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In conversation with Jamie Susskind

Posted on 13 July 2022

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions
In Conversation with Jamie Susskind

Emma Woollcott, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

Welcome everybody and thank you for joining this Mishcon Academy Session, part of a series of online and hybrid events, videos and podcasts looking at some of the biggest issues that face businesses and individual today.  I am Emma Woollcott, I am a Partner at Mishcon de Reya and Head of the Reputation Protection Team and I’ll be hosting today’s session.  Jamie Susskind is an author, Barrister and according to the Evening Standard, he could be one of the greatest public intellectual rock stars of our time.  Jamie’s first book was a best seller entitled ‘Future Politics Living Together In A World Transformed By Tech’; it received the Estoril Global Issues Distinguished Book Prize and was an Evening Standard and Prospect Book of the Year.  Jamie is here today to talk about his second book entitled ‘The Digital Republic On Freedom And Democracy In The 21st Century’.  It is epic and mind blowing and I have just finished it.  In it Jamie explores how freedom and democracy can survive in a world of powerful digital technologies but only if we fundamentally shift how we think about and regulate the online world.  So Jamie, welcome.
Jamie Susskind, Barrister and Author

Thank you.

Emma Woollcott, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

Thank you.

Jamie Susskind, Barrister and Author

Thank you for having me.

Emma Woollcott, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

So first let’s talk about where we are, what the problem is, how we got here.  I am really interested in what you describe as ‘unaccountable power’?  I am determined that my children should learn to code because it seems that coders now control our behaviour and that search engines and TikTok, human creators frame our perceptions of the world.  So perhaps you can talk a little bit about what’s gone wrong?

Jamie Susskind, Barrister and Author

Sure.  Well the, first of all great to see you all here and thank you for coming and it’s great to be here at Mishcon doing this event.  The premise of the book is that there is a new and strange form of power in our midst, one which previous generations have never had to deal with and so you are not going to find in the great text books of political and legal theory.  Those text books will refer to things like the power of the market, the individual… the invisible hand, the great clunking fist of the state and the way it interferes in people’s lives, the pressures of social norms of the kind that John Stuart Mill used to talk about.  Our generation is witnessing a new type of power, the power of code.  So more and more of our actions and our interactions and our transactions, basically everything that makes up a meaningful life takes place mediated through technology, whether that is in the digital realm of cyberspace or indeed in meet space so increasingly we conduct our democratic deliberation using platforms that are engineered online, increasingly algorithms distribute our things of importance like jobs or mortgages or housing or criminal justice.  Increasingly we are surrounded by rules which other people have written and which we have to follow and that’s essentially the nub of it.  When you interact with the digital technology you don’t have a choice about whether to follow its rules or not.  So if you are using Twitter the tweet will literally not send if it is more than 280 characters.  Before the last Presidential Election in the US you literally couldn’t post an article from the New York Post about Jo Biden’s son because the code refused to let you do it.  The point is this.  The more that we are surrounded by technology, the more that we are surrounded by code and code contains rules and we have to follow them and those who write those rules are increasingly writing the rules by which the rest of us live, so software engineers are becoming social engineers and this is a new and strange form of social power, it’s not like the kind of political power we are used to seeing in Parliaments or in Court rooms, it is something quite different and my book is an effort to try and grapple with the political and legal consequences of that.

Emma Woollcott, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

If technology is ruled by rationality and machines, and in part… is that not impartial.  Let’s talk about the impact on democracy?

Jamie Susskind, Barrister and Author

Yes so one of the big themes of the book is that I am trying to basically destroy the notion that technology as a realm is a kind of scientific or objective or neutral or rational realm.  It’s not.  The technologies that I have just described are consciously or not soaked through with biases, with prejudices, with ideologies and that’s often not because you know, people are bad.  I mean look, sometimes tech companies make decisions that we wouldn’t want them to.  So Apple for instance, hosts an app on it’s, on its devices in Saudi Arabia which allows men to track their, the movements of their wives.  That’s a clear moral decision that you and I can disagree with but then if you think about a product like a face recognition system, there are face recognition systems out there that literally don’t see people of colour because they have only been trained on white faces or voice recognition systems that don’t hear the voices of people with regional accents or hear the voices of women because they have only been trained on men who speak with a certain accent.  In those cases you are probably not looking at something as morally obvious to the engineers as the Apple decision might have been but it is still obviously a flaw and it is usually a flaw that is generated by rooms I am afraid of young relatively mono-cultural men and my point is simply this, digital technologies almost all of them contain some kind of principles so if you think about the way that social media is governed, you may approve for instance of the removal of Donald Trump from a Twitter or a Facebook, you may disapprove of it.  What you can’t do is pretend that that’s not something that’s an inherently political decision on which reasonable people might disagree.  So there is no escaping the political nature of technology there.

Emma Woollcott, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

And equally politicians can’t get away from technology.  I was struck by some of the examples you gave in the book of how Governments sort of cow down to or have started to cow down to, to the tech giants and how before, when Jo Biden was running for President of the US he asked Facebook if they wouldn’t mind minimising some of  the disinformation during the campaign.  Shall we talk a little bit about that and how effective regulation has been stifled and why?

Jamie Susskind, Barrister and Author

Shortly before the last Presidential election basically in the space of about two weeks the New York, the New Yorker published an article saying ‘Can Mark Zuckerberg Fix Facebook Before It Destroys Democracy?’  It wasn’t an ironic title, it was actually genuinely asking that question.  Then the next week as you say, Jo Biden, one of the most powerful me in the world starts a petition to stop Facebook from spreading harmful misinformation during the election and then you’ve got Nancy Pelosi who instead of petitioning the tech companies, called a summit of advertisers so the tech companies’ clients and basically begged them to beg the tech companies not to do what was profitable for them to do.  This doesn’t strike me as the way that a great democracy should conduct itself when it comes to the maintenance of its democratic institutions.  Why hasn’t technology been adequately regulated?  There are so many, there are so many answers to that question.  One of them is kind of psychological.  We, all of us have treated technology for too long just as consumers and not as citizens so we have seen it as a kind of commercial and economic thing to be regulated according to principles of commerce and economics whereas I think it is a political end.  I think digital technology is political so we should be asking a different kind of question altogether when it comes to it.  That’s a kind of psychological shift that I don’t think we’ve yet gone through.  You know, another is that tech companies are really powerful and really rich and really influential, there is no doubt about that.  Another is that regulators are always playing catch up with the technology but then finally, and this is what you were hinting at in your question, there is just the overwhelming difficulty of the task so it is not surprising to me that we are in a place where we aren’t quite governing technology as we should yet.

Emma Woollcott, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

So let’s talk about how we start creating those good laws and the kind of proposals for reform.  What is the digital republic?

Jamie Susskind, Barrister and Author

I suppose the digital, the digital republic is an imaginary future country in which digital technology is governed in a way that improves democracy and increases freedom rather than digital technology eroding democracy and diminishing freedom.  That is the, that is the aim of the book that I wrote to try and identify a system of laws that would allow or that to happen and the reason it is called the digital republic is because it’s using smaller republican principles, so the republican philosophy which stretches back to ancient Rome basically opposes any form of domination in society, opposes any kind of group having one, having unaccountable power over another even if crucially that group exercises its power in a responsible way.  So in the past you know, republicans would oppose the very idea of having a King, not just bad Kings so people would say actually a King is acceptable you know as long as they govern nicely.  A republican will say the problem’s with Kingship itself.  A republican says that people at work need employment laws to protect them not just to hope for better bosses.  In the context of tech, my basic argument is this, the problem isn’t Elon Musk, the problem is the idea of Elon Musk, the problem is that in the future you might have someone who buys Twitter, you know a large part of the public realm and uses it for good, they might use it for ill.  It’s like, it’s like the Capital Hill petition, we shouldn’t be having to rely on the wisdom and goodwill of whoever happens to purchase these incredibly important social institutions and so the republican philosophy says, ‘give thy Kings law’, don’t leave them uncurbed.

Emma Woollcott, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

Is it, is it possible to, to govern the online space in a global way…

Jamie Susskind, Barrister and Author

Yeah.

Emma Woollcott, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

…or is that even desirable?

Jamie Susskind, Barrister and Author

I am not sure it is either possible or desirable to try to seek to govern technology at a global level and that’s actually quite a, I think it’s quite a controversial perspective particularly for people who kind of live through the era of sort of 90’s cyber utopianism where it was imagined that the internet would sort of break down national boundaries and the like.  I think the internet is already divided into different internets and companies already obey different laws in different countries.  Why should French social media platforms and the French citizens who use them have to be governed according to American First Amendment principles of free speech?  One of the things about being a digital republicanism is that you believe that people should be able to make the rules that govern themselves and that does mean that the rules in Britain might be different from the rules in France and the rules in the US.  You know, a lot of the tech firms I think would like the rules to be the same everywhere, obviously it would massively lower the cost of them doing business but I think respecting the local laws of the places where you are is a, it’s just a cost of being a trans-national business.  Now look, there’s no doubt that the international nature of tech companies and the internet makes regulation more difficult for local areas.  It makes it more difficult to find hooks on which to enforce rules, it also makes it difficult for the reason you have identified which is that people are worried about the Delaware effect, they don’t want to be seen as the company that is over reg… the country that is over regulating and see a sort of drain away from themselves.  The flip side of that is that you know when the EU passes something like the GDPR, it’s not just country… it’s not just companies in Europe who start to obey it, companies all around the world now follow the GDPR so I am not saying it is easy, I am just saying that this kind of idea that we would somehow be able to agree a world set of rules about the responsible use of AI or social media you know, the Chinese shaking hands with the Americans on how to regulate a social media platform, I think the idea, I think it’s not going to happen in our lifetime and if we wait for it then the tech industry will essentially just remain under governed.

Emma Woollcott, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

Does anyone in the room want to ask a question?

Audience

Your idea of having these citizens sort of parliaments where people kind of go in and vote on discreet issues, would that, would you envisage that to be an anonymous process as well?  Would those people be sort of almost like hidden jury members because part of the concern is that you know, when you get these monolithic political ideologies within particular platforms where there may be an overwhelming majority of people agreeing with one view is that you just don’t get any free thought within those contexts so is that something you would imagine or?

Jamie Susskind, Barrister and Author

It’s a great question.  So how, the thing is digital… deliberative mini publics come in different shapes and sizes, some of them last a weekend, some of them are impanelled for a year and it may well be that the most effective way to insulate people from not just influence but kind of bribery and sedition and corruption is to make them anonymous or at least to have some degree of anonymity and you probably want it to be some kind of offence to try and influence them in their conduct of their public duty.  I haven’t given an enormous amount of thought to the kind of overall legal framework that you might have.  I do know that you know, in the US where jurors are much less anonymous than they are here, I am sometimes uncomfortable you know when they go on TV after trials and I think that’s probably something you wouldn’t want to see.  But it is a great question and it is funny that like it’s just not something we’ve really thought about as a society but I think that exercise of trying to, you know, how can we get people to be better citizens requiring them once a year to attend a deliberative mini public seems to me that it might be something that might help us as individuals and society as a whole.

Emma Woollcott, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

I think actually that’s probably a nice place to stop.  This has been an absolute pleasure.  Thank you so much for coming in and for entrancing us and making our, our minds blow.  We all hope, I hope that we start to live in a digital republic quite soon, I think I quite like it.  Thank you.

Jamie Susskind, Barrister and Author

Thanks very much.

Emma Woollcott, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

Well done that was great.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions
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