and kept it decentralized.” Scott joined Barack Obama’s presidential campaign to draft the first ever internet policy agenda for a presidential candidate.

While in the State Department, Scott saw the spread of the internet and its ability to promote democracy and enable societal change — the Arab Spring for example. During the same period, platform companies continued to grow their influence in Washington DC, and eventually, Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign illustrated just how easily the internet could be manipulated. As Scott puts it: “if everybody's using the same tools of online manipulation and distortion and organized amplification of messages that don't actually have that much support in the public, if you are willing to go totally over the top with the most outrageous, the most sensational, the most divisive, the most controversial, provocative — that, ultimately those messages spread farther, faster than anything else.”


This transcript was completed with the aid of computer voice recognition software. If you notice an error in this transcript, please let us know by contacting us here.


Ben Scott: Did everything we did over the last 10 years to promote this technology of open markets for speech and commerce all around the world lead us to a moment where that technology, which we thought was democratizing and liberating actually hijacked that democracy and turned it into a machine of social control that could be either sold to the highest bidder or hijacked by fraudsters and conmen?


Taylor Owen: Hi welcome to the Big Tech podcast, I'm Taylor Owen. And you'll notice that we're doing something a little bit different this time, or rather I'm doing something a little bit differently this time. I'm alone, Dave isn't with us and that's because I recently had the chance to be a part of a conference run by parliamentarians around the world called the grand committee on disinformation and fake news. And they've actually held this a number of times first in the UK than in Canada and this latest time in Dublin. And so alongside this event we helped organize a workshop of academics and researchers and policy practitioners from around the world to help this parliamentary committee think through this is pretty wicked problem. When I was there in Dublin, I had the chance to speak to a couple of real leading voices in this conversation around platform and internet governance and I'm going to bring you over the next couple of weeks to have those conversations. So the first one was with a close friend and collaborator of mine named Ben Scott. Ben has had a long career really at the front lines of internet policy. He began it working for an organization called Free Press in Washington, D.C. which was really one of the leading advocates for net neutrality in the open internet in the early days of the internet. He then worked in the state department when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State and when she was really pushing the digital global foreign policy agenda. She called it the 21st century statecraft agenda, which Ben was a part of drafting and leading and it was the time of the Arab Spring when there was a real optimism about both how American foreign policy could use digital technologies and just more broadly the emancipatory and democratizing power that these technologies could have. He then went on to work on her presidential campaign when she ran against Trump. And after that happened, he had a bit of a change of heart around how he viewed not just the potential positive aspects of the internet, but some of the downside risks. He saw how this space could be weaponized in this case, in a political campaign, in a way that raised some real red flags for him. And probably signalled that as you'll hear in the conversation that it needed to be governed better. Ben now works for a large foundation called Luminate, which was founded by Pierre Omidyar, who was the founder of eBay and Luminate funds democracy work often at the intersection of technology and democratic empowerment around the world. And this has put Ben at the centre of a really fascinating conversation now at the moment about how governments in a comprehensive way are going to govern digital technologies and govern platforms. Like you'll hear us talk about at the beginning of the conversation, this has put Ben again at the centre of internet tech regulation and at a place he has been since those early days at Free Press. Ben is one of the most thoughtful people I know on this topic of how we are going to govern the internet. And so it's a treat to bring you this conversation. Without further ado, here is Ben Scott.


Taylor Owen: So Ben, thanks for coming on Big Tech podcast.

Ben Scott: Happy to be on.

Taylor Owen: I've got a theory about Ben Scott that I want to bounce off you.

Ben Scott: This I want to hear.

Taylor Owen: I think you embody or your career has been bodied or mirror the internet.

Ben Scott: I'm like the Forrest Gump of internet history.

Taylor Owen: Where the internet has been you have been.

Ben Scott: Sometimes accidentally.

Taylor Owen: Right. I don't know if that's true or not, but let's test it out by talking through some of the things you've worked on because I do think actually at different points in the last 20 years have been involved in the way the internet was being used for politics, for social change, the way it was being abused, and now working through how we might fix it. So I think it'd be really instructive to walk people through that arc because we really tend to often think of the internet as this static thing that just exists or digital technologies or whatever they are right now. And that's really not true in the case of this, right? It's been a lot of things over the last 20 years.

Ben Scott: That's true. And I have to say I didn't come to the work of technology policy as a technologist, I came as a historian. I wasn't really interested in the internet per se, I was interested in media and democracy. What are the ways in which information markets, whether they are newspaper or radio or television or internet, what's the way in which the way information is delivered to people influences their political views, their voting behaviour, their identity, their relationship with their community, the way they think about others in their society or outside their society, all media driven phenomenon. So I was as a student really interested in these paradigm shifts and what happens when for the first time you have a mass circulation newspaper and suddenly millions of people can literally read the same copy every day. And then what happens in the 1930s when radio becomes widely distributed and for the first time a large majority of the population can literally hear the same voice at the same time.


Radio Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of United States,
President Roosevelt: My follow Americans of all the Americas, my friends, I am speaking tonight from the White House in the presence of the governing board of the Pan-American Union, the Canadian minister and their family. Well now as never before, the unity of the American Republics is of supreme importance to each and every one of us and to the cause of freedom throughout the world...
SOURCE: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
Radio address announcing proclamation of an unlimited National Emergency
May 27, 1941
Washington, DC


Ben Scott: This was one of the central persuasive elements of the Roosevelt presidency was his mastery of radio as a technology for communicating directly with the people. And then you saw, of course, the rise of colour television in the Kennedy and Nixon debate rather iconic. And you can study all these moments which you call to mind the importance of media and democracy. And so when I came to Washington for the first time-

Taylor Owen: When was that?

Ben Scott: It was 2003 which seems like a million years ago now, but that's when the second Iraq War had just started.

Taylor Owen: Halfway through the Bush.

Ben Scott: It’s halfway through the Bush administration, 9/11 has occurred, the US is top of the Taliban, and now you have this bizarre play where suddenly we're about to invade Iraq and no one's quite sure why.


George Bush: While there are many dangers in the world, the threat from Iraq stands alone because it gathers the most serious dangers of our age in one place. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are controlled by a murderous tyrant...
SOURCE: The White House of President George W. Bush Archive
President Bush Outlines Iraqi Threat
October 7, 2002
Cincinnati, OH


Ben Scott: And suddenly it turns out, oh yeah, there are no weapons of mass destruction and the press were misled, and there's this great crisis of confidence in the media around 2003 where a large number of people realized something's happened in the media. It's no longer representing the world in the way that we need it to in order to have a functional democracy. We can't trust it. We don't see ourselves. What's happened here? And the analysis was at the time that we've allowed the media to concentrate into the hands of too few people.

Taylor Owen: And it was co opted by the elite, right?

Ben Scott: Yeah.

Taylor Owen: And a consensus.

Ben Scott: Well this, remember it was a time when Rupert Murdoch was the King in the Hill in the media industry and had both newspaper and broadcast properties. It was the early years of Fox News real rise to prominence. The creation of alternative media ecosystems that were no longer connected to any kind of Walter Cronkite ideal of a common public sphere.

Taylor Owen: It's still in a cable and broadcast medium, right?

Ben Scott: Very much so, and in retrospect, given the concentration of power over distribution of information that we have now, it's kind of quaint that at that time we thought we had major concentration of power, but my early time in Washington was all about, how do we respond to this crisis of the press around the public's realization that government had taken us into under false pretences and that the media had both enabled and validated those politics. And there was a real backlash against concentrated power in the media.

Taylor Owen: And part of it was like a blogging backlash. I was a PhD student at the time and I was really involved with the Daily Kos and Josh Marshall and Ezra Klein and all these people cutting their teeth in this narrative that they could talk about issues in the way the media couldn't or wouldn't.

Ben Scott: It was early days of the blogosphere, the early days of the Netroots, another quaint phrase from recent history. But that was a time when really for the first time there were new voices in political media that did not rely on print or broadcast to find an audience. People woke up to the idea that the internet could be an alternative means of political discourse. It was the moment of peak utopianism in the internet discourse about how the internet was going to break down the traditional barriers to entry to broadcast and print. It was going to route around the press and broadcast barons who had controlled the relationship between media and democracy for decades, for better and worse. And who at that moment seem to be bearing the weight of guilt for going to war under false pretences, disrupting the Middle East for what looked like the generation of turbulence.


Bernie Sanders: Since the war in Iraq began, we have lost 790 men and women, over 4,500 had been wounded and we are spending billions every month...
SOURCE: C-SPAN Video Library
US House of Representatives, House Session, Bernie Sanders speaks about Iraq War
May 19, 2004
Washington, DC


Ben Scott: I went to work for this little known Congressman, a socialist from Vermont named Bernie Sanders.

Taylor Owen: Nothing happened to him.

Ben Scott: Not that I know. He's forgotten from history now .

Taylor Owen: He's so old, he could never still be around.

Ben Scott: It's funny, when I went to work for Bernie, he seemed in this curmudgeonly old grandpa, but...

Taylor Owen: Like the young old guy?

Ben Scott: Yeah, the young old guy. That's a good way of putting it. He spent all of his time just thinking about how to make the maximum possible difference as a politician in the House of Representatives at a time when Tom DeLay controlled the Republican House caucus, the Democrats had no access to power at all, much less the socialist who didn't even caucus with the Democrats. And yet Bernie managed to get things done by finding unusual ways to partner with strange bedfellows in the house. Taught me everything I knew then about the way politics works, the way the American government works. The unbelievable disparity between the Schoolhouse Rock's version of how democracy in America works and the reality of how power is transacted on Capitol Hill. And it was a real wake up call and can't say enough about how much I learned in those days.

Taylor Owen: So what was the flip from or the evolution from broadcast policy to the internet then in those early Democratic Movement days of the United...?

Ben Scott: So after two, three, four years of banging my head against the wall on broadcasting and cable. I left the Hill after a couple of years with Bernie and helped start a group called Free Press, which has now been around nearly 15 years and tried to build a public interest NGO that could both inform and organize a large constituency around the country as well as be sophisticated policy advocates in Washington. And came to the conclusion that, while we might be able to use public policy to stop broadcasting and cable from getting worse, we were unlikely to make it better. That it was a mature industry, it had established market power dynamics, and to compete against those lobbies in Washington to make radical changes to the rules that would fundamentally open broadcasting and cable to new entrance and new voices and diversification was nearly impossible. It was like a fool's errand. There was no way to do it and so we were fighting a rear guard action during the Bush administration and we were-

Taylor Owen: Which wasn't predisposed to break up.

Ben Scott: Absolutely not. In fact, they were completely against us. You may recall Colin Powell, who was Secretary of State notoriously gave a speech at the UN justifying the Iraq War. His son was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission that had control over all the broadcasting and cable rules and Michael Powell, who I came to know later and I personally find a really nice guy. I like him, although we disagreed on a lot of things, there was no way to make those changes happen. And so, I remember going to the board at Free Press and saying, "I know we all came here as meeting democracy advocates to work on broadcasting and cable, but what we really need to be doing is we need to be getting involved in the creation of internet policy, which is happening right now." These are the early days of the internet, this is the moment when, if you're going to get involved in a paradigm shift of media and democracy, you want to be in on the ground floor and you want to help design the rules that make it possible to have diversity, to have the kinds of characteristics in your media system that actually support democracy. You don't want to get into it once it's all said and done and you have massive corporate power protecting monopoly and oligopoly, you want to get in early-

Taylor Owen: We'll get to that.

Ben Scott: ... now's our chance. So it was a very heady time. It was a feeling that we could as public interest advocates in non-profit organizations shape the future of the internet. And it was an entirely different landscape. And we're talking about 2005, 2006. It wasn't that long ago. But I remember going to visit the very first Google employee in Washington. They hired a lawyer to be their lobbyist in Washington. One guy.

Taylor Owen: Wow.

Ben Scott: I went to visit him and they had rented this cavernous office in downtown Washington, which no doubt they intended to populate over time and he was sat in the very back at this giant desk all by himself. And we were joking about how had such a great reputation, but absolutely no power in Washington, no influence over any policy. They were getting kicked around by the telecoms and the cable guys and the broadcasters and I actually offered to loan him a couple of my lawyers from non-profit because he seemed so pathetic there all by himself.

Taylor Owen: Should take an equity cut.

Ben Scott: Yeah, times have changed, but it was in those days that we came across this idea that we really need to protect the internet as an open equal platform so that no matter who you were, whether you were man on the street or Rupert Murdoch, you had absolutely the same chance of having your voice heard online that there was no way for the owners of the physical infrastructure of the internet, the cable companies, the mobile companies, the telecommunications companies, they had no way of interfering or choosing winners and losers online.

Taylor Owen: That was the Net Neutrality Movement, right?

Ben Scott: So this idea of an open, equal internet had been written up in a little known law review paper by a Columbia law professor named Tim Wu, which didn't really get any attention. And we discovered it I think in 2003 or 2004 and started thinking about this idea called Net Neutrality and ultimately decided this is the thing we want to carry. This is what we want to put into law. The internet fundamentally was built on a net neutral premise, but because it wasn't a matter of law, it was only a matter of time before technology evolved to the point that you could control the flow of traffic online and pick winners and losers if you own the network. And so we knew that we have a certain number of years where we have to get Net Neutrality into the law. Otherwise, the cable companies and the telecommunications companies are going to own what happens online in the same way that they own what happens on cable TV. They're going to cablify the internet.

Taylor Owen: That was a conversation about infrastructure and regulating infrastructure of what happens on the infrastructure of the internet, but then with the Obama campaign, it seems to me and some of the rise of the social media platforms that happened around the same time, the discussion shifted to what you could do with the internet, not what the infrastructure was and so how did you get involved in that transition from the regulatory backbone to how do you use this for political change, for social change?

Ben Scott: It may seem naive to say it now, but we at that time felt like if we want a net neutrality that the internet would naturally evolve in a way that supported democracy. That would be fundamentally tilted towards social welfare and social justice and the diversity of voices because it was such a different medium than broadcasting and cable. There was no broadcaster who could decide what got on TV that night. There was no cable company that could decide your channel is going to be in my lineup and yours isn't. Everybody was going to have an equal chance. By the end of the Bush administration, we had more or less one on net neutrality. It wasn't yet law, but we weren't losing anymore. And the value of the open internet was beginning to show for everybody. And then you had the 2006-

Taylor Owen: People trying to actually use it on mass.

Ben Scott: ... that's right. So then you had the first really internet based presidential campaign, which was the 2008 campaign. And you had the first real tech savvy presidential candidate in Barack Obama. And in the early days of the Obama Campaign, he was competing against Hillary Clinton and there were very few observers who thought he could win.

Taylor Owen: Were you working on the Clinton campaign then?

Ben Scott: No. The Obama campaign at that time in late 2007 as we were headed towards the Iowa caucuses, the first vote in the nation in January, 2008 was way behind in the polls, they're way behind the fundraising and their great asset was they had a candidate who was a charismatic speaker and who could sound intelligent on any issue under the sun if presented with evidence and arguments about what he should say. And so the campaign went around and instead of going to all the lobbyists and asking for their ideas and their chequebooks, they went around to all the NGO guys and said, "Hey, we have this candidate who's really interested in ideas and if you'll come on board and support our candidate, we will let you get involved in drafting the policies that you're experts on." And a lot of us said, "Yes." And so in our personal capacities, we started volunteering in the campaign. In late 2007 we wrote the first ever internet policy agenda for a presidential candidate.


Barack Obama: We have to ensure free and full exchange of information and that starts with an open internet. I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality...
SOURCE: Barack Obama YouTube Channel
Barack Obama on network neutrality at Google Campus
November 14, 2007
Mountain View, CA


Ben Scott: Barack Obama gave numerous speeches on the campaign trail about technology policy.

Taylor Owen: Yeah, I remember that and wondering like "Where is that coming from?"

Ben Scott: He famously said he would "take a back seat to no one on net neutrality" while standing on the Google campus. Not only did he say all the right things, he really understood it and he liked it. Which, if you've ever worked for a politician, that's the glorious trifecta. They understand it.

Taylor Owen: And they want ideas, yeah.

Ben Scott: They believe it, and they really liked the issue. So Obama had all that and he really embraced technology as a cornerstone of the campaign. And those were the early days of, "Can we use social media to raise money? Can we use online organizing to have a larger and larger communities attach themselves to the campaigns and self organize issue groups that are loosely or connected to some policy issue another candidate is talking about. And it was extraordinarily successful. And one of the people who really thought the internet had done it for Barack Obama, was Hillary Clinton.

Taylor Owen: She saw it.

Ben Scott: She saw it happen and saw that he had something that she didn't, which was an understanding of how to harness the power of the internet as an organizing, as a communications tool, as a fundraising tool. And then when they put their differences aside and he named her as secretary of state, she went to presidential personnel and she said, "I don't have these technology policy people in Clinton end as you can see from my campaign and I want some of your guys. And so a few of us, four of us went over to work in Secretary Clinton's office at the State Department, despite the fact that none of us had any Foreign Policy experience. And I remember very clearly her saying, "I don't care that none of you are foreign policy experts." She said, "Look around you, you're at the State Department surrounded by foreign policy experts. You want to know anything about any country in the world, just start knocking on doors. What I don't have here are people who understand the way the internet is going to change foreign policy and that's why you're here and that's what you're responsible for." And so we were charged with developing a foreign policy that looked at the internet as a tool to advance America's diplomatic and development goals. And there was no real reason to question the idea that what was good for the internet was good for America. This is old adage from the post war period and what was good for GM was good for America and that the manufacturing agenda dominated American foreign policy in the post war period. At that time, the technology industry's foreign policy was indistinguishable from the American government's foreign policy because it was really taken for granted that this was a technology that was going to spread freedom and open markets for communication than commerce. And Hey, it didn't hurt anything that all the companies that had-

Taylor Owen: We're also American.

Ben Scott: ... these services to provide were American companies and it was going to be good for business.

Taylor Owen: And it was like fundamentally democratizing. I mean, it went beyond even just commercial expansion and free speech and and revolutionary change and democratizing...

Ben Scott: This was a time when you hardly saw a political movement formed around the world that didn't have the internet at its centre. The Arab Spring happens in that time.

Taylor Owen: You guys really involved in that ?

Ben Scott: Very much so.


Hillary Clinton: During the previous four days, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians had marched to demand a new government. Pictures and videos from Egypt flooded the web. On Facebook and Twitter, journalists posted on the spot reports. Protestors coordinated their next moves and citizens of all stripes shared their hopes and fears about this pivotal moment in the history of their country. Then the government pulled the plug...
SOURCE: George Washington University YouTube Channel
Secretary Hillary Clinton's Internet Freedom Speech at George Washington University
February 15, 2011
Washington, DC


Ben Scott: In 2011 when Hillary Clinton gives her first big speech on internet freedom and announces that as a key part of her tenure as secretary. The foreign policy establishment greeted that with derision. It was totally misunderstood, it was felt that she had taken a bottom tier issue and put it on top of the heap. This was proof she didn't understand international relations, but then you know, after WikiLeaks released the cables and the Arab Spring showed the importance of the internet as a tool of political and social organizing, that all changed very, very rapidly. Looking back now I can see that we were just way too optimistic about how much the internet lean towards democratic outcomes. It's not like we were blind to the idea that the internet opened the door for cyber attack or that there was-

Taylor Owen: Corruption by regime.

Ben Scott: ... we were not blind to the fact that Chinese were using it for social control and surveillance. We were not naive about the amount of bad content and illegal activity that was happening online even right next to all of the positive social and political organizing and the distribution of knowledge and the opportunities for economic growth that technology provided, but we felt like on balance, the preponderance of evidence showed that the good vastly outweighed the bad and that we needed to therefore promote the heck out of these technologies, get them as widely distributed as possible at an affordable, as price as possible, get as many services as possible distributed. And at the time it felt like that was not just a progressive policy agenda, but a way to accelerate a process of social and political change that we felt was democratizing that was unprecedented. This was the ground floor of that paradigm shift that I was talking about earlier. This was that moment that-

Taylor Owen: It'd be actualized.

Ben Scott: We were actualizing.

Taylor Owen: It was the actualization of what happened as a result of net neutrality, right? Like this is the manifestation of it.

Ben Scott: There are these moments in time where it seems like it could get put into a market structure that's decentralized that could empower people, and then in a very short period of years it becomes monetized, concentrated power takes it over, it becomes controlled by a handful of commercial interests and then people give up trying to fight against that and that becomes status quo. And we had intervened at that moment, stopped cable and telecom industries from grabbing hold of the internet and kept it decentralised and that this was the payoff for winning that fight.

Taylor Owen: So the irony in that is that at the same time as all of these empowering aspects of the infrastructure or the infrastructure is enabling all this empowerment, both positive and negative and states were doing good and bad things on top of that, and there was this tension between the two. There was another emerging power, which was a new concentration of media, right? Of internet platform companies. And that also happened within the arc of the Obama administration, right? We went from a very different type of internet architecture to one where we had the seeds and the core players that would become these big dominant concentrations of power, which was exactly what you were fighting in the cable world.

Ben Scott: Yes.

Taylor Owen: So how did that happen?

Ben Scott: Part of it is that we got used to playing on the same team with Silicon Valley and for a while it seems like the interests of Democratic government and large technology companies were aligned. What those companies wanted was to be able to deliver products and services all around the world that enabled people to get access to knowledge, communicate with one another.

Taylor Owen: What's not to like?

Ben Scott: What's not to like. And as a result of that, we did a lot of work together with the technology industry. It wasn't just that they were partners formally, there was a lot of movement of people between the industry and government. A lot of Silicon Valley people were attracted by Barack Obama as a leader came to Washington, never would have done so otherwise came and worked in government. That is, I think, part of the reason why we were blind to the concentration of power that was growing in that industry is because we didn't see it because we were so busy working on all the positive aspects of it. And it wasn't really until the end of the Obama administration. As the Trump campaign began to build momentum, that people started to wake up to the reality that there is a point at which a social media dominated public sphere is so distorted by those who figured out how to use those tools effectively.

Taylor Owen: You worked with the Hillary campaign, so here's somebody who spends six years in state, however long it was with this team of super smart internet savvy people spreading this gospel around the world and then she misses the next evolution of the internet. How did, how did that happen?

Ben Scott: Well, there were two things going on there broadly speaking. One was there was still a lot of faith in, that's called the self corrective digital public sphere.

Taylor Owen: Yeah.

Ben Scott: That if you just put all the ideas out there and let people wrestle around with them, ultimately the trolls would get shouted down and the best ideas would emerge and that reasonable people would see the difference between right and wrong.


Hillary Clinton: Well I hope...
Donald Trump: You called it the gold standard of trade field, you said the finest deal you've ever seen.
Hillary Clinton: You know what? No.
Donald Trump: And then you heard what I said about it and all of a sudden you were against it.
Hillary Clinton: Well Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts. The facts are, I did say I hope...
SOURCE: CBS New York YouTube Channel
Hofstra University Presidential Debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
September 26, 2016
Hempstead, NY


Ben Scott: If you remember the Clinton V Trump debates, she would not try to engage his steady stream of nonsense. She would simply refer people to a fact checking.


Hillary Clinton: I kind of assumed that there would be a lot of these charges and claims and so have taken the homepage of my website, and we've turned it into a fact checker. So if you want to see...
SOURCE: CBS New York YouTube Channel
Hofstra University Presidential Debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
September 26, 2016
Hempstead, NY


Ben Scott: And say, "Look, everything he's saying is not true. All of the details that you can read it all. It's all the experts will tell you... what he's saying is false. You can go... here are the websites." She would read out the URLs on air, go read all this stuff and you'll know better.

Taylor Owen: She wasn't playing the game he was.

Ben Scott: She refused to play the game and there was a strategic decision summed up by Michelle Obama's famous When they go low, we go high. There was a strategic decision taken that this was a winning strategy and that no one was blind to what Trump was doing and it was clear that there was organized propaganda and hate speech and divisive rhetoric being pushed through digital media channels. The feeling was that while that was going to capture a strong and reactionary base for that campaign, it would not win out. It would not win a majority. The other thing that was happening is we were still captured by the self congratulations of the Obama years. This notion that the Democrats were the masters of the data-driven campaign. There was a lot of hubris and I think ultimately we did not allow ourselves to realize that at a certain point if everybody's using the same tools of online manipulation and distortion and organized amplification of messages that don't actually have that much support in the public, if you are willing to go totally over the top with the most outrageous, the most sensational, the most divisive, the most controversial or provocative that ultimately those messages spread farther, faster than anything else.

Taylor Owen: Because of the design of the infrastructure on which they're doing it.

Ben Scott: That's right. Because the platforms' products. Facebook and Google's products are designed for attention optimization. If you're saying that there is an invasion in the Southern border and I'm saying I have a 20 point plan for comprehensive immigration reform...

Taylor Owen: Which one am I going to retweet?

Ben Scott: Which one are you going to retweet?

Taylor Owen: Or engage with negatively or positively?


Donald Trump: I've just received a call from Secretary Clinton. She congratulated us, it's about us, on our victory...
SOURCE: ABC News YouTube Channel
Donald Trump Acceptance Speech
November 9, 2016
New York, NY

Taylor Owen: The third phase of the internet and of your sort of arc through all of this is looking at this current infrastructure. So the day after the Trump victory, that process begins, I imagine. And you've been working intimately on that problem of the current internet and the way it's designed and the way the platforms function since that day. So what is the internet now?

Ben Scott: This was the hardest form of education. I woke up the day after the election, hung over and traumatized. Never allowed myself to believe that Trump could win the presidency. Never really bought into the conspiracies that a majority of the country could really find what he was offering appealing. And yet there it was. And I spent the next several months really in a soul searching moment, answering the question, did everything we did over the last 10 years to promote this technology of open markets for speech and commerce all around the world for the distribution of a decentralized platform of communications lead us to a moment where that technology, which we thought was democratizing and liberating actually hijacked that democracy and turned it into a machine of social control that could be either sold to the highest bidder or hijacked by fraudsters and conmen?

Taylor Owen: And was the answer to that.

Ben Scott: The answer to that is the Trump campaign and the Brexit referendum and numerous other examples that we can now name around the world show you how easy it is to exploit digital media platforms who make their money from attention optimization. I don't believe that it indicts and undermines the idea of the Internet's value as a tool of decentralized communication. I still believe the internet is the greatest invention in the history of the world for the simple reason that it provides access to all of human knowledge to anyone with the internet connection. And the internet has done, does do, and will continue to do amazing things for social welfare, human autonomy, democracy, but we're at a moment now where the way the market is built, the products that dominate that market, the logic of the commercialization of those products leads to such public harms that from time to time, it actually overwhelms those positive benefits and becomes negative for democracy and that we're in that moment now. And that doesn't mean that it's time to turn it all off or shut it down or reverse the flow of technological progress, even if that's what we wanted. Forget about it. You can't do that. Well, our obligation now is to figure out what are the things about the current market, the current products and the way they're being exploited that needs to be changed? To do what democracy have always done, when the interests of the market and the interest of society diverged, which is to make public law and fix those problems.

Taylor Owen: To mitigate negative externalities of the market.

Ben Scott: That's it. And to steer the interests of the internet back in line more or less with those of democracy. Now, that's easy to say and then very hard to do. What exactly is it that has gone wrong and how do you shape it back in the other direction using the imperfect tool as a public law. And I feel like for the first year after the Trump victory, most of this debate was focused on the Russians and the particular exploits that were engineered by Russian intelligence agency.


Rod Rosenstein: Good afternoon? The Grand Jury in the District of Columbia today return an indictment presented by the counsel's office. The indictment charges, 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for committing federal crimes while seeking to interfere in the United States political system including the 2016 presidential election...
SOURCE: C-SPAN Video Library

FBI Indictment of Russian Nationals, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein

February 16, 2018
Washington, DC


Ben Scott: But as time has gone on, we realized that this is much bigger than that and the Russian involvement was gating on top of a much more important set of problems that are about how Google and Facebook have become so massively powerful as the controllers of information in the modern world.

Taylor Owen: I don't want to get into a detailed policy conversation, but something I really worry about in this policy debate is that we're not only dealing with a massive complex global structural problem that requires sweeping policy change, coordination within governments and between governments, push back against global commercial powers, right? Like it has all the pieces of it incredibly wicked policy problem, which is hard enough, but we're trying to do that in an information environment that is the embodiment of that problem. It is fragmented, it is dislocated that is extreme, it is filled with various forms of toxicity, right? How do you think through that? Like policy problem plus doing it in an environment that is fundamentally not conducive to solving collective problems.

Ben Scott: That's what makes this work fascinating and frustrating and essential. Because to me, my oldest daughter is now 12 years old and grown up enough to ask me why it is that I am working on technology and the internet and not on climate change or poverty reduction or gun control or the issues that are more visible and tangible to her.

Taylor Owen: How do you answer that?

Ben Scott: When she first asked me that question, I really didn't have a good answer, but the more I sat down and thought about it and came back to her later and we had a long talk one night and I said, "Look, the reason I'm working on it is because I feel like we have all these grand challenges in the world that matter to you as a 12 year old, that matter to me as an adult, that matter to all of us and we can't seem to solve any of them. Why can't we solve any of these big problems? It's not like democracies have never had big problems. Before we fought two World Wars, we came out of a great depression. We rebuilt Europe...

Taylor Owen: Built the welfare state.

Ben Scott: We built the welfare state, we sent men to the moon. We've had grand challenges before and we've arisen to them, why can't we do that now? And the reason is fundamentally because we cannot get large majorities of our societies to agree even what the problem is, much less what the solution should be. And how do you get large majorities of the society to agree on something? You first have to get them all to see the problem in the same way and to understand the options for how to solve it that are realistic and information markets either enable that coming together and common understanding and moment of choice, or they cripple it. They make it impossible for people to come to a common understanding of the problem, much less see the same set of options as their choices for the future. So if we don't have a solution for this information market problem, then the whole idea of democracy as a way to solve hard problems can't work. And it's not enough to say we're going to solve the information market problem for democracy, but if you don't solve that, you can't get to any of these other things that are arguably more important. And so how do you persuade people to think about something in the same way when they are already not thinking about it in the same way?

Taylor Owen: Solve that paradox for me.

Ben Scott: It is a paradox. The way that I've been thinking about it lately is you can't just come up with a clever idea that analyses what the problem is and then present it to everybody in the same way, at the same time and expect that they'll all hear you in the same way. You have to go out to different communities and talk to them about the way that they're experiencing that problem.

Taylor Owen: And that's beginning, right? Because people feel this in intimate ways now.

Ben Scott: Yeah. So some people you can go and just say, "Hey, you can't talk to your neighbours anymore because you've both become so entrenched in your tribal identities that you don't trust one another." And they say, "Yeah, you're right about that. How did that happen? I don't want that anymore and what can I do?" Some people don't get that and you have to go and talk to them about the impact of the internet on their children. This is one that I find lots of people find easily understandable. This is a technology that is putting content in front of kids in large volumes and in ways that are totally opaque to the parent, much less of the child, and that it's causing a real problem to the development of adolescents. It's causing public health issues. It's causing kids to develop harmful behaviours and attitudes, and this has to be something we addressed. Other people see it through a national security lens. It was a real, I think, shock for people that, whether you believe the Russians were decisive and changing the outcome of an election or not, there's little doubt that they tried.

Taylor Owen: They tried.

Ben Scott: And they were very effective at certain things. I think that's a wake up call for people that, putting oceans between yourself and your geopolitical enemies is no longer enough to secure the integrity of your elections. And that we're in a new information warfare. Other people are persuaded by the ubiquity of companies like Google and Facebook who have become more valuable than any companies we've ever seen in the history of the world and how they seem to have a big brother ability to track what you're doing and to anticipate what you want and to be there before you are. People are starting to get a sense of that and it makes them uncomfortable. All of these kinds of stories where we go out and talk to people about their real experience of the problems of democracy and technology and explain it to them in those terms I think is the way to bring them all together on the common set of understandings. It will take time.

Taylor Owen: Well, I'm glad you're working to solve this problem. I hope phase four of the internet is a result of re-democratizing of it.

Ben Scott: One of the things that gives me hope about this is that I'm not that old and it hasn't been that long since things were good and the moment of techno utopia in the early part of the Obama administration was only a decade ago, and that those positive things that we celebrated at that time were in fact positive and beneficial for democratic societies and that the arc of the Internet's history over the last decade that have taken us into darker places that have undermined those same democratic values that we once celebrated as part and parcel of the Internet's a development, that can be reclaimed. We can get past that and we can solve those problems arguably as quickly as we got into them and that we ought to be set on this podcast in another 10 years talking about phase five where things balanced out and the internet once again became a force in democracy in media that worked in people's best interests and not against them.

Taylor Owen: I hope it's less than 10 years.

Ben Scott: Well, from your lips to God's ears.

Taylor Owen: Right. Thanks so much for coming on.

Ben Scott: My pleasure.

Taylor Owen: Thanks for listening. Let me know what you thought of today's episode using the #BigTechPodcast hashtag on Twitter. I'm Taylor Owen, CIGI senior fellow and professor at Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill. Bye for now.


Narrator: The Big Tech podcast is a partnership between the Centre for International Governance Innovation, CIGI, and The Logic. CIGI is a Canadian non-partisan think tank focused on international governance, economy and law. The Logic is an award-winning digital publication reporting on the innovation economy. Big Tech is produced and edited by Trevor Hunsberger and Kate Rowswell is our story producer. Visit for more information about the show.

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