Does an “open internet” promote a representative democracy? No, because democracy is not its job

Techopedia defines the open internet as “a fundamental network (net) neutrality concept in which information across the World Wide Web (WWW) is equally free and available without variables that depend on the financial motives of Internet Service Providers (ISP).”

The political debate over net neutrality over the last three years has focused on the ability of ISPs such as Comcast and AT&T to discriminate against third-party content provider traffic in favor of ISP content, to the extent that ISPs are expected to use their gateway status to slow down traffic from certain websites or outright block subscriber access to certain websites.

The internet as a platform plays an important role in American commerce as American consumers are expected to spend an estimated $7.8 billion on Cyber Monday. Net neutrality violations could mean lost advertisement revenues for content providers who are unable to get their products and advertisements in front of consumer eyeballs.  Being cut out of $7.8 billion of revenues during the holiday season could pose an existential threat for small businesses depending on those holiday sales to break even or stay in the black.

Besides the issue of staying in the black is the issue of whether an open internet promotes the components of American political culture; whether an open internet or lack thereof poses an existential threat to the American republic.  I think as currently construed, an open internet does not pose an existential threat to the American republic. On the contrary, when it comes to navigating the political-economic environment of the United States, knowledge on how well American representative democracy is working is best ascertained by reviewing hard political-economic data published by public agencies or academic or other research institutions.

The open internet has inundated the political economy with junk. It has Americans sacrificing value of specialized information for volumes of narcissistic junk.

First, why has the internet not eroded the American republic?  Contrary to the hoopla surrounding assertions that the Russian government sponsored psychological warfare on the American electorate during the November 2016 elections, the populace participated in the selection of the electors that voted for the president of the United States. More votes were cast for president in 2016 (135,719,984) than were cast in 2012 (128,768,094).

In addition, what I refer to as “insurgent” parties, i.e., the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, etc., did better in 2016 than they did in 2012.  The Gary Johnson-led Libertarian Party ticket picked up approximately 4.5 million votes in 2016 compared to 1.3 million votes in 2012.  The Jill Stein-led Green Party almost tripled its 2012 showing during the 2016 campaign, with approximately 1.5 million votes cast for the Green Party in 2016 versus approximately 470,000 votes in 2012.

Rather than eroding representative democracy, an argument could be made that the internet provided less expensive outlets for insurgent parties to get their messages out to the voting public.  I saw more of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein on YouTube than I did mainstream press.

America’s founding aristocracy chose a republic as the best vehicle for promoting the three major components of American political culture: liberty, equality, and democracy.  Does the open internet help promote these characteristics of American political culture? I would argue only if the government expressly decides to use the open internet itself in order to accomplish these goals or requires by charter that every private entity operating on the internet do so.

Liberty is freedom from government control where Americans expect a great degree of economic and personal freedom without the government unreasonably regulating personal and commercial behavior.  The open internet itself does not have this responsibility. In the end it is just a communications platform.  Problems would arise if government were to use the internet for surveillance purposes, i.e., use deep packet reading to ascertain what messages you are sending over the internet or, under the guise of “smart city” technology, surveil minority neighborhoods to regulate citizen movement.

Nor does the internet have the responsibility of creating political equality. Political equality refers to the right to participate in politics equally based on the principle of “one person, one vote.”  Notwithstanding the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 general elections, the “one person, one vote” characteristic of American political culture is, again, the responsibility of national and state governments.  Online voting as a concept is in its infant stage.  And while the Russians allegedly interfered by waging a messaging campaign via social media, there were other outlets, both online and offline, where Americans could get their information and strengthen their “one vote” with knowledge.

Lastly, there is democracy itself, the right to cast that one vote for the candidate of your choice.  How does the unimpeded flow of information across 100,000 interconnected global computer networks impact your ability to choose a leader? The above discussion summarizes the answer: it doesn’t.  Yes, one could go to the internet and look up information on a candidate, but there are millions of Americans with no access to broadband that function normally in society; that buy groceries, go to work, and yes, vote, without having to access the information floating around the internet that is deposited by various sources.  Besides traditional media, they probably access information from the original sources i.e. city council meetings; public access television, government agency public information offices, and make just as accurate a political decision as the woman surfing the internet in her bunny sandals and pajamas.

Yes, the internet has afforded millions of people to express themselves in cyberspace via blogs, websites, podcasts, and online videos, but the open internet neither promotes or hinders democracy.  Only humans can and there are other sources of information through which humans can accumulate knowledge on liberty, equality, and democracy.  Democracy is the responsibility of government and its citizens.  The open internet is neither savior, devil, or panacea….

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City of Atlanta’s response to Brian Kemp’s victory: silence

Today, Stacey Abrams acknowledged that a court-facilitated path to the governor’s office in Georgia is not there. Although not a traditional concession that the race is over, her Republican challenger, Brian Kemp, can now proceed to taking over the governorship without the distraction of court challenges.

What does this mean for the city of Atlanta in the short term? Besides having a ground level view to a smooth and peaceful transition of power intended by the designers of American democracy, I believe not much. The city’s residents are preparing for the holiday season, with Thanksgiving next week and Christmas coming in the next five.

Over the next two years I suspect that residents will take note of predicted changes in the economy, specifically increasing bank rates, inflation, and increasing bond yields on Treasury notes.  As the population continues to increase and demand for housing along with it, Atlanta’s lower income class will be the first to feel the financial pressure as homes become less affordable, businesses raise prices, and the gains in labor start to fade.

Although local elected officials will bear the brunt of increasing criticism for the state of the city’s economic affairs, Mr. Kemp, in order to ward off a successful election challenge in 2022, will have to come up with an economic management plan that at least prevents Atlanta from spawning the next challenger.

As for Atlanta city government’s relationship with the Governor and the Georgia General Assembly, I have yet to see whether one exists.  If today is any indication, Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Bottoms, had not, at the time of this writing, issued a press release congratulating the governor-elect.

It also does not help that Mrs. Bottoms has aligned herself with the “sanctuary city” movement where local city officials and civic groups have challenged federal immigration laws requiring cooperation with federal agencies in the detention of undocumented foreigners residing in the United States.

Having not spent time herself as a member of the Georgia Assembly, nor, based on her bio, no time in political or non-political positions requiring engagement with the governor’s office or the general assembly, Mrs. Bottoms seems to be falling further behind on the legislative and executive front as a result of not being in a position to foster these relationships.

That said, it is still early in the political game heading into the 2019 legislative session. There may be time to build those relationships.

 

Black Georgia voters opting for history versus substance

Dropped by the polling spot in the West End Atlanta to cast a vote.  Gentleman behind me, African American, begins to harp quietly but confidently about the historic moment; the opportunity to send Georgia’s first black American female to the governor’s office.

I held my tongue.  I am not impressed by the notion of symbolic voting, the need to be the “first black this” or the “first black that.”  It has garnered black Americans nothing of substance other than a brief few hours of pride for the onesie-twosies.

Should Stacey Abrams pull off a victory, whether tonight or in a run-off, she will have her ability to negotiate across the aisle challenged by a legislature dominated by Republicans who reside mostly outside of Interstate 485. Democrats don’t appear to have invested any time in providing Ms. Abrams a legislature that will work with her or at least a legislature with enough Democrats to provide her some leverage.

My instincts tell me, however, that Ms. Abrams will be satisfied with milking the “Oh, the Republicans are blocking me at all turns because I am a black woman” argument. Given the amount of support she has received from liberal political action committees outside of the Peach State, the end game may be for Ms. Abrams to survive long enough to be a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2024.

I expected Kasim Reed to make a play for statewide office, but it seems that liberals have made Ms. Abrams their “people of color” poster child and hung their hopes on her.

For this to come to fruition, of course, Ms. Abrams will have to win.

Government’s role in regulating access to personal data

Yuval Noah Harari recent wrote an article for The Atlantic where he posed the question, “How do you regulate the ownership of data?” Professor Harari argues in the article that data is the most important asset today, moving ahead of land and machinery.  “Politics will be a struggle to control the data’s flow”, says Professor Harari.

Last spring saw the United States Congress’ struggle to at least map out a course through the turbulent waters of data privacy as members of the House of Representatives and Senate took the opportunity to grill Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his company’s handling of personal data obtained from the social media giant by a consultancy.

Part of this struggle may be due in part to the popularity of social media network platforms. Facebook has climbed from a digital bulletin board developed in the early 2000s in an Ivy League college dorm room to a global subscribership of over two billion people.  Former president Barack Obama’s Twitter following is in the millions while the current president, Donald Trump, is not shy or slow to taking to Twitter to either connect with and inform his base of supporters or attack the traditional media for what he perceives as unfair coverage of his administration.

Professor Harari notes that users of social media network platforms have not reached the point where they are ready to stop feeding the “attention merchants.”  Speaking on the difficulty subscribers may have in exchanging personal data for “free” services, Professor Harari points out that:

“But it, later on, ordinary people decide to block the flow of data, they are likely to have trouble doing so, especially as they may have come to rely on the network to help them make decisions, and even for their health and physical survival.”

Professor Harari offered up one solution, nationalization of data, to stem the abuses that corporations may impart on addicted social media and internet consumers, but admits that just because an asset is in the hands of government doesn’t mean things will necessarily go well.  Hence the question, how should the ownership of data be regulated?

The question will require public policymakers and politicians go through the exercise of defining “personal data.”  Would personal data be any characteristic about you? Would it be about any marker, no matter how temporary or permanent, that can be attached to you?  Must the “data” be something that the consumer actually produced?

Politically, attention merchants would want a narrow reading of the definition of personal data.  A narrower reading of personal data means being able to obtain more information pursuant to fewer restrictions. While this outcome would be ideal for corporate entities in the business of brokering data, I don’t see Republicans, even with their mantra of promoting business, enthusiastically endorsing less restrictive collection of personal data given the public’s concern for privacy.