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The Digital Republic: Karlin Lillington on a book Irish politicians should read as they try to regulate tech

Jamie Susskind packs many important ideas into his book on freedom and democracy in the 21st century

The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century
Author: Jamie Susskind
ISBN-13: 978-1526625489
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £25

Barrister Jamie Susskind begins his new book with a boldly optimistic statement: “This book is about how freedom and democracy can survive, even flourish, in a world transformed by digital technology.”

At a time of polarising, politicised debate around how to rein in Big Tech, Susskind is to the point. “It is easy to list the difficulties associated with good governance, but they don’t amount to an argument for doing nothing. They’re an argument for doing better,” he writes.

Given the book’s title — The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century — and a growing understanding of the ghastly role huge social media companies have played in facilitating serious threats to democracy, a reader might assume that this will be a close study of the big technology platforms. But Susskind brings his legal and public policy expertise to bear on technology more generally, a broad, pervasive and poorly regulated industry built on carefully guarded code and algorithms, closed off from any significant public scrutiny even as we ourselves are carefully parsed and datafied, analysed and marketed.

The word ‘Republic’ in the title is critical. Susskind emphatically means a small-r republic, and small-r republican principles. He builds his proposal by drawing on republican political, legal and philosophical thought from the Greeks and Romans right through the centuries to revolutionary France and America and parliamentary Britain. Good republicans should object to the digital technology industry as it stands because it wields unaccountable power, affecting people’s freedom, and republicans should seek ways to constrain it and make it more societally beneficial and supportive of democracy.

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While Susskind’s approach may sound off-puttingly high-minded, it’s not. He has the ability to deftly analyse, summarise big ideas and bring forward key points to enable the reader to understand just how technology, as an industry, gets away with so much, why this is dangerous to individual citizens and society as a whole, and how we might begin to address it.

A core argument of the book is that the market economy-focused lens through which the technology sector is viewed and celebrated, and which is put forward as its natural regulator (eg consumer choice will drive good corporate behaviour) is utterly inadequate and ultimately distorted by industry power.

The book packs in so many important ideas. To touch on just one small area, in a chapter entitled “The Mild West”, Susskind eviscerates the notion that digital technology exists in a “wild west” of no regulation, instead pointing out that there is “a baroque entanglement” of weak regulation and norms that primarily benefit rather than manage the tech industry. The sector regularly argues for more of the same (think of all the Facebook executives who have stated they’d “welcome regulation”). He also delves into how we have tumbled into “the consent trap”, clicking “I agree” to policies tens of pages long that we never read. Right now, he argues, this kind of regulation benefits big companies which easily comply with such tepid bureaucracy and punishes small companies lacking armies of lawyers. This limits rather than benefits competition.

Susskind’s solution is to suggest that policymakers halt unproductive arguments about how to manage content or corporate decisions and instead start treating digital technology like other professional sectors. Think about managing the systems and the risks, not the content; introduce certification, inspections, oversight, operational transparency and risk-based liability. We over-complicate by wrongly considering digital technology to be a singular sector. It’s not.

He also believes citizens are perfectly capable of taking technology’s measure and, except for the most specialised technical areas, deciding the parameters of regulation and oversight that best suit any given democracy. He suggests citizen-based “Tech Tribunals”, referencing Ireland’s successful Citizens’ Assembly as one model for how well a group of diverse citizens — as opposed to politicians, lawyers or technologists — can grapple with societally difficult topics and produce sound recommendations.

One modest and probably unavoidable drawback to a book so grounded in the contemporary debate is some legislative awkward timing. Susskind references UK and EU draft policies which have since changed in form, such as the UK’s Online Safety Bill.

Though the topic may seem intimidating and complex, The Digital Republic is a (surprisingly) pacy, approachable read and a refreshingly different take on how we might begin to effectively manage this sector to make it more accountable and answerable to us.

Irish politicians should read it before they proceed further with critical digital regulatory frameworks here, such as the pending, problematical Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.

Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about technology