How to stop the tech giants turning us into techo-serfs

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We need to learn to live with the big companies which dominate the internet – but right now our only policy responses are state control or free market monopoly.

This post was first published at the New Statesman on Monday 9th February 2015

On 6 May 2010, more than half a million Facebook users voted in the UK election. We know this because they told us. Each of them pressed a button on their Facebook profile announcing they had exercised their electoral right. Their Facebook announcements almost certainly galvanised other people to vote and increased turnout. At least, we know that is what happened in the US election that November. Research on the US Facebook election experiment concluded that the “I voted” button motivated 60,000 voters to go to the polls in the US in 2010, and that in turn triggered 340,000 extra votes. Facebook’s intervention took it beyond a passive platform and towards having a more active civic role, but given the decline in voter turnout in the UK and US, few would argue that getting out the vote was not a civic good.

Facebook and other US digital media giants – Google, Twitter, Apple, Amazon and others – have already become integral across our work and social lives. Half of the people in Britain who use the internet are active Facebook users. Google has an 88 per cent share of search in the UK, and 92 per cent in Europe – and even higher in mobile search. Government ministers and departments now rely on Twitter to communicate policy. Eight out of ten ebooks sold in the UK are sold by Amazon.

Many of us rely on these digital behemoths to deliver and store our correspondence, to report our news, to help us find information, to tell us how to get somewhere, to arrange our meetings, to produce and store our work. Nor is our reliance restricted to our social and working lives. Increasingly we are also using these services for democratic purposes. We start and join campaigns on Facebook. We demonstrate political support through Twitter: #jesuischarlie, #bringbackourgirls, #99percent, #icantbreathe. Google accounts for between a quarter and a half of Europeans’ method of accessing news online.

One of the consequences of this is that these commercial corporations know an awful lot about us. Facebook is, according to recent academic research, more likely to know what you like than your mum or dad. Apple, on whose iOS platform half of UK smartphone users rely, knows who you call, where you go, and a good proportion of the news you see. As for Google’s Android, which now supports the majority of smartphones in the world, the “operating system has only one core function, which is to collect data about you”.

This puts a lot of the power over British citizens in the hands of these US media giants. The power to provide or obscure information. The power to assemble and make accessible our digital identities. The power to enable us to connect and co-ordinate with one another. The power – in certain situations – to predict what we are going to do next. And the power to pass on – or sell – our private information, to retailers, media outlets, the security services, or to use for their own purposes. So powerful is the personal data held by these companies that David Cameron put gaining access to it at the forefront of his agenda when he went to see the US president in January.

Yet the UK is just one of many franchises as far as these global titans are concerned. Facebook’s 33 million British monthly users make up less than 3 per cent of worldwide Facebook users. This proportion will shrink further if Facebook’s ambition to connect some of the four billion unconnected people in the world via internet.org succeeds. The 18 million Britons who rely on Google’s Android make up less than 2 per cent of Android users worldwide.

Outside the UK, these US companies’ political influence has been even more material and profound. Facebook did not cause the 2011 Egyptian revolution, but it was critical in its incubation and early co-ordination. Twitter did not find Osama bin Laden, but we knew the Americans had thanks to Twitter. Amazon did successfully (though only temporarily) shut down access to Wikileaks when it dropped it from its cloud.

Until the last couple of years most democratic countries have simply stood by and watched as these global behemoths have grown. We have been happy to be gifted their digital tools that make our lives more efficient, more connected and – digitally, at least – more transparent.

Only recently have democratic governments begun to get anxious. It is not surprising that they are worried. These companies dominate markets and in some areas monopolise them. Some of these services are arguably becoming utilities, deprived of whose benefits one becomes unable to participate fully in society.

Moreover, they have increased their penetration and their scope far beyond the private sphere. Microsoft has developed predictive policing software. Amazon Web Services runs the CIA’s data cloud. Google predicts the spread of flu. Facebook promotes voting in elections and helps find missing children. Yet they are almost all US companies, and often do not have their headquarters in the countries in which they operate. Most have located their European offices in tax-friendly Ireland or Luxembourg.

The UK government, and UK citizens, have very little influence over these tech giants, or how they behave. We trust they will be kind and do no evil, but have little leverage if they choose to do otherwise. As Rebecca MacKinnon wrote of Facebook and Google+, the two “share a Hobbesian approach to governance in which people agree to relinquish a certain amount of freedom to a benevolent sovereign who in turn provides security and other services”.

The recent Intelligent Services Committee report on the murder of Lee Rigby lamented the UK government’s lack of power. “None of the US companies we contacted”, the report says, “accept the UK’s jurisdiction on requests for Lawful Intercept (i.e. content) for intelligence investigations”. These US companies included Facebook, Google, BlackBerry, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple and Twitter. Given the increasing use of encryption, the report goes on: “[W]e consider this to be the single most important challenge that the [UK Security] Agencies face. It has very serious ramifications for the security of the UK”.

Non-democratic states have already taken steps to neuter these digital giants. Some have sought to block or constrain them, while nurturing national – and more compliant – alternatives. China blocked Facebook in 2009 (though, after assiduous courting by Mark Zuckerberg, is considering letting it back in). Google operates in China, but its service is frequently disrupted, meaning its share languishes at less than 2 per cent. Russia has gone further, with its lower House passing legislation in 2014 that would require internet companies to store Russian citizens personal data within Russia. Combined with the RuNet website blacklist, the restrictions on blogs with a daily audience of more than 3,000, and the “law against retweets”, this means the Russian government will have huge power over its citizens’ digital behavior, and have full knowledge of its citizens’ digital footprints.

Erich Honecker’s East German government could only dream of having this much information about and control over its citizens. No democratic state should want to go in this direction – or, if they do, then they would quickly lose any democratic credibility.

So how should the UK and other democratic societies respond? What are the alternatives to blithely accepting US digital dominance or reacting in an autocratic anti-democratic way? Have Europe’s responses to date been well-informed, forward-thinking, constructive and cognizant of civil liberties? Sadly not.

In November 2014 the EU Parliament proposed breaking up Google into separate parts – splitting search from maps, news, email and social. Even though this was a symbolic gesture it is not clear why the Parliament thought such a move would be constructive. The chief alternatives to Google in search, maps, “free” email and social are also all US tech giants.

Two months earlier George Osborne announced, with some fanfare, that “some technology companies go to extraordinary lengths to pay little or no tax here … My message to those companies is clear: we will put a stop to it”. Yet, as numerous commentators subsequently concluded, the new tax arrangements are unlikely to have much impact beyond sending a political message to Google and its peers.

The November 2014 UK government report into the killing of Lee Rigby proposed, amongst other things, that Facebook and others keep their users under surveillance and pass on information to the UK government. Not only is this technologically impractical (there are 4.75 billion pieces of content shared a day on Facebook), but creates a dangerous precedent. This would essentially mean Facebook acting as a sort of private sector GCHQ, scouring people’s profiles and correspondence for any evidence of potential terrorism or criminality (and note the ambiguity “potential”).

Perhaps the most regressive proposal of all was David Cameron’s promise, in January 2015, that, should the Conservatives be re-elected, he would pass laws to ensure that there were no ‘safe spaces’ online where people could communicate without the government being able to gain access.[xxv] Not only would this be technically impossible, to head in this direction would take the UK on a path pursued by authoritarian statist countries like Russia and China.

Cameron’s proposal, and others across Europe, indicate a wider policy vacuum. There is a digital policy black hole regarding how to deal with these companies into which regressive, reactive policies are being proposed without much thought for their practical application or their negative implications. As yet there are almost no proposed democratic alternatives. We have no separate, plausible, social-democratic option as distinct from the US free market individualist model or authoritarian statism.

This is because there has, to date, been so little substantive policy thinking about how to respond to these digital giants in a way that both acknowledges and welcomes the significant benefits they bring, but also enables us – over time – to create an environment in which we no longer rely on them so much.

If we want greater competition in the search market, why have we not discussed how to make the web easier to navigate (for example through more consistent metadata)? If we are concerned about tech giants hoarding personal data, why not consider Evgeny Morozov’s suggestion that such data “stripped of privacy-compromising identifiers… be pooled into a common resource”? If Twitter – which has always struggled to make a profit – closed down tomorrow, would we simply do without it, or wait for the market to come up with an alternative? Should we consider whether the BBC could build a public service alternative – building in proper safeguards for independence and privacy protection? If we are genuinely concerned about misuse of our private data by these US firms, should we not explore the “information fiduciary” concept suggested by Jack Balkin and others?

Our failure to explore alternatives may be due to our inability to foresee the dangers. The usefulness and convenience of these digital tools makes us blind to the potential economic, social and political risks. Until these dangers become clearer then there will be little political will to take action.

Meanwhile, our reliance on these digital leviathans continues to grow. Within the last year both Facebook and Google have taken significant steps into the world of work (see Facebook @work and Google MyBusiness) and expanded into new markets (such as through Facebook’s internet.org). If, at some point in the near future, there is another terrorist attack in the UK, the government will again place some blame on these US corporations and try to respond. Deprived of constructive, intellectually robust responses it is highly likely they will react in a way that harms not just the companies themselves, but all of us who have come to rely on them for our work, our social life and – increasingly – our civic participation.

On 7 May, many of us may click on a new Facebook “I voted” button. This will encourage more of us to vote. Facebook will have performed a civic good. But, as Jonathan Zittrain pointed out with respect to the 2010 election experiment, there is nothing to stop Facebook deliberately prompting only certain voters and thereby skewing the result. How would we ever know? Even if we did know, or found out, there is nothing we could do about it. As these tech giants bring us unprecedented tools for civic participation, we have a responsibility to think more carefully about how to ensure they “don’t be evil”.

Written by Martin Moore

February 11th, 2015 at 10:18 pm

How the British press distorted reporting of… the British press

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This post was first published on FreeSpeechDebate.com on November 3rd, 2014.

Academics like the term ‘normative’. Not just because it sounds smarter than ‘normal’ but because it helps to describe how things ought to be. It links empirical evidence to broader questions of how politics and society should function. The press, more than many other aspects of society, likes to emphasise its normative functions. Less often does it assess whether it has achieved them.

The ‘normative’ view that British newspapers have of their own role is fairly straightforward: they represent the views of the public; they offer a diversity of views – both within their own pages and across competing titles; they report in a fair, accurate and – relatively balanced – way; they hold power to account; and they support their conclusions with evidence.

A comprehensive study of all articles published on press regulation in the UK national press in the year following the Leveson Inquiry has found that, when it came to the issue of press regulation, few national newspapers fulfilled their normative functions. The study, written by Dr Gordon Ramsay for the Media Standards Trust, examined all 2,047 articles published on the topic in the daily and Sunday press from 29 November 2012 until 29 November 2013, combined with a meta-analysis of every public opinion poll on the issue from 2012 to 2014.

Did the press represent the views of the public?

The views of the public can be found in 24 opinion polls commissioned between May 2012 and June 2014 on various aspects of press regulation. These polls were commissioned by newspapers themselves, by broadcasters, think-tanks, pollsters and campaigners.

These polls showed that the public were generally supportive of the Leveson Inquiry and its conclusions. They showed that most of the public did not have a problem with legal support for press regulation, and do not see the use of the law – per se – as a threat to press freedom. Moreover, the data showed – time and again – that the public were highly sceptical of the newspaper industry’s alternative proposals to Leveson.

You would not have known these views if you relied on the newspapers. The press were overwhelmingly negative about the Leveson Report and its implementation. The use of the law to support regulation was portrayed as equivalent to state control of the press. Indeed, the alternatives to the newspaper industry’s own (unpopular) proposals were painted as state control. By contrast, in many newspapers, coverage of the industry’s proposals was wholly positive.

Despite repeated emphasis on the importance of the press being able in the name of the public, public polling data was curiously absent from coverage. Less than 2% of articles on press regulation contained any reference to any polling data from the two dozen surveys. Even those newspapers that commissioned polls, notably The Sunday Times and The Sun, tended not to publish the unfavourable responses.

Did the public receive a diversity of views?

Providing a diversity of viewpoints is a pretty uncontested positive function that news media are expected to play in public life. Yet there was little diversity of views about the Leveson Report within or between papers. For nine out of ten newspaper readers, over 70% of the articles they read about this issue were entirely negative (in other words contained only criticism of Leveson or the Royal Charter, with not a single positive viewpoint). In one newspaper, the Daily Mail, the ratio of negative to positive articles was 33:1. In The Sun the ratio was 29:1.

If only leader columns in these papers are measured, the negative-only ration rises to over 90% – 145 out of a total of 159 leaders. For 90% of newspaper readers, every single leader column mentioning the newspaper industry’s alternative proposals (the ‘PressBof Royal Charter’ and IPSO) was positive, while every single leader mentioning the Privy Council’s rejection of the PressBof Charter and the sealing of the Cross-Party Charter was negative.

Did the press hold power to account?

In the period immediately following the publication of the Leveson Report, in January and February 2013, senior news executives met almost daily with the Minister for Government Policy, Oliver Letwin (20 meetings) and with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (17 meetings) to draft a Royal Charter that they found acceptable.

None of these meetings was reported on by the press. We only know about them because, six months later, the government was obliged to publish a record of Ministerial meetings. The freedom to report in the public interest did not, in this instance, include the freedom to report on the newspaper industry’s own power to negotiate with the Government on policy issues.

As the favourable coverage of the newspaper industry’s Royal Charter and IPSO demonstrates, many newspapers were also willing to use their pages to promote their own self-interest, even while being unwilling to scrutinise their own participation in the process.

Was the coverage fair?

We expect our press to express its views, but we also expect news reports – as opposed to editorials – to be relatively fair and balanced. Yet, based on the data, news reports on this issue were not fair or balanced. Two-thirds of all factual news reports (excluding comment and leader articles) contained only negative viewpoints on Leveson or the Royal Charter, either from sources, or within the rest of the article. To the reader, this gave the impression that opinion on the issue was settled, and that there was a consensus against Leveson and the Charter. The opposite was true, as public opinion clearly and consistently demonstrated.

In addition to the unbalanced use of sources, news articles regularly contained evaluative statements about Leveson, presented as fact. A Daily Mirror news article, for example, on 30 November 2012 – the day after the Leveson Report was published – introduced the proposals as “draconian curbs on the press”, and a Sunday Times news article on 9 October 2013 described the Royal Charter as “state regulation of the press”. Statements like these occurred throughout the news coverage, indicating that the opinionated language of leader articles became incorporated into factual reports.

Was the coverage accurate?

Separate to the insertion of opinion within news reports, much of the coverage of Leveson and its implementation was not accurate. Many newspapers claimed, for example, that a Leveson system of self-regulation would lead to censorship. Yet Leveson stated that no self-regulatory system should ‘have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time’ (Recommendation 17). The Leveson recommendations were repeatedly referred to as ‘statutory regulation’, despite Leveson’s assertion that ‘despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press’ (Summary, p17).

Nor was it true that whistleblowers would be arrested if Leveson was put into practice, as The Sun said. Or that off-the-record briefings by police would be banned. Or that politicians would have the final say over the content published in newspapers. Or that civil society groups that supported Leveson were bankrolled by Brussels. Or that the whole Leveson Inquiry was an establishment stitch-up engineered by a left-wing conspiracy. Yet each of these claims and others were made by newspapers.

Were claims backed up by evidence?

The most frequent newspaper criticism of the Leveson Report and the Royal Charter was that it represented a threat to press freedom. 862 articles contained a reference to this supposed threat. Yet of those, less than one-third tried to explain why it was a threat or presented evidence to support the claim. Over two-thirds presented the claim as fact, with no evidence. Only a handful of articles gave space to those who argued the opposite, despite this being the view of all three main parties, civil society groups, academics, and – as opinion surveys showed – much of the public.

Most of the UK national press therefore failed to represent public opinion, failed to offer a diversity of views either within their own pages or across competing title, failed to report in a balanced way, failed to hold power to account, and eschewed accuracy and evidence to promote a broadly uniform editorial line that suited their own policy interests.

With certain honourable exceptions – the Guardian and Observer; the Independent and Independent on Sunday, and the Financial Times – on this issue the UK’s national press failed practically every normative test. Their function, in the area of press regulation, was less a quasi-constitutional role of holding power to account and facilitating a free and open market of ideas, and more a pursuit of their own self-interest, self-censorship of views that were contrary to their own, and preservation of the status quo.

The figures in this piece come from a report published by the Media Standards Trust in September 2014 – ‘How newspapers covered press regulation after Leveson’ by Dr Gordon Neil Ramsay which can be read here. The full dataset is available here.

Written by Martin Moore

November 10th, 2014 at 3:38 pm

New Appointments Further Increase IPSO’s Dependence on Powerful Industry Figures

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This post was first published on the Huffington Post UK on 3rd November 2014

In the last few weeks there have been significant developments in press regulation that have gone entirely unreported, despite the fact that they involve the most senior figures in the news industry, and despite that fact that they increase the dependence of the industry’s new self-regulatory body, IPSO, on the major publishers.

The Chief Executive of the Telegraph Group, Murdoch MacLennan, has been made the ninth and final member of the Board of IPSO’s funding body. Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mail, has been made the Chair of the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee – and other industry committee members have been made public. David Newell has been made Secretary of the funding body and, a new, more powerful news industry lobbying group is being established called the News Media Association.

Telegraph Chief Executive to be ninth member of the RFC Board

A ninth – and final – Director has been appointed to the Board of IPSO’s funding body, the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC). The RFC not only controls IPSO’s funding, but has a veto over key decisions like changes to the Code of Practice, the establishment of an arbitration service, and any changes to the IPSO regulations themselves.

When the first eight members of the RFC were announced it was considered newsworthy that there were no representatives from the Telegraph Media Group or the Mail Group – two of the UK’s most powerful publishing groups, and most prominent critics of Leveson. News Corp’s News UK was represented (by its Chief Financial Officer), as was Northern and Shell (by its Group Editorial Director) and Trinity Mirror (by its Group Legal Director), but not the Telegraph or Mail (the lack of representation of working journalists, women, or anyone who was not a senior executive in a news publisher was not mentioned in the coverage).

The Telegraph’s absence has now been rectified. The ninth member of the RFC Board is the Chief Executive of the Telegraph Media Group, Murdoch MacLennan. McLennan is the most senior executive figure at the Telegraph and appeared in the Media Guardian 100 in 2011, 2012, and 2013 (#29 in 2013). Prior to working at the Telegraph Group he was a senior executive at Associated Newspapers, and has been on the Board of the Newspaper Publishers’ Association for the past 16 years. The appointment was not considered newsworthy in either the national press or the industry’s own publications. Nor was it announced by the Regulatory Funding Company.

Paul Dacre to be Chair of the new Editor’s Code of Practice Committee

The Mail, though absent from the RFC Board, now appears to be well represented elsewhere across the IPSO system.

The new Editors’ Code of Practice Committee has now been established, again with no public announcement. The Chair of this Committee is Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mail. Dacre was also Chair of the previous Editors’ Code Committee during the PCC era (taking over from News International’s Les Hinton in 2008), he was a PCC Commissioner from 1998, and has been a Director of the Press Standards Board of Finance since 2004. Also on the new Code Committee is Geordie Greig, Editor of the Mail on Sunday. Peter Wright, the Editor Emeritus at Associated Newspapers has recently been appointed to IPSO’s Complaints Committee.

2014-10-31-LengthoftenureofCodeCommittee.png

Based on its membership this new Editors’ Code of Practice Committee is not new. Every industry member was on the previous Committee, with an average tenure of almost a decade. Altogether they represent a hundred years of service on the Code Committee since it was created in 1991.

David Newell made Secretary of the Regulatory Funding Company

As this analysis shows, the Regulatory Funding Company has substantial control over IPSO, as the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBoF) did over the PCC.

The RFC Secretary has a critical position at the funding company. As the company’s Articles of Association show, the Secretary has discretion over the subscription each member pays to the RFC, and, through this, discretion over the numbers of votes eligible to be cast by publishers:

6.1.2 The numbers of votes eligible to be cast by a Regulated Entity in its Sector or Sectors and the number of votes cast by a Regulated Entity will be determined by the Secretary as defined in the Articles of Association of the Regulatory Funding Company (IPSO Scheme Membership Agreement)

24.6 Each member shall promptly supply to the Secretary such information as he or she may reasonably require in order that he or she may determine the amount of the member’s subscription in accordance with the methodology applicable to the Sector or Sectors to which the member is designated.

24.7 The Secretary’s determination shall be final and binding and each member shall pay its subscription to the Secretary within 30 days of being notified of the amount by the Secretary.

24.9 Subject to Article 24.10 the Secretary shall keep confidential and not disclose to any person, including the directors, any information provided to him or her in accordance with Article 24.7 nor the amount of any member’s subscription (Regulatory Funding Company Articles of Association)

David Newell has been made RFC Secretary. This information is not available on the RFC’s website but can be obtained via Companies House documents. The appointment was first referenced in these documents in July 2014.

David Newell previously occupied the position of Secretary at PressBoF, as well as his Directorship of the Newspaper Society (the representative body of the local and regional press) while being Secretary of the Newspaper Publishers’ Association, which represents the national press. He has been affiliated with the Press Standards Board of Finance since 1990, when it was created.

A new, more powerful industry lobbying group

A further development was revealed by Paul Dacre in a speech at the Ritz on Tuesday 28th November. There is to be a new newspaper industry lobbying group that will amalgamate the existing representative bodies in order to lobby more effectively on issues of public policy that affect the industry. To quote Mr Dacre in full (as this represents the only public statement on the matter):

…there is about to be a sea-change in the way the industry’s organisations are constituted. In the next few weeks, the merger – about time, too – of the national press and the regional press into one new representative body, the News Media Association, gives us far more clout that we have ever had before to oppose those things that undermine us and fight for the changes we need

There is no information available publicly on this group, its members, or its aims. It is not clear the extent to which the local and regional press will lose their distinctive voice in this merger.

One of the causes of public outrage in 2011 and catalyst for a public inquiry was concern about the power media organisations, and the news industry as a whole, held over the democratic process. It would now appear that a new, more powerful industry body is to be established with the express aim of lobbying and direct intervention in the democratic process.

Structural limitations on the freedom of the Chair of IPSO

These developments add to the structural limitations on IPSO’s independence already cited in our detailed assessment.

Within this context it is hard to see how Sir Alan Moses can act independently, regardless of his stated intentions to secure reforms to make IPSO more independent.

IPSO’s money is controlled by the most senior figures in news publishing (including the money available to fund investigations). IPSO’s rules prevent it from acting effectively on behalf of the public – and cannot be changed without consent from the largest publishing groups. IPSOs investigations are hemmed in by regulations that will make successful investigations and fines almost impossible. IPSO cannot establish an arbitration service without the consent of the RFC.

These appointments, and the manner in which they were made, reinforce the impression that the major publishers intend to recreate the previous, discredited, system of press self-regulation with the same figures in control. It repeats what Lord Justice Leveson called, ‘the pattern of cosmetic reform’ that has characterized the previous seven decades of press self-regulation.

It is difficult to see how IPSO can hope to gain public confidence when the news publishers that established it act in this way.

This post was written with Dr Gordon Ramsay

Written by Martin Moore

November 5th, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Why we need a UK equivalent of the Knight News Challenge

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This post was first published on the LSE Media Policy Project blog on 9th October 2014

You’ll remember the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life: the angel Clarence shows George Bailey what Bedford Falls would look like if he had never existed. Mr Potter owns virtually everything in the town. There are pawnshops, night clubs and neon bars all down the high street. Nothing functions in the re-named ‘Pottersville’ without Mr Potter taking a cut.

In five years’ time, a new media giant such as Google or Facebook could have a similar stranglehold on our local media.

Our local print press continues to decline. In the first half of 2014 alone, local newspaper circulation dropped by an average of 13.5 per cent year-on-year. Since 2000, regional newspaper paid circulation has more than halved.

Hyperlocal websites are starting to fill the democratic gap, but slowly and intermittently. There are fewer than fifteen hyperlocal sites in Northern Ireland and fewer than thirty in Wales and Scotland (Ofcom, 2013). Less than a third of hyperlocal sites make enough money even to cover even basic costs (Barnett/Townend 2014).

Open data has yet to animate an army of armchair auditors, as the Coalition government hoped it would. ‘Simply putting data “out there”’, the Public Administration Committee said in 2014, ‘is not enough to keep Government accountable’ (PAC, Tenth Report).

Civic technology has not taken off in the UK as it has in the US

We do not yet have an equivalent to Nextdoor.com – the private residents’ social network, or neighbor.ly – the crowdfunding site for local civic projects, or openplans.org – digital tools to involve people more closely in planning decisions.

The amount invested in local news and civic technology in the US – for profit and non-profit – dwarfs that invested in the UK. The Knight Foundation alone has put over $235 million into journalism and media innovation in the last eight years. MacArthur, Rockefeller, Open Society, Ford and other foundations have also supported innovation in this area. Private investors have invested more still, particularly in civic technology. Between 2011 and 2013, private funders put $364 million into civic technology in the US (Knight Foundation, 2013).

In contrast, our local civic innovators and entrepreneurs are starved of support. NESTA, Technology Strategy Board and Carnegie are almost the only non-commercial funders supporting innovation in local news and information.

The consequences are becoming clear. Local news and information providers are increasingly unable to perform the role expected of the Fourth Estate. Local businesses and services are ever more reliant on non-UK technology platforms. We urgently need to alter our trajectory. We need to move from deterioration and dependence to innovation and growth.

Spurring innovation

The best way to change this is through a local news competition. A competition in which individuals and organisations would compete for awards of between £10,000 and £50,000 to start, grow and run the local news and civic technology of the future.

Similar competitions already exist in the US – like the Knight News Challenge. Over the first five years of the Challenge, Knight gave awards to 79 news innovation projects – a total of $26.5 million.

A UK version of such a competition could see a transformation of local news. Ten million pounds a year for five years would lead to over 2,000 award winners: 2,000 local news and civic technology projects around the UK. It would be a bottom up revolution in local news, driven by people in the local areas themselves. Compare this to the 30 licenses granted to organisations to provide local broadcast TV services.

Neither does such a competition need to be supported through existing public funds. The French government set up a €60 million news transition fund paid for by Google (following a dispute about whether Google should pay to display news content in its search results). Eric Schmidt has since said he is happy to discuss a similar arrangement in the UK. Alternatively, there could be a more realistic charge for the collection and commercial re-use of personal data.

Such a competition could create a flowering of innovation and information about local communities. It could energise civic participation and democratic engagement. It could leave a legacy of enterprise, experience and invention that would put the UK at the forefront of digital information development.

The alternative? We could watch as new media giants – most US-based – colonise our local areas, providing digital platforms for everything from the council to the police to local business. These digital giants would necessarily levy a charge or subsidise their services through local advertising.

As with Mr Potter’s Bedford Falls – or rather Pottersville – nothing will function in Bedford, Bedfordshire, without Google or Facebook taking a cut.

The full report on which this post is based – ‘Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News through Positive Plurality’ – was published by the Media Standards Trust on 9 October 2014. 

Written by Martin Moore

October 17th, 2014 at 11:33 am