We are all inevitably under the influence of the internet, constantly. By influencing the way we communicate as citizens, the internet logically has its effect on the way democracies develop and function. Jamie Bartlett has a broad understanding of this as the UK’s leading expert on politics and technology, known worldwide for his clarifying views and intriguing talks. He recently published his book ‘The People Vs Tech’ about the relationship between technology and democracy. Who better to ask the question: What dangers does the internet form for the continuation of a healthy European democracy’?
What is a healthy democracy, and would you say that the EU as a democracy is healthy at the moment?
,,Difficult one really. I don’t know if there’s an absolute exact definition of a healthy democracy. But you certainly can define a more or less healthy democracy. It’s that much more than just having a vote. I’d say there’s two general ways of looking at it, they’re usually related. One is that you can measure the sort of general health of the institutions that make democracy work. We roughly know that that would include a free and healthy press, strong individual rights, a relatively strong middle class, elections that have some integrity and so on. The second part is whether the people, the citizens, believe in democracy, whether they have confidence in its political system, whether they trust their MP’s, or that they trust the democratic institutions. You put those two things together than I think you have a rough idea of democratic health. It’s very hard to say whether I think the European Union is a healthy democracy in that sense, because I don’t think that it’s measured that much at a European level.
The world is becoming less democratic on average. The measure of institutional health has been showing declines – it varies from country to country, but a decline is the overall score. I guess my worry is that this trend will be exaggerated by modern digital technology.’’
So you think that the people’s belief in democracy is declining worldwide?
,,I think there’s various studies showing this. It’s very hard to put exact cause and effect combinations on these things and it’s very hard to measure this accurately. But I think you can find it in different types of measure. So the people that actually turn out at elections, yes there’s been some small spikes, but when being compared to forty years ago, it’s been on a decline. Same as memberships of political parties, same as trust in your local MP, same as the proportion of people that say they would support an authoritarian, and there’s various voting measures that suggest that political polarization is happening as well. Again, it’s not precisely exact, but if you look at the broad trends, the public attitude towards democracy is in decline. I’m not suggesting that it’s collapsed and no one cares, because that’s not true: people do still generally like democracy. But I get a feeling that a lot of people think it doesn’t work so well in its current goings.’’
You’ve published some books that became bestsellers also in the Netherlands. I wanted to talk to you about your most recent book: How the internet is killing democracy. And how we save it. Which role do you see for the EU as a government in controlling and regulating the internet, to prevent it from killing democracy?
,,Well the interesting thing is that the EU already seems to be taking on that role a little bit. I think that the fines that the commission has handed out to Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple were all part of the EU actually, interestingly, taking on some sort of a leadership role on questions concerning data sovereignty, privacy and multi-national data companies. I don’t think anyone predicted that the EU would become so important for that. I think it’s such an important role for the long term health of a democracy. The European Union has already started to act, more than anyone else, more than the US, more than any other individual country. We’ll obviously still have to see how well it works, but these are very promising signs.’’
The EU is thus taking up its role in saving democracy by enforcing these laws, would you say?
,,Ya I think so, I think so. By being brave and having some backbone. By passing it’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), which a lot of people find a bit of a nuisance, you know, it’s a bit troublesome, it’s a little bit unwieldy. But, I think that this is one of those pieces of legislations that in twenty years people will look back on and think ‘Thank God we had something like THAT’. Look at all the data we’re producing now, look at all these other issues. Privacy laws for example, you don’t realise the impact of it, because what it’s done is prevent certain things from happening. But I think it’s one of those laws that we’ll look back on and think, thank goodness. Which is why I think the European Union, and all the countries within the EU, should really strongly enforce these laws. It’s a really important job for the next few years. That means more important than problems right now, like what does it mean for the safety of your email list, or what does it mean for reporting a data breach, I think this is a much bigger, longer term piece of legislation.’’
Do you think there is a lack of legislation? Would there be room for growth?
,,I think in certain areas the next thing we are going to have to think about regulating is smart machines being used in warfare, some people call this killer drones, and the regulation of artificial intelligence, the regulation of block chain technology, all these things coming down the line. At this point we’ve got something good with the GDPR because it’s about data. We already have anti-competition law. Those two things, anti-competition and data are the two most important things right now. The target is to really enforce them.
One interesting thing is that the anti-competition law has already been used against Google. But I think we are going to have to find new ways of interpreting anti-competition law in the future, that is one important task for the European Union. The other is to really enforce GDPR hard. We should focus on those two to get to a point that we can really think about AI, killer drones, block chain. For me it would be focussing on the things we already have now instead of new laws in the future, for they are already pretty new now.’’
Besides a growing importance of law enforcement, what dangers does the internet impose specifically for the EU democracy as a whole, compared to other democracies?
,,Again, it’s hard to say for the EU level. If we take the EU as a whole, by looking at all the member states, one of the most obvious ones, which I think they all share, is the idea of maintaining elections that have integrity, so with people’s trust. So if you think about the possibility of interference of other (hostile) countries, and you see domestic political parties using digital advertising to get around legislations that would ordinarily monitor how information is checked and verified when it comes to campaign material, those two things together mean that integrity of election is out of the question, because I think people will say ‘We don’t trust the results, we think there was interference from Russia et cetera. For every European country, I think their number one most important job at the moment is to make sure that the regulations that cover elections are strict to their purpose, because elections are not the only important thing about democracy, but they’re the most visual one, everyone understands it, sees it and knows what it is. For me, that is the big challenge for the next couple of years. It has to happen very quickly, because this is all moving very fast.’’
That leads to my next question. The EU elections are coming up soon. Do you think the EU elections are as vulnerable as in the US for digital targeting?
,,Ya, I think that any election at the moment is equally vulnerable, because you have an international network. With the EU, so continent wide elections, it’s going to maybe even be harder to measure, check and verify, because there’s so much going on. It will be in so many different countries that it’s going to be very, very difficult to ensure that there’s no form of interference at all. So I would say it’s probably harder than a national election because of the scale and scope, the language distance and so on.’’
Recent research showed that about 50% of the EU population finds the EU as a whole, and thus the coming elections, irrelevant. Do you think that the internet could save the relevance of the EU and its elections?
,,The EU is such a strong, powerful economic block. I feel like the internet has given the EU a very important new role that is crucial and vital. The EU is now illustrating how it should be done. Which does feel to me like it has given the EU a brand new relevancy, an important one. One that people are beginning to understand. Weirdly, yes, the internet is saving the EU. Because the next job for the EU is certainly going to be to work out whether it can improve the way that the EU level democracy itself works. For example using technology to improve transparency. There are very interesting and exciting opportunities that the internet hands us for that as well.’’
So that’s a good future to look forward to!