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Conversation on Freedom and Democracy in the Digital Age


Summary of Conversation of Freedom and Democracy in the Digital Age

Co-Chairs: Jonathan Aronson, University of Southern California & Michael Kleeman, University of California San Diego

September 22, 2017 at the University of Southern California


On September 22, 2017 a day-long conversation took place at the University of Southern California focused on updating the work of Ithiel de Sola Pool’s 1983 book Technologies of Freedom and considering it within the current set of issues facing society, the economy, and politics. Representatives from Academe, NGOs, think tanks, and foundations were present.

Four main topics dominated the free-flowing conversation: Trust and transparency, Technology, Economics, policy, and regulation, and Geographic considerations. Participants also suggested what a “utopian” digital technological environment might look like and the path that might lead to these imagined futures.


  1. Trust and Transparency

How should we understand trust and transparency as it related democracy and freedom in the digital era? Is a stronger fourth estate needed to balance power and engender trust? Instead of focusing on ‘fake news,’ participants stressed the need to rebuild and strengthen conceptions of trust in the technology companies that host and disseminate news. Trust in the technologies and companies/platforms that host content also requires more transparency.

Transparency is especially critical in regard to standards, algorithms, and their development, but the form that transparency takes needs to be better defined. Transparency can be augmented through fact checking, collaborative ranking, provenance, and flagging. Content regulation, the rules and practices that apply to platforms, and the emerging international regulations all matter. Responses to strengthen trust and transparency requires a nuanced, historically situated approach. not a one size fits all solution.


  1. Technology

Technology should be located within the historical interaction of technology and societal change. Fixing social media alone is not enough to bolster democracy and freedom. The socio-technical nature society also is important. Platforms and echo chambers also raise important issues: How do trust and truth relate to platform development and usage? How can users be convinced to switch platforms or to question platform development and trust?

  1. Economics, Policy, and Regulation

Media economics influence the role governments should play in the development of regulatory policies for emerging digital technologies. Should the focus be on rules or instead focus on developing boundaries based on core values that could evolve locally.

The impact of market forces underlie the economics of the media system shifted dramatically since 2000 as mobility became the norm, online advertising became ubiquitous,  and the emergence of bots and other non-human actors. The economic structure of the digital era needs attention. The changing economic structure and regulatory shortcomings threaten to undermine free speech and privacy and add more complexity to economic, policy, and regulatory issues that are in play.


  1. Geographic Considerations

The role of the local and global in any conversation of freedom and democracy in the digital age is critical. This relationship calls into question historical conceptions of urban geography, and the new ‘geographies’ of media systems and other infrastructure systems. How these geographies are mapped and understood differs from culture to culture.


Next Steps

A research agenda is under development. The goal is to expand the research agenda beyond the U.S. and adopt a more global focus. The initial participants and others from engineering, economics, neuro science, behavioral sciences, social psychology, and marketing.