Data, Journalism and Surveillance

The future of journalism and media freedom in the era of big data is the question at the heart of this year’s M100 Sanssouci Colloquium. In the 10th year of its existence, representatives from politics, the media, academia and civil society, from both Germany and abroad, will discuss the associated opportunities and risks, the right balance between state security and respecting privacy and the issue of how politics can keep pace with the algorithm-driven acceleration of the present.

The revelations about the surveillance programmes undertaken by the NSA and other security services have truly made people all round the world aware that the ‘digital revolution’ has not just changed the way in which individuals use media and communicate. It has become clear that the radical changes in communications technology in recent years have created new social, economic and also (geo) political contexts. The Net has made a place for itself in realpolitik. And in the era of big data, unimaginable opportunities have arisen, but these are also accompanied by fundamental challenges which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

The business-driven collection and analysis of user data by the major Internet companies is one of the structural characteristics of the commercial use of the Internet. According to Silicon Valley visionary Jaron Lanier, spying on its users is in pursuance of the “official main business of the information economy” and the basis of the rapid rise of Google and Facebook as knowledge and data companies of a new kind, “makers of ‘everything’ in our digital lives” (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press). For using supposedly free services on the Internet, we pay with our data. However, it was only with the disclosure of the systematic and widespread capture of data by state and military agencies that it became clear that the highly-touted ‘information society’ is actually on the way to becoming a surveillance society. Suddenly the promises which pledged the development of the Internet into a central economic and social infrastructure of the 21st century are accompanied by a nightmare Orwellian scenario.

US academic Shoshana Zuboff wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in history there can be “very little or perhaps nothing at all which can compare with the current risk of an unchecked concentration of information power on a global scale removed from the public gaze,” which impacts not only on politics and society, but also our own personal behaviour.

Directly affected and endangered by this are basic democratic values, above all data protection and freedom of expression and the media. One of the most extreme examples is certainly The Guardian, the first organisation to publish the revelations of Edward Snowden and subsequently faced with massive pressure from the British and US governments. In this, the British newspaper is not alone, and it begs the question, how great has self-censorship now become within individual editorial teams and publishers in the Western world and what impact does this have on research and the protection of sources.

In a report published in March 2014 on the World Day Against Cyber Censorship, Reporters without Borders (RWB) included the NSA and its British counterpart the GCHQ in its ‘Enemies of the Internet’ list. This list names 32 institutions and agencies around the world that play a central role in the suppression of critical voices and unwanted information on the Internet: security services and ministries, but also Internet providers and regulatory bodies. The central role of agencies such as the NSA and the GCHQ in the extensive surveillance of millions of people is all the more serious, according to RWB, because it takes the wind out of the sails of any Western criticism of authoritarian states such as China, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan. “Any government that is itself undertaking mass surveillance of its citizens,” says RWB, “is hardly in a position to credibly urge other governments to show greater respect regarding the Internet.”

RWB, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations have recently joined forces to form the Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports (CAUSE) with the aim of preventing the continued export of surveillance technology to dictatorships and repressive regimes around the world. These surveillance systems can have a devastating impact on the lives of dissidents, says Wenzel Michalski, Germany Director of HRW, with European technology being used to spy on, locate and arrest them, and often leading to them being brutally tortured or even killed.

The role of the major Internet companies has also changed: In recent history, they were hailed as the catalysts for democratic movements as part of the reform campaigns and democratisation efforts in autocratic countries with their social platforms facilitating communication and the mobilisation of a large public. Now, however, they are the focus of the surveillance scandal, the impact of which threatens to portray them as the exact opposite of that liberal, emancipatory ideal with which they began. How do they deal with it? How do they manage the trade-off between customer protection, business interests and state security controls?

One thing is certain: Above all, big data is big business! According to a Bitkom study, the global turnover for products relating to the acquisition, storage and analysis of digital data has increased this year to around EUR 73.5 billion (Germany: almost EUR 4 billion, forecast for 2016: around EUR 14 billion). On a global scale, this equates to an increase of 66 percent in comparison with 2013. In 2011, the revenue was just under EUR 24 billion. Is there a threat that, in the networked information economy of the future, the citizen together with his information will become a largely disempowered ‘product’ of the major Internet companies, as Jaron Lanier fears?

Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, warns in any event “of a dangerous link between neoliberal and authoritarian ideology” if “the citizen is downgraded to just an economic product and the state places him under general suspicion”. The combination of big data and big government “could lead to an anti-liberal, anti-social and anti-democratic society”.

On the other hand, we have all become used to the convenient use of data, whether as a journalist or a private citizen. This has led Belorussian academic and author Evgeny Morozov (‘The Net Delusion’) to criticise in particular “the monopolisation of power by technology – and our naïve approach to this." So the question to be asked is: What measures are required to effectively address the misuse of data? What must media and Internet companies do to protect their customers and employees against surveillance? What role will be played by politics and regulation – both nationally and beyond the nation state? What is the responsibility of individual consumers, of society? Finally: How must a socially and economically stable information economy, which respects civil rights and liberties and creates growth, be designed in an era of big data?

Although, according to a current study by Deutsche Bank ("Big Data - Die ungezähmte Macht"), the decision-makers are very clear “that in the medium to long term, big data is a topic with significant strategic relevance and lucrative opportunities for growth, in many cases it lacks appropriate digitalisation strategies, trained personnel for the new challenges and the necessary adequate management expertise. Due to lacking or outdated data protection regulations as well as a (still) rather rigid silo mentality, inhibitions also still exist regarding active experimentation in the area of big data.”

The goal of the conference is a constructive dialogue between representatives of the media, politics and Internet and security companies about the opportunities, risks and side effects of big data. Along with causes and development scenarios, discussions will include strategies for the right means of dealing with a topic which is key to the sustainability of market-based democracies.

Between 40 and 50 national and international editors-in-chief, politicians and representatives of major Internet companies will be invited to the conference. The discussions will be in a round-table format in two sessions focusing on different aspects of the problem.


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