If the Liberal Democrats won’t defend liberal democracy, we might as well give up on it

Tonight Vince Cable (current party leader) and Tim Farron (previously party leader) of the ‘Liberal Democrats’ failed to turn up to the House of Commons and vote on key Brexit amendments. As a result, they contributed to the craziness of a government victory which overturned the government’s own position, making a No Deal Brexit substantially more likely.

I am seriously struggling to understand how this could have been allowed to happen. The only possible explanation is ‘pairing’, where whips from different parties allow people on opposite sides of a vote to ‘pair off’ (more here). However, that seems unlikely, as the Conservative government doesn’t have a majority, and Brexit votes are surely far too important to allow pairing, given the potential for rebellions and defeats.

To illustrate further, several Tory MPs rebelled tonight, including a government minister. (Guto Bebb voted against the government, in favour of the position the government held until it won the vote against itself. I hope you’re following this.)

Now, since 2016, the Liberal Democrats have tried to set themselves up as the party of the 48%: the party of Remainers. They’ve always been the UK’s most pro-EU party. This, I welcome. I would not be a party member if we were to be anything other than pro-EU and internationalist.

However, the Lib Dems have repeatedly failed to properly OPPOSE Brexit. For all they talk about it, they have failed over and over to take an absolute position in which Brexit will be stopped in its tracks. Instead, the party favours a so-called ‘People’s Vote’ – another referendum that includes the option to stay in the EU.

This of course ignores the fact that we now know that the 2016 referendum was won on a prospectus of bare-faced lies, illegal campaigning, and foreign funding and intervention. The Lib Dems have chosen to ignore all this, and instead advocate another vote, even though it’s clear to anyone following investigations and inquiries into the 2016 referendum closely that its result was unsafe, and that UK democracy is also unsafe as a result.

It’s very clear to me and, I think, to a substantial number of other party members that our current policy is inadequate and insufficient. However, even if we accept the current policy, it still requires all Lib Dem MPs, especially senior ones like Cable and Farron, to be present for critical Parliamentary votes as a bare minimum. When the government is attempting to sack Parliament off for an early recess, and when it’s clear that they’re attempting to bypass Parliament wherever possible, MPs simply have to turn up.

I’m furious at Vince and Tim (both people I once had huge stocks of respect for, which are rapidly dwindling) for failing to do their basic duty as Parliamentarians and as senior Lib Dems. It’s clear that Tim hasn’t got a good excuse (he was apparently off doing one of his talks about illiberalism, rather than representing liberals). I hope Vince has a better one. But this is hugely disappointing.

Once again, I demand that the Lib Dems take the opportunity to become the opposition the UK needs. The current position is weak. There is no risk in being braver. Losing more seats means nothing when you’re starting with 12. The UK is undergoing an epochal shift in which the very idea of liberal democracy is dying. If the LIBERAL DEMOCRATS can’t defend that idea properly, we might as well just surrender to it all, and get out while we can.

Advertisements

Nick Clegg’s illiberalism should no longer be mistaken for pragmatism

Nick Clegg, former Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, is at it again. Yesterday he published an opinion piece in the Financial Times on the secret burning desire of EU leaders to address the ‘untouchable principle’ of freedom of movement. He tweeted it out to the world in this way:

I do not have time to deal with the article itself. As usual it is technocratic, moderate-sounding ‘inside baseball’ about the manoeuvres of EU member states on migration, making out as if it’s oh so reasonable to chip away some more at the only fundamental principle of the European Union that makes it truly different from any other capitalist trade project.

What I really want to say is this: if Nick Clegg really thinks that now is the time to make this argument, he is either not a liberal in any sense, or entirely ignorant about what the impact of his words will be.

Does he really think that no one in Europe is making the argument to curtail freedom of movement? It seems impossible that he does; for one thing, his own article suggests that literally everyone is already challenging the principle he claims is untouchable, even if only privately.

Does he really think no one in the UK is making the argument to curtail freedom of movement? Given he has been one of the leading pro-EU voices in the Brexit farrago throughout its tortured history, it seems impossible that he does.

In short, the ‘untouchable principle’ he invokes in his tweet is not just touchable: it’s already covered in the dirty fingerprints and nail gouges of the people who are driving the UK and other European nations rapidly away from liberal democracy.

The only explanation for his tweet and his article is therefore that he genuinely believes adding his own voice to the argument against freedom of movement is the most important thing he could do at this point in British and European political history.

A real liberal leader would not be giving any space whatsoever to the nativist, authoritarian forces that have risen up in the UK and Europe. Instead, they would be emphasising the popularity of freedom of movement within the EU, which is overwhelming and, if anything, increasing. Compare for example these two charts, from 2015 and 2018, both taken from regular Eurobarometer surveys of public opinion on the EU and its institutions.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A real liberal leader would be using the current moment to defend freedom of movement as an absolute red line in the European Union, advocating our continued membership of the EU on that basis, and instead seeking to expand the principle of freedom of movement globally.

I long for such a leader to arrive. Sadly, I no longer expect one to come from the ranks of the Liberal Democrats. Even though Clegg is no longer the party’s leader, his legacy and ongoing influence is clear, and the failure of the party and its current leader to counter this craven illiberalism brings shame on all of its members.

With their incendiary opinion on Vote Leave’s alleged electoral offences, Matrix Chambers bring us into the real world

A legal opinion prepared by Matrix Chambers and published by the House of Commons Committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport today shows a ‘prima facie case’ for at least four separate electoral offences committed by Vote Leave in the EU referendum campaign.

Image result for the matrix

This is a different Matrix but if anything these guys aren’t as cool

The opinion is based on testimony from a third whistleblower – Mark Gettleson – who had firsthand knowledge of the campaign as a web designer and communications consultant.

It relates to the way different Leave-supporting campaigns interacted, and alleges very strongly that there was coordination on spending between the different campaigns, which is illegal. This was done to avoid the spending limits that apply under election law.

This much we basically knew, but the opinion does go far deeper into the offences than previous journalistic reporting, mainly because of Gettleson’s account and the primary evidence he’s provided.

The Matrix lawyers state pretty baldly:

In the absence of cogent evidence in defence of the allegations, we consider that there would be realistic prospects of conviction of these offences.

Reading further into the paper, it’s abundantly clear that the two key campaigns – Vote Leave and BeLeave – were absolutely indistinguishable. You can read more of the background of the sudden, massive £625,000 given to BeLeave’s 23 year old leader Darren Grimes on openDemocracy.

It is extraordinary how little attention has been captured by the newly published opinion, and how few statements made by Parliamentarians or members of the government. As I write, the Liberal Democrats – allegedly the foremost voice against Brexit, although I wish we were speaking far louder and far more boldly – have yet to make a statement on the issue.

Regardless, the opinion only confirms the deep suspicions I hold over the legality of the Leave campaign’s behaviour. I am amazed that so few people who voted Leave are concerned about the possibility that the referendum is unsafe.

However, if investigators stick doggedly to their guns, if further whistleblowers keep coming forward, and if Matrix Chambers continue their forensic work, I have no doubt that we will see exactly how far this rabbit hole goes.

What will it take for the Lib Dems to get bolder?

libdemmeme

It is with a heavy heart that I must report that the Liberal Democrats are at it again. Their current consultation on ‘a liberal immigration policy’ has been the subject of condemnation from many party members.

As so often, I find myself agreeing. The immigration issue is another example of the Lib Dems failing to think boldly about a liberal starting point for policy development. For some reason, the party still seems to think it must start from the current political landscape and work backwards.

The same disease afflicts our Brexit policy, which remains pathetically and painfully unambitious. We remain wedded to the idea of another referendum, even though democratic principle and practical experience should both tell us that this is a non-starter.

Brexit has been shown to be an unprecedented fraud perpetrated on the UK, one that is damaging not just to our country but to the EU and to the world. The only conceivable choice for a liberal, internationalist party is to commit to the revocation of Article 50. The way negotiations have gone, I am gobsmacked that we are still talking about giving people a say on ‘the deal’ as if that is a sufficient response to a constitutional and generational political crisis.

If the party cannot get serious about being liberal when it is on single figures in the polls, I find myself questioning whether it ever will. This is the best possible time to carve out bold new positions and ideas that make us genuinely different to other parties.

The lights are going out on liberal democracy everywhere. Yet the Lib Dems are refusing to rage against the dying of the light.

For the record, here are my answers to the consultation questions, along with glosses explaining some of the answers. It is open until April 12th. I hope other members will also consider responding.


What in your view is the biggest issue facing UK immigration system? [sic]

That the system itself is set up to be adversarial towards non-UK citizens. This is not a fair starting point and reflects neither the rights I want our country to extend to all people, nor the importance of immigration to our culture and society as a liberalising, enriching, and tolerance-supporting phenomenon, nor the huge economic benefits of immigration.

Please rank the areas of immigration policy that the consultation considers in order of priority: where first is the area in most urgent need of reform and last is the area in least urgent need of reform:

  1. Asylum seekers and refugees
  2. Individuals without immigration status
  3. Family migration
  4. Student and academic migration
  5. Employment and economic migration
  6. Identity and social cohesion
  7. Administration and oversight of migration

[My approach here was simply to put people first, and more vulnerable people first among equals, on the basis that if we are to create a liberal, humanitarian policy, that’s the most important thing we could do – points 5-7 are secondary because they are the ‘how’ and not the ‘why’ of immigration]

Do you feel that immigration over the last 25 years has had a positive or negative impact on the UK? (1 is very negative, 7 is very positive)

7 – very positive

Are there any categories of migration for which you think an immigration target is appropriate?

There are no categories of migration for which a target is appropriate.
[This question is a great example of the false premises from which the party is starting. Why are we even asking this question? That said, at least I can give an answer I approve of.]

UK citizens should be allowed to bring immediate family (spouse/partner, children under 18) irrespective of their income, as long as they are self-sufficient, i.e can support them and provide housing without recourse to public funds. [1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree]

I couldn’t answer this question, as it doesn’t give the option of rejecting its premise. UK citizens should be able to bring immediate family regardless of their economic circumstances or self-sufficiency. It’s a basic right.

What do you think of the current rules on when the parents of British citizens can migrate to the UK?

Far too strict.

[I nearly refused the opportunity to respond to this question for similar reasons to the last one, but as the list of answers is more qualitative, I feel slightly more comfortable]

How far do you agree with the below statements about student migration?

Foreign students attending UK universities are beneficial to the country
Strongly agree
There is too much pressure on universities and colleges to monitor foreign students
Strongly agree
There should be new visa categories that allow foreign students to stay in the UK after they have completed their degree/course to gain further practical experience or take up employment

[I couldn’t answer this one, as ‘Strongly agree’ implies more visa categories added to an already over-complicated system, while anything else suggests I don’t want to give students the right to live and work in the UK.]

How much do you agree or disagree with the below statements about economic migration?

There should be a limit on the number of work visas that are issued each year
Strongly disagree
Visas should be allocated on a regional points-based system
Strongly disagree
Visas should be allocated on a sectoral points-based system
Strongly disagree
Salary limits for work visas should vary depending on sector

[Again, I can’t answer this one, as I don’t believe there should be salary limits for work visas]

What do you think of the number of refugees and asylum seekers that the UK currently takes in? (1 = far too many, 7 = far too few)

7 – far too few

Please indicate how important you think each of these options is for enabling migrants to integrate into UK society

[I couldn’t answer any of these genuinely, as I don’t think there’s much evidence that migrants aren’t integrating well into UK society. It’s far less of a problem than UK citizens’ attitudes towards immigrants.]

Finally, if you were to recommend one change to the Party’s immigration policy, what would it be?

  • Please stop being a slightly less bad version of Labour, who are a slightly less bad version of the Tories.
  • Start instead being a liberal party that leads society and improves democracy by operating according to principles. If voters continue to believe lies, advocate for the truth.
  • If we can’t have the courage of our convictions now, we never will. If you don’t share these convictions, please change yours.

Credit where credit’s due: an under-appreciated reason why Britain voted for Brexit – and a possible solution

This morning, Theresa May tweeted this. She must have got up pretty early on a Saturday morning to make that nice infographic. Who’d be prime minister, eh?

What an excellent policy! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of this kind of basic, decent move as something I would naturally associate with the Conservatives.

They don’t usually show much interest in tinkering boringly with the finer points of consumer finance to give us all a better deal. (They’re usually more interested in keeping their donors onside, often by shaping the financial system in their favour.)

So, this is almost certainly good news. Most of us have probably experienced unexpected surcharges on card payments at one time or another, whether it’s at your local cornershop or when buying train tickets online. This ought to cut that out at a stroke.

There’s one small problem with how Theresa May’s presenting this. And here it is: the UK government didn’t come up with the idea. It’s a requirement of the EU Payment Services Directive 2, which came into force in January 2016. Today (13th January 2018) is actually the last possible day for EU member states to enforce this part of the directive.

This is also key to the policy’s success. Because it’s being introduced as an integrated requirement across the 28 member states of the EU, the likelihood of companies raising prices to compensate, or stopping card payments entirely, is probably pretty small.

Armed with this information, we can now revisit May’s tweet. It can be read two ways:

  1. She, a Conservative prime minister leading a government whose sole policy is leaving the EU, is taking sole credit for an EU initiative that had nothing to do with her;
  2. She, a Conservative prime minister leading a government whose sole policy is leaving the EU, is associating herself and her government with the EU to such an extent that she is willing to use the first person plural.

I don’t know about you, but I’m plumping for 1.

Why does this matter?

This kind of failure to allocate credit for policies that actually benefit voters and society is a big part of why the UK voted to leave the EU. Voters see the benefits without understanding the process. (It’s also, incidentally, why people continue to vote for the Conservatives rather than the Lib Dems despite the coalition government’s most popular policies – on income tax, environment, marriage and even plastic bags – all coming from the smaller party.)

This is a huge problem in democracies the world over. Democratic governments generally don’t advertise, and that’s a good thing. And if they do, it’s generally to market new policies that are reliant on widespread public knowledge, an approach that often fails, and often because the policies are terrible.

Two recent examples are the Green Deal (a catastrophic failure where the government over-promised, rushed the policy out, and failed to market it, sometimes all at once) and the Help to Buy scheme (quite good take-up, but for a policy that actively exacerbates the housing crisis).

But that general lack of marketing means it’s political parties who market successes as their own, even when they aren’t.

A possible solution

I have been giving some thought to this problem of late. It seems to me that we need some kind of independent platform – maybe just a website – that details the source, development and impact of policies, and gives credit where credit is due.

Sure, not many voters would read it very often, but if done with sufficient quality and transparency, it would be a hugely useful resource during election periods – potentially making VAAs more accurate, and enabling journalists and broadcasters to refer to it.

Although there is a ton of money going into new fact-checking initiatives at the moment, these tend to be reactive. This would be one way to build a bank of accurate information that could also serve organisations like Full Fact, strengthening their ability to scrutinise.

It would be a major undertaking, requiring a number of permanent researchers and fact-checkers to aggregate the information, and then some savvy marketing and social media activity to promote its existence.

If you’re interested in helping to create such a website or platform, I have many further thoughts. Feel free to get in touch with me via the comments, Twitter, or Facebook.

Salvator Mundi: a record price for a priceless work?

So, let’s talk about this Leonardo painting that sold for $450 million.

Apparently Jesus was considered a bit of a stoner in 1500 (Photo: Robert Simon, public domain)

The painting was bought from Dmitry Rybolovlev, a name that will be familiar to anyone following the Trump-Russia story over the past year and a half. Rybolovlev bought a house from Donald Trump for $95 million, a couple of years after Trump had bought it for ~$41 million.

His private jet has also been spotted in many of the same places as Trump’s, both during the campaign and the presidency. This story in the Seattle Times sums it all up quite well.

Rybolovlev bought the #Leonardo painting for $127.5 million in 2013, according to the BBC. So he’s made a tidy $322,500,000 profit.

It’s unlikely any of this is connected, but massive inflation of asset prices of this type is highly suggestive. It would be great if such high profile art sales were used as an opportunity to educate people on the opacity of that world.

The Panama Papers investigations shed a lot of light on the extent to which high end art sales mirror other parts of the shadow economy. This story, for instance, is a great backgrounder on the relationship between private art sales and money laundering.

Look out for the key passage on the ‘freeport’, a special free trade zone that exists purely to hold precious art:

The piece also reveals that our old friend Mr Rybolovlev is at war with the so-called ‘King of the Freeports’, a guy called Yves Bouvier:

I highly recommend you read the rest of the piece if you want to know more about that world.

Fixing Misinformation is a Misguided and Insufficient Strategy

Searching for new ways to stop the spread of false information is an understandable response to recent political developments, but proponents of the strategy are picking the wrong battle if they want to win this vital war

Recent revelations in the UK’s traditional media on Russian attempts to spread mis- and disinformation have been met with aghast intakes of breath. But this shocked response is really British exceptionalism, allied to a pretty incompetent domestic press. The issue of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda spread by social media has been at play for a long time in global civil society.

pjimage2054

Breathless headlines for a very old story: The Times/The Guardian (via BusinessInsider)

‘Fake news’ has become a co-opted cliché. It’s now more likely to be used by those who create and spread lies – such as the president of the United States – than those who unpick them. For the parts of civil society that have picked up the daunting gauntlet of defending the truth, the phrase is already a bad joke at best.

That doesn’t mean that they’ve given up on trying to solve the problem, though. Attempts to differentiate between misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda have become more sophisticated, and definitions are becoming more defined. According to experts on the topic at the most recent MisinfoCon, held in London in October, there are now more than forty projects engaged in tackling different aspects of the problem, mostly funded by the same few large philanthropic foundations. There is tremendous energy and enthusiasm among the motley community of academics, techies, policy wonks and activists attacking this. I consider myself to be part of that broad community.

However, the headlong rush to ‘solve’ this problem is misconceived and misguided. There are several different reasons for this. I’m aiming in this post to set out what those reasons are and how we could redirect our efforts, as a community, towards more effective and valuable outcomes.

I want to make clear at this point that I’m mostly writing about the situation from an English language perspective and I’m inevitably heavily biased towards the UK and US.

Jump to:

    1. Excessive focus on misinformation is a mistake
    2. Of firehoses and water pistols
    3. Wrangling the tech titans
    4. What should we do?

 

1: Excessive focus on one part of the information system is a mistake

At Mozilla Festival, also held in London in October, I attended a highly enjoyable session where the organizers (Melissa Ryan and Sam Jeffers) led several groups in imagining and designing ‘fake news’ articles. What this session proved beyond doubt is how easy it is to create such stories out of thin air. Although no one there had previously tried to write something viral and false, we all came with compelling ideas that would probably have gained at least some traction.

The rise of misinformation in the current age is not the product of newly creative bad actors. People – especially powerful people – have been lying since the dawn of time. It hasn’t become easier to create false information; it’s become far easier to disseminate it, and to profit from it. That’s an infrastructure problem; to correct it, you have to address the whole system and not merely one part of it.

It’s no surprise therefore that when we came towards the end of that session and began to discuss solutions, we drew a collective blank. Someone tentatively proposed better media education as a solution: that’s an admirable aim, but even if policy-makers acted now (and they aren’t), it will take at least a decade to make a noticeable difference. (I also happen to believe that the breakdown of trust in the media is arguably a consequence of improved media literacy.)

The best outcome of media literacy in a complex, tech-driven information ecosystem is perhaps not restored trust, but more sophisticated and granular distrust. To put it another way, we want distrust (i.e. limits on how far we are willing to accept information based on our experience and available data), not mistrust (i.e. a general cynical unease based on the complexity of modern life).

So attempts to change readers’ habits are long-term and therefore, I’d argue, insufficient as a solution for the immediate problems we face (by which I mean, we are already being governed by people who were elected in part on the basis of false information, at least in the USA and the UK). And attempts to reduce the amount of false information being produced are obviously doomed to fail.

In that context, it’s no wonder that we’ve turned to the kinds of projects that feel the most likely to succeed. But it’s short-sighted to focus all our efforts on the bad information in the system. We need to think much bigger, which brings me to the next point.

2: We can’t fight the falsehood wildfire with the tiny water pistol of truth

I have heard this point made occasionally at large disinfo- and misinformation conferences on both sides of the Atlantic (including MisinfoCon London and the Digital Disinformation Forum held at Stanford back in June). But it doesn’t appear to have sunk in yet.

It seems facile to point this out, but even if we removed all the false information from the 21st century information ecosystem overnight, it still wouldn’t be healthy. That’s because the news industry’s incentives are set up wrong. Far more intelligent people than me have written about the corrosive impact of advertising on journalism, going back many decades.

More recently, the rise of the monopolistic tech titans (Google and Facebook), who now control the vast majority of the advertising market, has accelerated the tendency towards what we sometimes call ‘infotainment’: clickbait headlines leading us into factoid-laden stories of limited value and relevance. This is only likely to continue as newsfeed and search engine algorithms increasingly surface content based on a blend of general popularity, low quality titillation and individual preference.

While there are very clear differences between the large tech firms in terms of their motives, I am not sure that any of them can honestly claim to hold the high ground on this. Perhaps Google’s search team remains committed to giving humans access to high quality information, although Yelp and others may disagree. But YouTube (a natural monopoly and, if you’d forgotten, a Google company) is, by contrast, a nest of vipers, while Google News is still promoting false stories from long-time fakers and trolls like 4Chan.

In short, the business model that sustained for-profit journalism is broken beyond repair. The reporting on Donald Trump during the US election bears this out. Misinformation became a problem towards the end of that campaign, but way before that had occurred, the mainstream news media in the US gave Trump far more publicity than other candidates. This is because they have to compete for attention in an ever-expanding sea of attention seekers. Trump was outrageous, controversial, brash; in short, a ready-made attention-grabbing brand. (This is hardly surprising given his own business dealings have been based on nothing more than his brand – his own name – for decades.)

The question then often arises: what should we do about the broken business model? There is a lingering belief that journalism can become self-sustaining. There are some interesting new attempts to prove that subscription models can provide lasting funding: two that spring to mind are The Correspondent and Jimmy Wales’ latest endeavour, WikiTribune. People will often also point to the increase in subscriptions at established for-profit newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Guardian as evidence that readers are waking up to the threat posed by misinformation.

I think people need to get real about the likely success of such initiatives. Even if something like WikiTribune does get traction, it’s going to take years for such a small organisation to start to produce the kind of investigative reporting that will make a dent, whether by raising standards in the news industry, or by improving transparency in the political landscape.

3: There is no consensus on regulation of the tech giants

While EU regulators have been on the case for a while, a happy recent development is that US legislators have finally begun to grapple with the monopolistic power of the social media platforms that have accelerated the spread of false information. Sadly, their focus is currently taken up mostly with the influence of foreign entities (especially Russia) on elections, rather than the general degradation of information quality that these platforms and their super-dominant technologies are creating.

These are extremely knotty political questions that have no easy answers. In that sense it’s not surprising that the open internet advocacy community has developed little to no consensus on how to approach the issue. This is partly because many in that community are equally worried (sometimes more worried) about government interventions as they are about private corporations. These are people who are used to fighting against excessive surveillance by intelligence agencies; their heroes are Snowden and Manning. As such, it doesn’t come naturally to petition the government to take action against excessive corporate surveillance.

There’s also the risk that by taking action, governments could actually give more power to the platforms. I’ve been back and forth on the issue of CDA230, the provision that protects the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter from being liable for content posted on their platforms. This is a law that is staunchly defended by freedom of expression activists in the USA.

However, it has arguably backfired in its intention to allow speech to flourish online by allowing all sorts of misinformation and hate speech to be posted without placing enough of a responsibility on these media companies – for that is partly what they are – and by failing to account for what happens when, as in other markets, a few dominant players emerge. A law created in 1996 when the internet was an anarchic Wild West of small, intensely competitive players now looks like an anachronism, protecting the few titans of Silicon Valley.

On the other, placing that responsibility on these tech/media companies now, when they are the de facto managers of online speech, both gives them even more power and adds to the risk of censorship. Once you’ve gone down that path, what is there to stop governments imposing similar conditions on other publishers or editor-like websites?

So, there’s no easy win here either. The reality is that only the threat of government intervention to regulate the market on the basis of competition/antitrust law – perhaps by breaking apart Alphabet and Facebook, which are both collections of monopolies – may be what goads the companies into taking real action.

So what do possible solutions look like?

1: Good quality information doesn’t come for free. So fund it.

One partial solution – crucially, one of which we (global civil society) can shape most or all elements – is to pour as many resources as possible into existing success stories, in an attempt to scale them. At the moment, philanthropic attempts to support media are too meagre to do anything but create additional competition, even between non-profit outlets that are openly committed to extraordinary collaboration. The same few foundations funding the same few organisations is all quite cosy, but doesn’t do enough to expand the amount of good quality information flowing through the system.

If we want projects like the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers to be more than annual events, then reducing the need to compete (or, to put it another way, reducing the barriers to collaboration) and improving the technology used by investigative journalists and civil society accountability organisations should be the two foremost priorities. What characterises the network of organisations that carried out those projects is that it is sufficiently removed from the profit motive and sufficiently focused on social impact that its leaders are willing to forego the benefits that derive from exclusivity.

It follows that the main way we can expand the amount of good quality reporting in the system is to crowd in more funding at a sufficient scale to make a difference. Omidyar Network’s announcement earlier this year of an extra $100 million to address the global ‘trust deficit’ was impressive, but it’s important to realise that the amount allocated to content production is probably only a third of that (it’s not entirely clear where it’s all going).

We need a global fund of sufficient scale that it can accept money from all-comers, including corporate and individual donors who, on their own, would pose too much of a reputational risk to organisations receiving money. This fund, if large enough, could support global public interest media in perpetuity. There are already strong proposals on how to fund this. Governments recovering assets and money on the back of investigative journalism, for example, could tithe some part of the return into a trust. Or, indeed, there could be a levy placed on the tech titans (or voluntarily paid by them), as proposed variously by expert commentators like Emily Bell, Ben Eltham and Steven Waldman.

2: Turn surveillance tech to the people’s advantage.

The thing that really drives the tech titans’ insane profitability is their successful drive to turn surveillance into something people don’t just passively accept, but to which they actively contribute. On Facebook, Google or Twitter, you are the product. Attention has been tied in an unprecedented way to personalisation through massive-scale analytics conducted by beautiful, sophisticated mathematical contraptions barely understood even by the people who built them.

By contrast, the world of journalism is barely even living in the 20th century, let alone the 21st, when it comes to technology. It’s telling that the most popular film about investigative journalism since the mid 1970s – Spotlight – depicts an investigation conducted in the early 2000s in which the reporters rely pretty much entirely on shoe leather, phone calls, door-knocking and interviews. It’s extremely trad journalism. It has very little to do with the state of the art of investigative journalism today, which is heavily reliant on mapping relationships between entities found in disparate, large and often incredibly unwieldy datasets.

Because of the dire funding situation for accountability journalism, no single organisation – even in the for-profit media space – has the money to invest in the quality data scientists and software engineers you would need to get the most out of a leak like the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers. Due to increasing collaboration, those projects have yielded tremendous results, but they could have yielded far more if there were a common set of tools, used by everyone, into which data could be shared.

‘Surveillance tech’ is a scary name for something that is, itself, agnostic. What makes the tech titans scary is their incredible network effects, the impossibility of knowing their motives, and the lack of accountability around what they are and do. If we were to build an open source, publicly available data commons to store datasets relevant to transparency, accountability and democracy – such as all public registers of ownership, all public land registries, and structured data from major leaks – it would vastly accelerate and improve the investigative process. In time, you can also envisage this commons including ‘open source intelligence’ – scraped YouTube videos, tweets, Instagram photos and all the rest.

This would be a major technological endeavour, but it is not at all beyond the bounds of current software engineers. What it requires is money and a team willing to work for the good of humanity, rather than for their own financial interests, and those of some anonymous VC investors. If philanthropic foundations or enlightened rich people were to pool resources to fund such a project, it could change the world.

3: Stop being squeamish about working together.

One of the things that most characterises different groups within global civil society is a strong sense of identity. That’s not surprising.

There are the investigative journalists, often independent to the point of paranoia; there are the activists, fired up but sometimes without a compelling, evidence-based story to tell; there are the academics and policy people, who have some data and some answers but can’t get a hearing; there are the civic tech people, trying to work with all of the above and explain why things aren’t as simple as they seem; and there are the donors, who must somehow tolerate all of these groups explaining why they deserve their money.

I’m always struck whenever I go to a conference or an event organised by any one of these groups how insular each one is. As someone who has no qualification to be in any one of them, and therefore feels like a perennial outsider, I find myself wondering at what point this might change.

And then, looking outside, there are other gaps: between civil society and government, between government and Silicon Valley; between civil society and Silicon Valley. And this is to say nothing of the deeper social divides that brought us here in the first place: between the powerful and the weak, the ignorant and the informed, the rich and the poor, the young and the old.

The state of the world today – certainly the world of ‘liberal democracy’, the ‘open society’ or whatever you want to call it – seems urgently to require new thinking, new places to convene, new ways to work together. There are a few places where this is happening, or where it might happen. I was proud to work with OCCRP on its formal partnership with Transparency International because it was a serious attempt to bridge one of these many divides. The Open Government Partnership is another important and valuable nexus for such attempts. Encouragingly there also seems to be a serious move towards building and funding interdisciplinary institutes engaged on ethical issues raised by artificial intelligence technology, such as AINow. And I am excited to see what comes of the new Intellectual Forum at the University of Cambridge, led by the brilliant Julian Huppert (for whom I used to work).

But there’s room for far more. This is an area where a small amount of systems thinking allied to a small amount of funding could have huge benefits and concrete outputs.

Get in touch if you want to help.

Cross-posted from Medium