Rebooting Democracy

Issue Date April 2021
Volume 32
Issue 2
Page Numbers 179–83
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Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society. By Ronald J. Deibert. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2020. 419 pp.

Few social scientists have done as much to expose the internet’s risks and dangers as Canadian political scientist Ronald Deibert. Measured and soft-spoken, he has been fearless and relentless in exposing corporate, criminal, and government efforts to hijack the internet for profit and power. For this, he and his interdisciplinary research center at the University of Toronto, Citizen Lab, have earned the ire of autocrats, securocrats, and kleptocrats as well as harassment from digital-surveillance companies such as Israel’s NSO Group. In this riveting and eloquent book, Deibert distills two decades of Citizen Lab research and a lifetime of civic commitment into a seminal dissection of what has gone wrong with digital life, and how to “reset” it.

The core problems, as Deibert identifies them, have been known for some time to savvy social-media users and analysts. But in Reset, he vividly sets them forth, unpacking the alarming trajectory of digital life with rare levels of technical and moral clarity. A scrupulous researcher and philosophically committed liberal, Deibert is not given to hyperbole. But he believes that human society has reached a “turning point” (p. 27): We risk irreversible losses of human freedom and privacy if we do not impose democratic controls on digital technologies and the companies and governments that deploy them.

About the Author

Larry Diamond is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and coeditor of the Journal of Democracy.

View all work by Larry Diamond

The bulk of the book articulates four “painful truths” about social media and the highly globalized technological infrastructure underlying them [End Page 179] (p. 27). The first truth is embedded in the term “surveillance capitalism.” Unlike print and broadcast media, social media have a revenue model that does not depend on subscriptions or even primarily on selling ads (though social media do a lot of that, too). Rather, it depends on amassing, analyzing, and commercializing personal data. Hence, social media have become “relentless machines that dig deeper and deeper into our personal lives, attaching more and more sensors to more and more things, in a never-ending quest for unattainable omniscience” (p. 28). Companies design their apps and platforms to track our movements, conversations, locations, and emotions—even when we are not using them. Terms-of-service agreements give users the illusion of individual choice and control, but they are so dense and ritualistic that they have come to “trivialize” consent (p. 96).

To extract as much data as possible from us, social media must shock, awe, and addict us to their platforms—this is the second painful truth. The longer we remain engaged with their services, the more data the companies collect. To accomplish this, “social media engineers use techniques from advertising and behavioral science to make the uses of social media more compelling—and more difficult to ignore” (p. 91). With the aid of artificial intelligence (AI) and the massive troves of data they collect, social-media companies continuously fine-tune the addiction loop to fit the preferences, biases, and anxieties of each individual. As the companies update their algorithms and game designs to make them “unquittable” (p. 102), people surrender ever more of their lives, personal autonomy, manners, and even mental health. The more “sensational, extreme, scandalous, and even horrifying” the content, the more it “shocks us and pulls on our emotions” (p. 91). Unfortunately, it also pulls apart society in the process, and renders it vulnerable to manipulation by predatory actors, foreign and domestic. “Huge waves of outrage … spread virally in a few hours … and vulnerable groups dive for cover” (p. 112).

Social media have become, as Deibert entitles the second chapter, “toxic addiction machines,” spewing gossip, disinformation, racism, “xenophobia, ignorance, and malice” (p. 89). As a result, the public square has been drained of civility and the capacity for reflection and reasoned debate. Certainly, human history has featured no shortage of ethnic and religious violence, but social media readily inflame identity divisions and enable outraged mobs to be mobilized with a new speed and virality. Meanwhile, electoral politics faces a “dystopian future” in which (as in the Philippines today) “disinformation operations are run with impunity” [End Page 180] (p. 126) and campaigns become a roller derby of online intimidation and character assassination.

Only a decade ago, I wrote in these pages that social media were mainly viewed as “liberation technology” in their implications for freedom and democracy. Today, however, they increasingly facilitate despotism and abuses of power—the third painful truth. A generation ago, autocrats could have only dreamed of the tools now available to control information, to “thwart political opposition and dissent” (p. 139), and to track and apprehend regime critics. For dissidents in this globalized world, nowhere is safe. As exhibit one, Deibert offers the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Prior to his murder, Khashoggi had been in frequent contact with a prominent young Saudi dissident and friend of Deibert’s, Omar Abdulaziz. Highly popular on YouTube and Twitter, Abdulaziz (along with other Saudi social-media influencers) was targeted by the Kingdom for cyber surveillance and intimidation, with assistance from McKinsey and Company (which identified the top influencers) and the NSO Group (which implanted sophisticated spyware into the dissidents’ devices). As Citizen Lab discovered, this spyware enabled Saudi state security to observe in real time Abdulaziz’s movements and communications—including the disdain that he and Khashoggi had for the regime of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, along with their plans to launch a digital campaign for change.

Around the world, countless other dissidents, journalists, and human-rights defenders have been digitally monitored and even physically attacked abroad by authoritarian regimes with the aid of “private intelligence and surveillance contractors, most of them based or originating in the West” (p. 146). Shockingly bereft of regulation, this dark industry (of more than five-hundred companies) is booming “in response to the insatiable appetites of government law enforcement, intelligence, and military clients” in democracies as well as autocracies (p. 147). Digital-surveillance tools can be useful in tracking and apprehending criminals and extremists (including those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6). Yet their wholesale adoption by the democracies’ police and security forces is “subjecting masses of otherwise innocent people to wholesale dragnet surveillance” (p. 186). These tools also enable despots such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame to track down and murder their political enemies abroad.

No dictatorship has supercharged digital authoritarianism as effectively as China’s. It does not need Western corporations to help it engineer control because it is developing and deploying (and globally marketing) its own pathbreaking technology. China’s system of digital censorship, propaganda, and surveillance—including the infamous Social Credit System—has been extensively described in Kai Strittmatter’s chilling masterpiece, We Have Been Harmonized. But many readers will be shocked by Deibert’s account of the lengths to which the Communist party-state is [End Page 181] going to surveil and control its population through an Orwellian integration of omnipresent cameras, facial recognition, social-media censorship, and biometric data—supercharged by gargantuan investments in AI that may position China to leap ahead of the United States technologically.

The fourth painful truth—perhaps surprising to readers who imagine “the cloud” as an ethereal phenomenon free of material burdens on the planet—is that this digital-communications ecosystem is causing massive environmental damage. This stems from more than the “built to replace” lifespan of consumer electronics. In addition, digital hardware requires for its speed, lightness, and conductivity a vast array of minerals, including almost all the rare-earth elements (trade in which is dominated by China) as well as scores of different metals, most of which are expensive and polluting to mine. And electronics manufacturing produces notoriously toxic byproducts. Even more devastating is the impact on climate change. The production, transmission, and storage of our ever-expanding volumes of data consume enormous quantities of energy—much of which is still generated by burning fossil fuels, including the dirtiest, coal. By one estimate, Deibert reports, global communications consume seven percent of the world’s electricity, and that proportion could triple in ten years. Huge volumes of water are also needed to cool the vast server farms enabling “cloud computing.”

Something must be done to rein all this in, but what? For most of us, Deibert stresses, retreat is not an option; we need and can greatly benefit from digital technology. Corporate giants such as Facebook have implemented some reforms, including greater moderation of their most dangerously false, disinforming, and polarizing content. But the problems are too great to nibble around the edges with ad hoc changes. The system needs, he argues, a “reset” in order to enable us “to start over from first principles and a solid foundation” (p. 272). The core principle, he persuasively argues, must be “restraint” of runaway government and corporate power, primarily through legislation and regulation that put control back in the hands of citizens and civil society. Citizens must restrain government, and government must restrain the corporations. (A good bit of civic self-restraint is also needed, and can be fostered, Deibert hopes, by a reboot of civic education for the digital age.) Existing oversight agencies need new authority and larger budgets to limit what social-media companies can do to constantly collect, store, and commercialize personal data, and what law enforcement and other government agencies can do to access and utilize that data. He especially appeals for “strong restraints … on [End Page 182] the use of commercial spyware and hacking tools by government security agencies.” (p. 290). Government use of spyware should be transparent and accountable (at least to legislative and civic oversight) “to ensure that its use is necessary, limited, and proportionate.” (p. 291). Democracies must heavily restrict export of these technologies to authoritarian states. Out of concern for the likely chilling effect on freedom of speech online (as well as market competition), however, he opposes lifting Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act, which gives social-media companies immunity from liability for content on their platforms.

People need more protection for their privacy and hence more control over their data. One useful step, Deibert believes, is the passage of laws (such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation) that limit social-media companies’ ability to transfer data to third parties without user consent and that monitor corporate compliance. He argues that we need such laws on steroids to restrict the types of data companies can collect as well as when and how they manage and retain such information. What data they do keep, he insists, should be anonymized and fully encrypted, and then shared, “especially with governments, only under strictly controlled circumstances that are both transparent and accountable to independent oversight bodies with the power to levy meaningful punishments” (p. 299). More broadly, he urges replacing the current reign of “digital feudalism” (p. 312) with a bill of netizen rights guaranteeing technology users the ability to access their data, review them, and move them between platforms as well as the license to have professionals of their choice take apart and repair their devices. In the face of insatiable corporate and government thirst for personal data, such rights are “a way to preserve and enhance the autonomy of individuals” (p. 313).

This amounts to a compelling, if still partial, manifesto for a democratic-digital reset. We need a more detailed and robust agenda not only to regulate social-media companies (and their powerful algorithms) but to challenge their market dominance. Yet as Deibert recognizes, it is tough to scale down Western technology companies when they must compete with the biggest monopoly actor of all—the Chinese Communist party-state. This raises the question of how to confront the runaway abuse of digital power by the world’s autocracies. Here, Deibert advocates end-to-end encryption technologies and new circumvention tools to bypass internet censorship, along with a democratic “united front” against China’s bid to roll back human-rights protections in international forums by writing the future rules of the road for cyberspace. Democracies will have to adhere to liberal principles within their own borders and fight for them globally if we are to have a chance of “reclaiming the internet for civil society.” [End Page 183]