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Is Facebook a threat to democracy?

I have an oped in the Globe today in reaction to Facebook’s Canadian Election Integrity Initiative.

In short, I think we are missing the structural problem: The system of surveillance capitalism that has resulted in a market for our attention.  Here is a twitter thread that elaborates on this, and here is is the oped:

The unfolding drama surrounding Silicon Valley and the 2016 U.S. presidential election has brought much needed attention to the role that technology plays in democracies. On Thursday, Facebook announced the Canadian Election Integrity Initiative, the very premise of which invites the question: Does Facebook threaten the integrity of Canadian democracy?

It is increasingly apparent that the answer is yes.

Facebook’s product is the thousands of data points they capture from each of their users, and their customers are anyone who wants to buy access to these profiles. This model is immensely profitable. The company’s annual revenue, nearly all of which comes from paid content, has more than tripled in the past four years to $27.6-billion (U.S.) in 2016. But the Facebook model has also incentivized the spread of low-quality clickbait over high-quality information, enabled a race to the bottom for monetized consumer surveillance, and created an attention marketplace where anyone, including foreign actors, companies or political campaigns, can purchase an audience.

A key feature of the platform is that each user sees a personalized news feed chosen for them by Facebook. This filtering is done through a series of algorithms, which, when combined with detailed personal data, allow ads to be delivered to highly specific audiences. This microtargeting enables buyers to define audiences in racist, bigoted and otherwise highly discriminatory ways, some of questionable legal status and others merely lacking any relation to moral decency.

The Facebook system is also a potent political weapon. It is increasingly clear that Russia leveraged Facebook to purchase hundreds of millions of views of content designed to foment divisions in American society around issues of race, immigration and even fracking. And it’s of course not just foreign actors using Facebook to foster hate. Just this week, Bloomberg reported that in the final weeks of the U.S. election, Facebook and Google employees collaborated with extreme activist groups to help them microtarget divisive ads to swing-state voters.

Even without this targeting, content regularly goes viral regardless of its quality or veracity, disorienting and misleading huge audiences. A recent fake video showing the impact of Hurricane Irma was viewed 25 million times and shared 855,000 times (it is still up).

And here’s the rub: when Facebook hooks up foreign agitators and microtargeted U.S. voters, or amplifies neo-Nazis using the platform to plan and organize the Charlottesville rally, or offers “How to burn jews” as an automatically-generated ad purchasing group, it is actually working as designed. It is this definition of “working” and this design for which Facebook needs to be held publicly accountable.

Some jurisdictions are starting to force this accountability. Germany recently passed a law that would fine Facebook €50,000 ($75,000) for failing to remove hate speech within 24 hours. Britain has proposed treating Facebook like any other media company. The EU is implementing new data privacy laws and is raising anti-trust questions. A U.S. Congressional committee is questioning Facebook, Google and Twitter officials on Russia, with lawmakers likely to impose new online election advertising and disclosure regulations.

Oddly, these policy debates are largely absent in Canada. Instead, Facebook is intertwined in the workings of governments, the development of public policies and the campaigns of political parties. Recent policy decisions have seen the company remain largely untaxed and called on to help solve the journalism problem for which it is the leading cause.

Thursday’s announcement further illustrates the dilemma of this laissez-faire approach. How exactly should the Canadian government protect the integrity of the next federal election, in which interest groups, corporations, foreign actors and political campaigns may all run hundreds of thousands, or millions, of simultaneous microtargeted ads a day?

It could force complete transparency of all paid content of any kind shown to Canadians during the election period, as with other media. It could demand disclosure of all financial, location and targeting data connected to this paid content. It could place significant fines on the failure to quickly remove misinformation and hate speech. It could ensure that independent researchers have access to the platform’s data, rather than merely relying on Facebook’s good intentions. Political parties and the government could even model good behaviour themselves by ceasing to spend millions of dollars of our money on Facebook’s microtargeted ads.

None of these options are likely to be adopted voluntarily or unilaterally by Facebook. We have governments to safeguard the public interest.

In fact, the modest voluntary efforts announced Thursday, which aim to put the focus on users through news literacy initiatives, and hackers through better security, ignore the key structural problem that has undermined elections around the world – the very business model of Facebook.

Efforts such as the Canadian Election Integrity Initiative represent a shift in the public position of Facebook that should, if it goes further, be welcomed. But it must also be viewed as the action of a private corporation that extracts increasing profits from a de facto public space.

We are heading into new and immensely challenging public policy terrain, but what is certain is that the easy and politically expedient relationship between Silicon Valley and government must come to an end.

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Lecture on Fakenews and democracy

Technology and new media are facilitating a rapid shift in the ways in which we consume news. In the shift from print to digital, companies like Facebook – and the algorithms it engineers – are replacing traditional editors and publishers.  The result is “surveillance capitalism”: a powerful system that can target specific groups to sell products, political ideas and fake news. In this lecture, I breaks down the challenges that these new social structures pose to civic discourse, as well as the governance problems at the core of our democracies in this new media landscape.

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Fake News and the Crisis of Information

Below is the video of a talk I gave recently at a Canada2020 conference in Ottawa, titled “Fake News and the Crisis of Information” followed by a panel I was on with David Frum, Anand Giridharadas, Liz Plank, Susan Delacourt and Evan Solomon.

Related, here is a recent radio interview on misinformation and the looming challenge of fake video and audio on Roundhouse Radio, and here are a few recent articles that touch on similar issues:

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Oped on #fakenews in the Globe and Mail

Edward Greenspon and I have an oped on the likely evolution of #fakenews: a pernicious mix of AI, commercial surveillance, adtech and social platforms that is going to undermine democracy in some critical ways. If fake text had a social impact on our understanding of events and news, imagine what the coming fake and micro-targeted video and audio is going to do. Watch this space, it’s going to get wild fast.

 

‘Fake news 2.0’: A threat to Canada’s democracy

Ed Greenspon and Taylor Owen, The Globe and Mail, May 29, 2017.

The muggings of liberal democracies over the past year by election hackers and purveyors of fake news are on the cusp of becoming far worse.

By Canada’s next federal election, a combination of artificial intelligence software and data analytics built on vast consumer surveillance will allow depictions of events and statements to be instantly and automatically tailored, manipulated and manufactured to the predispositions of tiny subsets of the population. Fact or fabrication may be almost impossible to sort out.

“Fake news 2.0” will further disorient and disillusion populations and undermine free and fair elections. If these were physical attacks on polling stations or election workers, authorities would respond forcefully. The same zero tolerance is required of the propagation and targeting of falsehoods for commercial, partisan or geopolitical purposes. The challenge is that unlike illegal voting, which is a clearly criminal act, the dissemination of misinformation is embedded in the very financial model of digital media.

This is serious stuff. Germany is looking to hold social media companies to account for false content on their sites. Britain’s Information Commissioner is investigating the political use of social media-generated data, including the activities of an obscure Canadian analytics firm that received millions from the Leave side in the Brexit campaign. In the United States, investigative reporters, foundations and academics are unearthing startling insights into how the dark side of the digital ecosystem operates.

Fake news is inexpensive to produce (unlike real news); makes strange political bedfellows of the likes of white supremacists, human rights activists, foreign powers and anti-social billionaires; and plays to the clickbait tendencies of digital platforms. A recent study, The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley reengineered journalism, argues that the incentives of the new system favour the shareable over the informative and the sensational over the substantial. Fake news that circulated during the 2016 U.S. election is not a one-off problem, but rather a canary in a coal mine for a structural problem in our information ecosystem. On platforms driven by surveillance and targeted advertising, serious journalism is generally downgraded while fake news rises alongside gossip, entertainment and content shared from family and friends.

As with classic propaganda, fake news seeks credibility via constant repetition and amplification, supplied by a network of paid trolls, bots and proxy sites. The core openness of the Web enables congregations of the disaffected to discover one another and be recruited by the forces of division – Breitbart News, ISIS or Vladimir Putin.

The classic liberal defence of truth and falsehood grappling, with the better prevailing, is undercut by filter bubbles and echo chambers. It has become almost impossible to talk to all of the people even some of the time.

And so the polluted tributaries of disinformation pouring into the Internet raise a critical governance challenge for open societies such as Canada: Who will speak for the public interest and democratic good in the highly influential, but privately owned, digital civic space? What does it mean for a handful of platform companies to exercise unprecedented control over audience and data? How does government clean up the pollution without risking free speech?

Canada needs to catch up on analyzing and responding to these new challenges. Here’s where we would start:

  • A well-funded and ongoing research program to keep tabs on the evolving networks and methods of anti-democratic forces, including their use of new technologies. Government support for artificial intelligence is necessary; so is vigilance about how it is applied and governed.
  • Upgraded reconnaissance and defences to detect and respond to attacks in the early stages, as with the European Union’s East StratCom Task Force. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already instructed his Minister of Democratic Institutions to help political parties protect against hackers. That’s good, but a total rethink of electoral integrity is required, including tightening political spending limits outside writ periods and appointing a digital-savvy chief electoral officer.
  • Measures to ensure the vitality of genuine news reporting; fake news cannot be allowed vacant space in which to flourish.
  • Transparency and accountability around algorithms and personal data. Recent European initiatives would require platform companies to keep data stored within the national boundaries where it was collected and empower individuals to view what’s collected on them.

Finally, the best safeguard against incursions on commonweal is a truly inclusive democracy, meaning tireless promotion of economic opportunity and social empathy. As Brave New World author Aldous Huxley commented in 1936, propaganda preys on pre-existing grievances. “The propagandist is the man who canalizes an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water, he digs in vain.”

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Oped on the governance of AI in the Globe and Mail

Mike Ananny and I have an oped in the Globe and Mail on the ethics and governance of AI.  We wrote it in response to the Federal government’s recent funding announcement for AI research and commercialization.

Ethics and governance are getting lost in the AI frenzy

Taylor Owen and Mike Ananny, The Globe and Mail, March 30, 2017

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the government’s pan-Canadian artificial intelligence strategy.

This initiative, which includes a partnership with a consortium of technology companies to create a non-profit hub for artificial intelligence called the Vector Institute, aims to put Canada at the centre of an emerging gold rush of innovation.

There is little doubt that AI is transforming the economic and social fabric of society. It influences stock markets, social media, elections, policing, health care, insurance, credit scores, transit, and even drone warfare. AI may make goods and services cheaper, markets more efficient, and discover new patterns that optimize much of life. From deciding what movies get made, to which voters are valuable, there is virtually no area of life untouched by the promise of efficiency and optimization.

Yet while significant research and policy investments have created these technologies, the short history of their development and deployment also reveals serious ethical problems in their use. Any investment in the engineering of AI must therefore be coupled with substantial research into how it will be governed. This means asking two key questions.

First, what kind of assumptions do AI systems make?

Technologies are not neutral. They contain the biases, preferences and incentives of their makers. When technologists gather to analyze data, they leave a trail of assumptions about which data they think is relevant, what patterns are significant, which harms should be avoided and which benefits should be prioritized. Some systems are so complex that not even their designers fully understand how they work when deployed “in the wild.”

For example, Google cannot explain why certain search results appeared over others, Facebook cannot give a detailed account of why your newsfeed may look different from one day to the next, and Netflix is unable to explain exactly why you got one movie recommendation over another.

While the opacity of movie choices may seem innocuous, these same AI systems can have serious ethical consequence. When a self-driving car decides to choose the life of a driver over a pedestrian; when skin colour or religious affiliation influences criminal-sentencing algorithms; when insurance companies set rates using an algorithm’s guess about your genetic make-up; or, when people and behaviours are flagged as ‘abnormal’ by algorithms, AI is making an ethical judgment.

This leads to a second question: how should we hold AI accountable?

The data and algorithms driving AI are largely hidden from public view. They are proprietary and protected by corporate law, classified by governments as essential for national security, and often not fully understood even by the technologists who make them. This is important because the existing ethics that are embedded in our governance institutions place human agency at their foundation. As such, it makes little sense to talk about holding computer code accountable. Instead, we should see AI as a people-machine hybrid, a combination of human choices and automated decisions.

Who or what can be held accountable in this cyborg mix? Is it individual engineers who design code, the companies that employ them and deploy the technology, the police force that arrests someone based on an algorithmic suggestion, the government that uses it to make a policy? An unwanted movie recommendation is nothing like an unjust criminal sentence. It makes little sense to talk about holding systems accountable in the same way when such different types of error, injustice, consequences and freedom are at stake.

This reveals a troubling disconnect between the rapid development of AI technologies and the static nature of our governance institutions. It is difficult to imagine how governments will regulate the social implications of an AI that adapts in real time, based on flows of data that technologists don’t foresee or understand. It is equally challenging for governments to design safeguards that anticipate human-machine action, and that can trace consequences across multiple systems, data-sets, and institutions.

We have a long history of holding human actors accountable to Canadian values, but we are largely ignorant about how to manage the emerging ungoverned space of machines and people acting in ways we don’t understand and cannot predict.

We welcome the government’s investment in the development of AI technology, and expect it will put Canadian companies, people and technologies at the forefront of AI. But we also urgently need substantial investment in the ethics and governance of how artificial intelligence will be used.

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The Platform Press

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 8.54.09 AM

Emily Bell and I have written a Tow Center report exploring how Silicon Valley has reengineered journalism. We look at how publishers have been absorbed into the platform ecosystem, how ad tech has shaped both media economics and political campaigns, and do a deep dive into Facebook and the 2016 election. In short, it’s a structural problem.

Executive summary is below, the full report is here, and as a pdf here.

 

The Platform Press:  How Silicon Valley Reshaped Journalism 

Executive Summary

The influence of social media platforms and technology companies is having a greater effect on American journalism than even the shift from print to digital. There is a rapid takeover of traditional publishers’ roles by companies including Facebook, Snapchat, Google, and Twitter that shows no sign of slowing, and which raises serious questions over how the costs of journalism will be supported. These companies have evolved beyond their role as distribution channels, and now control what audiences see and who gets paid for their attention, and even what format and type of journalism flourishes.

Publishers are continuing to push more of their journalism to third-party platforms despite no guarantee of consistent return on investment. Publishing is no longer the core activity of certain journalism organizations. This trend will continue as news companies give up more of the traditional functions of publishers.

This report, part of an ongoing study by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, charts the convergence between journalism and platform companies. In the span of 20 years, journalism has experienced three significant changes in business and distribution models: the switch from analog to digital, the rise of the social web, and now the dominance of mobile. This last phase has seen large technology companies dominate the markets for attention and advertising and has forced news organizations to rethink their processes and structures.

Findings

  • Technology platforms have become publishers in a short space of time, leaving news organizations confused about their own future. If the speed of convergence continues, more news organizations are likely to cease publishing—distributing, hosting, and monetizing—as a core activity.
  • Competition among platforms to release products for publishers is helping newsrooms reach larger audiences than ever before. But the advantages of each platform are difficult to assess, and the return on investment is inadequate. The loss of branding, the lack of audience data, and the migration of advertising revenue remain key concerns for publishers.
  • The influence of social platforms shapes the journalism itself. By offering incentives to news organizations for particular types of content, such as live video, or by dictating publisher activity through design standards, the platforms are explicitly editorial.
  • The “fake news” revelations of the 2016 election have forced social platforms to take greater responsibility for publishing decisions. However, this is a distraction from the larger issue that the structure and the economics of social platforms incentivize the spread of low-quality content over high-quality material. Journalism with high civic value—journalism that investigates power, or reaches underserved and local communities—is discriminated against by a system that favors scale and shareability.
  • Platforms rely on algorithms to sort and target content. They have not wanted to invest in human editing, to avoid both cost and the perception that humans would be biased. However, the nuances of journalism require editorial judgment, so platforms will need to reconsider their approach.
  • Greater transparency and accountability are required from platform companies. While news might reach more people than ever before, for the first time, the audience has no way of knowing how or why it reaches them, how data collected about them is used, or how their online behavior is being manipulated. And publishers are producing more content than ever, without knowing who it is reaching or how—they are at the mercy of the algorithms.

In the wake of the election, we have an immediate opportunity to turn the attention focused on tech power and journalism into action. Until recently, the default position of platforms (and notably Facebook) has been to avoid the expensive responsibilities and liabilities of being publishers. The platform companies, led by Facebook and Google, have been proactive in starting initiatives focused on improving the news environment and issues of news literacy. However, more structural questions remain unaddressed.

If news organizations are to remain autonomous entities in the future, there will have to be a reversal in information consumption trends and advertising expenditure or a significant transfer of wealth from technology companies and advertisers. Some publishers are seeing a “Trump Bump” with subscriptions and donations rising post-election, and there is evidence of renewed efforts of both large and niche publishers to build audiences and revenue streams away from the intermediary platform businesses. However, it is too soon to tell if this represents a systemic change rather than a cyclical ripple.

News organizations face a critical dilemma. Should they continue the costly business of maintaining their own publishing infrastructure, with smaller audiences but complete control over revenue, brand, and audience data? Or, should they cede control over user data and advertising in exchange for the significant audience growth offered by Facebook or other platforms? We describe how publishers are managing these trade-offs through content analysis and interviews.

While the spread of misinformation online became a global story this year, we see it as a proxy for much wider issues about the commercialization and private control of the public sphere.

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Journalism After Snowden

My edited book for Columbia University Press with Emily Bell, Journalism After Snowden: The Future of the Free Press in the Surveillance State, on journalism and state surveillance has recently been released. It includes chapters by a pretty wonderful group of journalists and scholars, including: Steve Coll, Cass Sunstein, Clay Shirky, Alan Rusbridger, Jill Abramson, Glenn Greenwald, Ethan Zuckerman, Julia Angwin, David Sanger, Edward Snowden, Jonathan Zittrain, Lee Bollinger among many others. I feel very lucky to have worked with them on this.

It goes without saying that the stakes are even higher now, but it’s worth remembering that the surveillance architecture and vulnerability of journalism that it causes is a long-running, international, and bi-partisan affair.

Details of the book are available here.

The launch event for the book will be in New York on March 7th and will include a panel with Julia Angwin, Barton Gellman, and Ben Wizner. Details and tickets are here.

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It’s time to reform the CBC for the digital age

The oped below was written after the publishing of The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age, on which i served as a research principal.  I have been surprised that what I believe is the most radical and potentially transformative idea in the report has received almost no attention.  So Elizabeth Dubois and I wrote an oped about the recommendation for the CBC to move to publishing under a creative commons licence. The piece below was first published in The Toronto Star.

It’s time to reform the CBC for the digital age

Canadian journalism is in the midst of industrial and market failure. Print and broadcast journalism are struggling to adapt to both the economic models of the digital economy as well as the media consumption habits of digitally-enabled citizens. Meanwhile, our small size, lack of VC funding, large presence of U.S. digital journalism companies, combined with the rise of Facebook, Google and the pernicious effect of the ad-tech industry has led to a market failure in the funding model for Canadian digital journalism.

We simply do not have a digital ecosystem in waiting that will be able to replace, at scale, the reckoning that is looming in the traditional media space.

As a recent Public Policy Forum report (for which we were research principals) argues, it is time that Canadian media policy adapt to the realities of the digital age. While much of the coverage of the report has focused on the establishment of a Future of Journalism and Democracy Fund, in our minds the most critical recommendation concerns the CBC – namely, that the CBC should begin publishing all civic journalism content under a Creative Commons license.

There are seven types of Creative Commons copyright licenses and we believe the CBC could use “Attribution + NoDerivatives,” which would enable CBC journalism to be re-published by anyone, anywhere as long as it is unedited and attributed.

This change, when combined with our additional recommendation that the CBC cease digital advertising, could incentivize significant reform of the culture, structure and journalism of the public broadcaster, right at a time when Canadians need it most. Here’s how.

First, it would free the organization to re-focus on civic journalism, bolstering what is in our view the most critical component of its mandate – to inform Canadians. Given scale-driven ad models and the incentives of click-bait, the CBC has followed many of its market competitors down a path to lowest common denominator content. They are even, remarkably, publishing sponsored content. Moving to a Creative Commons model and getting out of digital ads would provide the CBC the freedom to escape this destructive cycle, and refocus its norms and journalism towards its critical civic function.

Second, a Creative Commons license would increase the reach of the CBC by enlisting citizens and organizations to become its distribution partners. While a core objective of the CBC should be to reach as many Canadians as possible, this is increasingly difficult to do in a fragmented media ecosystem. Whereas audiences could once be reached through a TV channel, radio station or website homepage, Canadians increasingly consume news through via atomized content shared through friends and followers on social media sites. The days of a single national media discourse are over. Allowing anyone to publish CBC content would broaden and lead to innovation in its distribution. Citizens should not care where CBC content is consumed, but only that reaches as many Canadians as possible.

Third, it will help to counter the growing challenge of misinformation online. The 2016 U.S. election highlighted structural challenges in the digital media ecosystem. While tremendous good has come from decentralizing effect of the internet, we have recently seen the emergence of several large platforms as the primary distributors and intermediaries for journalism. Platforms such as Facebook and Google rely on opaque algorithms to determine what pieces of news content we see.

When combined with the advertising technology market that monetizes our attention across all of our internet activity (not just our news consumption), the result is an ecosystem of atomized conversations and filter bubbles. This environment has proved fertile for the distribution of misleading and outright false information. One way to counter this problem in Canada would be to encourage much more reliable journalistic content in the platform ecosystem by allowing CBC content to be published by dozens or hundreds of organization, not just one.

Finally, allowing others to publish CBC content would provide tangible assistance to both traditional and new media organizations. For traditional organizations, access to high quality local and legislative reporting would allow them to focus their increasingly limited resources on other types of journalism. For digital native organizations, this would both shift the CBC from a competitor to a collaborator, and provide a base amount of quality civic content on which they can build their businesses.

The result would be a new ecosystem of digital companies innovating in the distribution of CBC content and developing their own value-added content in addition. This proposal would turn the CBC into a constructive partner and hub in the civic journalism ecosystem.

Rightly or wrongly, many people that we spoke to for this project, in both the traditional and new media, described the CBC as a “predator.” This should concern all proponents of the CBC. At a time when Canadian civic journalism is both in decline and needed most, Canadians should expect our national broadcaster to be able to work with, rather than compete against, Canadian journalism. Moving to a Creative Commons model would be a big step in this transition.

Taylor Owen (@taylor_owen) is an Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Elizabeth Dubois (@lizdubois) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Ottawa. Both were research principals on the Public Policy Forum report, Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age.

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Report on state of Canadian journalism

For the past year I have had the fortune to work with Ed Greenspon, the Public Policy Forum, and a wonderful group of scholars and journalists on a report on the state of journalism in Canada. The resulting report was recently released, The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age. My role was mainly to support the analysis of digital journalism both in Canada and within the broader platform (Facebook, Google, etc) ecosystem. I hosted a workshop in Vancouver to dive specifically into the challenges digital start-ups face in Canada and I attended many of the roundtables that the PPF hosted across the country.  I learned a ton, and while I don’t agree with everything in the report, i think that it represents the most detailed current assessment of the state of the industry in Canada, and some of the recommendations, if adopted, would lead to significant transformation of the digital journalism space in this country.  The site for the report is here and a PDF can be downloaded here.

 

Disruptive Power

The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age

Cover

 

Anonymous. WikiLeaks. The Syrian Electronic Army. Edward Snowden. Bitcoin. The Arab Spring.

Digital communication technologies have thrust the calculus of global political power into a period of unprecedented complexity. In every aspect of international affairs, digitally enabled actors are changing the way the world works and disrupting the institutions that once held a monopoly on power. No area is immune: humanitarianism, war, diplomacy, finance, activism, or journalism. In each, the government departments, international organizations and corporations who for a century were in charge, are being challenged by a new breed of international actor. Online, networked and decentralized, these new actors are innovating, for both good and ill, in the austere world of foreign policy. They are representative of a wide range of 21st century global actors and a new form of 21st century power: disruptive power.

In Disruptive Power, Taylor Owen provides a sweeping look at the way that digital technologies are shaking up the workings of the institutions that have traditionally controlled international affairs. The nation state system and the subsequent multinational system were founded on and have long functioned through a concentration of power in the state. Owen looks at the tools that a wide range of new actors are using to increasingly control international affairs, and how their rise changes the way we understand and act in the world. He considers the bar for success in international digital action and the negative consequences of a radically decentralized international system. What new institutions will be needed to moderate the new power structures and ensure accountability? And how can governments and corporations act to promote positive behavior in a world of disruptive innovation? Owen takes on these questions and more in this probing and sober look at the frontier of international affairs, in a world enabled by information technology and increasingly led by disruptive innovators.

With cutting edge analysis of the fast-changing relationship between the declining state and increasingly powerful non-state actors, Disruptive Power is the essential road map for navigating a networked world.

 

Endorsements

“The 21st century state is using new technologies both to serve and protect citizens and also to control them. Citizens are using the same technologies to fight back. Taylor Owen’s analysis is the one you want to read on this battle and the way it will shape the 21st century.”

–Michael Ignatieff, Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice, Harvard Kennedy School

“Cyber technology has led to disruptive power in the form of hackers like Anonymous and crypto-currencies like Bitcoin. How should states respond? Taylor Owen offers a provocative analysis and recommendations.”

–Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Harvard University, author of The Future of Power

“In Disruptive Power, Owen gives us a tour of the digital challenges to the nation-state, from newly flexible protest groups like Occupy and Anonymous to the rise of algorithms as weapons, often in the hands of non-state actors and often targeting civilian life. He weaves these observations into a forcefully argued thesis: the model of a world governed by stable nation-states is in crisis, forcing most state-led institutions into a choice between adaptation and collapse.”

–Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

“Taylor Owen gives us an incisive set of reflections on the ways in which the decentralized, collaborative, and resilient power of digital networks is undermining the state’s ability to govern. Even more disturbing is the resulting existential dilemma for democratic states: the best way to fight back is to become a surveillance state. Disruptive Power does not provide answers, but it poses important and unsettling questions.”

–Anne-Marie Slaughter, Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University, and Director of Policy Planning, U.S. State Department, 2009-2011

 

Media and Book Talks

 

Articles:

The Violence of AlgorithmsForeign Affairs

Why the U.S. should but won’t partner with hactivists AnonymousSan Fransisco Chronicle 

Why governments must embrace the new global digital realityThe Globe and Mail

The promise and peril of digital diplomacyThe Globe and Mail

 

Reviews:

More Data, More Problems: Surveillance and the Information Economy,  Review in Foreign Affairs

Rescuing Democracy in the Age of the Internet, Review in Ethics and International Affairs

 

Videos:

CIGI Signature Lecture, Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age

World Affairs Council, San Fransisco: From Bitcoin to WikiLeaks: Shaping the World in the Digital Age

Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, Plenary Session: Foreign policy in 140 Characters: How technology is redefining diplomacy

International Conference of Crisis Mappers: Historical Mapping and the US Bombardment of Cambodia

Highlights from a talk at USC Annenberg: Disruptive Power 

 

Chapter Summaries

 

Losing Control

Losing Control outlines how in a wide range of international areas of influence, the state is being challenged by new, digitally enabled actors. Grounded in the theory of disruption, this chapter explores the rise and power of the activist collective Anonymous, the paradox of dual use surveillance technologies, and the recent revelation on the extent of NSA surveillance.  The chapter serves as an introduction to the book.

Disruptive Power

Disruptive Power traces the development of the modern state and drawing on disruption theory, explores how the introduction of digital technology presents a crisis to state power.  The state began as a mechanism for centralizing and exercising power and over time became hierarchical, bureaucratic, and, in democratic states, accountable to the rule of law.  In a networked world, however, groups like Anonymous wield power by being decentralized, collaborative, and resilient.  These two models of power are fundamentally at odds and the resulting disruptive power threatens the institutions that have preserved the balance of power since the end of World War II.

Spaces of Dissent


Spaces of Dissent explores the rapidly evolving space of digital activism, or hacktivism, through the example of a group of hackers called Telecomix, who served as a form of tech support for the Arab Spring.  Such cyber activists have taken on a role of social and cultural provocateurs; they are dissenting actors in a culture that is increasingly hostile to protest. What’s more, they see, observe, and quickly react in ways that boggle the state and corporations – all of this instrumentalized by digital technology. This argument is grounded in an exploration of hactivism as a form of civil disobedience, though one that looks markedly different, and is potential more powerful, than the placards and megaphones of old. The chapter details how the state has responded to the perceived threat of online civil disobedience through its prosecutions against Chelsea Manning and Anonymous, and argues that their excessiveness stems form a paranoia over losing control. Finally, it explores the costs to society when we eliminate social deviancy.

New Money


New Money details how the rise of crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin represent a threat to the power the state derives from the control of currency. This chapter first outlines the history of the close connection between the control of currency and state power. It then details the rise of crypto-currencies, explain how they work, and their potential real-world benefits. Finally, it explores the potential challenge to state power posed by this decentralized and technologically enabled currency. I argue that if the use of Bitcoin were to proliferate, as it likely will, then the inability of the state to either collect revenue from, or regulate commercial activity, poses a threat to the control it currently holds over the international financial system.

Being There


Being There considers the evolution of international reporting news by juxtaposing the death of seasoned war corresponded Marie Colvin during the bombing of Homs, Syria with the new digital tools Syrian citizens used to document and stream the war to the world in real time.  In an age of live-streaming, citizen journalism, drone journalism and coming advances in virtual reality, do we even need foreign correspondents? What’s more, do these technological advances result in new forms of knowing and understanding international events, do they shift how we understand the traditional power of the media and their capability to control information, and are they ultimately affecting how we see, and act in, the world?

Saving the Saviors


Saving the Saviors looks at the impact of collaborative mapping and advances in satellite technology on humanitarian and development agencies. The world of aid, humanitarianism and development have long been dominated by state-based agencies and large international organizations. For nearly a century, organizations like the World Food Program, The Red Cross, USAID and Oxfam have attempted to lead a transfer of expertise and resources from the developed world to the developing world. But new models are emerging. In the first week following the 2010 Haiti earthquake 14,000 citizens used their cell phones to upload emergency information to a live online crisis map. How do we know if the information uploaded to a crisis map is real? How do we hold these projects to account, without the oversight that states and institutions once provided? Using examples of disruptive humanitarian actors and recent academic work assessing their impact, this chapter explores how aid and humanitarianism are being transformed from the ground up.

Diplomacy Unbound


Diplomacy Unbound explores the emerging practice of digital diplomacy. First, it outlines how we valued the efficacy and power of diplomacy before Twitter and Facebook and mesh networks by tracing the notion of diplomatic power. It then argues that we need to view digital diplomacy initiatives in two categories, those that simply expand the practice of public diplomacy into a new medium, and those that seek to fundamentally engage in the digital space, using the tools and capabilities outlined throughout this book. I argue that when the bounds of diplomacy are extended into influencing not just states, but also digital actors, then they overlap fundamentally with other foreign policy programs and objectives. And this invariably leads to conflicting methods and outcomes.  The undue negative costs associated with coercive digital diplomacy demonstrate the weakness of the state in a major realm of its foreign policy. And if the state can’t be effectively diplomatic in the digital space, then what does this tell us about the contemporary relevance of diplomacy itself? 

The Violence of Algorithms


The Violence of Algorithms looks at how advances in computational power and automation have produced military weapons and surveillance tools that blur the boundaries of the battlefield and the lines between domestic and international. While much of this book focuses on diminishing state power in the face of empowered actors, here I look at how the state is fighting back. What does it mean when the state extends the use of military technologies and tactics far beyond the battlefield? How should we view advances in automated warfare, and the power that these new technologies embed in complex and secretive algorithms? And for how long can we expect the state to have a monopoly on these news forms of pervasive violence? Put another way, where is the line between war and peacetime behaviour with the deployment of computation and surveillance based weaponry?

The Crisis of the State

The Crisis of the State outlines four challenges that together threaten the state’s traditional mechanisms of power and control, but that also might provide models for 20th century international institutions seeking to adapt— if they are structurally capable of transformation or meaningful reform.  This crisis of the state has at least four key components: democratic legitimacy, reversing the surveillance state, algorithmic accountability, and internet governance.  Solving any one of them, will not prove a panacea to this crisis, nor is this list exhaustive; there are many more innovations being developed and important questions being addressed. But luckily in each, there are individuals and groups experimenting on new models and proposing potential solutions.  This is the new landscape in which the state must constructively engage.

Twitter


About

By way of an intro, currently:PastedGraphic-2

My PhD was on the concept of human security, exploring how mapping and spatially analyzing local vulnerability data can help us better understand the nature of extreme insecurity.  My current personal research, however, now focuses on the intersection of digital technology and international relations.  I am interested in how ubiquitous digital technology challenges the institutions, systems and norms that control the broadly defined space of international affairs. At Columbia, I designed and led a research program studying the impact of digital technology on the practice of journalism, and I continue to work closely with them.

I use this site as a contact point and as an aggregator of my academic work and broader writing.

 

A bit more officially:

Taylor Owen is Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, a Senior Fellow at the Columbia Journalism School. He was previously the Research Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University where he led a program studying the impact of digital technology on the practice of journalism, and has held research positions at Yale University, The London School of Economics and The International Peace Research Institute, Oslo where his work focuses on the intersection between information technology and international affairs. His Doctorate is from the University of Oxford and he has been a Trudeau and Banting scholar, an Action Canada and Public Policy Forum Fellow, the 2016 Public Policy Forum Emerging Leader, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). He is the Founder of the international affairs media platform OpenCanada.org, and he is the author, most recently, of Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2015) and the co-editor of The World Won’t Wait: Why Canada Needs to Rethink its Foreign Policies (University of Toronto Press, 2015, with Roland Paris), Journalism After Snowden: The Future of the Free Press in the Surveillance State (Columbia University Press, 2017, with Emily Bell) and The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley Re-enginnered Journalism (Tow Center 2017, with Emily Bell), His work can be found at www.taylorowen.com and @taylor_owen.

Contact

Email: taylor (dot) owen (at) gmail (dot) com

Twitter: @taylor_owen

Warning: I have been largely defeated by email flow, so please feel free to send reminders and nudges when needed.

Publications

 

Selected writing (Full list below)

On technology and foreign affairs:

On journalism innovation:

On Canadian politics and foreign policy:

On the bombing of Cambodia:

On Human Security:

On the future of think tanks:

 

Full(ish) List

Books and Manuscripts

  • Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Era. March 2015, Oxford University Press, New York (About, Amazon)
  • The World Won’t Wait: Why Canada Needs to Rethink its Foreign Policies, Forthcoming December 2015, (ed with Roland Paris), University of Toronto Press, Toronto (Amazon)
  • Journalism After Snowden, Columbia University Press (ed with Emily Bell and Jennifer Henrichson), Forthcoming February 2017. (CUP)
  • The New Global Journalism: Foreign Correspondence in Transition. Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University, 2014 (ed with Ann Cooper) pdf
  • Human Security.  Sage Major Work, Four-Volume Set. London, UK. 2013. Link
  • The Handbook of Human Security, Routledge Press, 2013 (ed., with Mary Martin) Link
  • Operationalizing Human Security: From Local Vulnerability to International Policy, DPhil Thesis, The University of Oxford, July 2010.

Peer Reviewed Academic

  • Owen, Taylor, “The Networked State and the End of 20th Century Diplomacy,” Global Affairs, Vol 2 No 3, 2016.
  • Burgess, P, Owen, T and Uttam Kumar Sinha, “Securitizing Water: A Case Study of the Indus Water Basin” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 25(4).
  • Owen Taylor and Mary Martin, 2010. “The Second Generation of Human Security: Lessons from the UN and EU Experiences?” International Affairs, 85:1.
  • Travers, Patrick and Taylor Owen, 2008. Canada in Afghanistan: Between Metaphor and Strategy. International Journal, Sept/Oct 2008. (winner, Canadian International Council Gelber Prize)
  • Owen, Taylor, 2008. The Critique that Doesn’t Bite: A Response to David Chandler’s “Human Security: The Dog that didn’t Bark” Security Dialogue, 39(4), April/June 2008.
  • Aldo Benini, Harvard Rue, Taylor Owen, 2008. “A Semi-Parametric Spatial Regression Approach to Post-War Human Security: Cambodia, 2002-2004”, Asian Journal of Criminology, Volume 3, no 2, September 2008.
  • Liotta, P.H & Taylor Owen, 2006. “Why Human Security?” Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations Vol VII, No. 1: 37-55.
  • Liotta, P.H., & Taylor Owen, 2006. “Symbolic Security: The EU Takes on Human Security”. Parameters. The Journal of the US Army War College. Vol 36, No. 3: 85-102.
  • Gleditsch, NP; Owen, T; Furlong, K & Bethany Lacina, 2006. ‘Conflicts over Shared Rivers: Resource Wars or Fuzzy Boundaries?’ Political Geography. Vol. 25. No. 4: 361382.
  • Owen, Taylor & Olav Slaymaker, 2005. “Human Security in Cambodia: a GIS Approach”. AMBIO. The Journal of the Human Environment. No. 6, Vol. 34.
  • Owen, Taylor, 2005. ‘Consciously Absent?: Why the Secretary General used Human Security in all but Name’ St. Anthony’s International Review. Vol. 1, Issue 2.
  • Owen, Taylor, 2004. “Human Security – Conflict, Critique and Consensus: Colloquium Remarks and a Proposal for a Threshold-Based Definition”. Security Dialogue, vol. 35, no. 3, September 2004. Special Section on Human Security, co-edited by Peter Burgess and Taylor Owen.
  • Owen, Taylor. 2003. “Security Mapping: A New View of Cambodian Insecurity”. Cambodian Development Review, Vol. 7, Issue 2.

Book Chapters

  • Owen, Taylor, “Global Media Power”, in The Sage Handbook of Digital Journalism Handbook, edited Tamara Witschge, Chris W. Anderson, David Domingo and Alfred Hermida. Sage, London, 2016.
  • Owen, Taylor and Ben Kiernan, 2010. The Costs of the US Bombing of Cambodia. In Pavlick, Mark ed, US War Crimes in Indochina: Our Duty To Truth. Common Courage Press, 2010.
  • Owen, Taylor and Emily Paddon, 2010. “Beyond Humanitarians: Canadian Development Policy in Afghanistan.” In Ben Perrin (ed), Edges of Conflict, UBC Press: Vancouver.
  • Owen, Taylor and David Eaves, 2010. “Missing the Link: How the Internet is Saving Journalism.” In, The New Journalist, Edmund Montgomery Press: Toronto.
  • Owen, Taylor, 2008. In All but Name: The Uncertain Future of Human Security in the UN. In Rethinking Human Security, Blackell Press: Oxford.
  • Owen, Taylor, “Measuring Human Security: Methodological Challenges and the Importance of Geographically-Referenced Determinants.” In Peter Liotta ed, Environmental Change and Human Security: Recognizing and Acting on Hazard Impacts. Springer NATO Science Series, 2008.
  • Owen, T, & P.H. Liotta, 2006. “Europe Takes on Human Security” in Tobias Debiel/Sascha Werthes (Eds.): Human Security on Foreign Policy Agendas: Changes, Concepts and Cases. Duisburg: Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg-Essen (INEF Report, 80/2006).

Non-Peer Reviewed Academic

  • Owen, Taylor, Fergus Pitt, Raney Aronson, James Milward, Virtual Reality Journalism, Report for the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, Columbia University, 2015.
  • Owen, Taylor, 2012,  Disruption: Foreign Policy in a Networked World.  Trudeau Foundation Position Paper. PDF
  • Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, 2010. The U.S. Bombing of Afghanistan and the Cambodian Precedent, The Asia Pacific Journal June 2010. Republished in The Asia Times.
  • Travers, Patrick and Taylor Owen, 2007. Peacebuilding While Peacemaking: The Merits of a 3D Approach in Afghanistan. UBC Center for International Relations Security and Defense Forum Working Paper #3.
  • Owen, Taylor, 2006. “In all but Name: the Uncertain Future of Human Security in the UN”. Commissioned UNESCO publication.
  • Owen, Taylor, 2004. ‘Are we really secure?: Challenges and opportunities for defining and measuring human security’ Disarmament Forum. Issue 2, June 2004.
  • Owen, Taylor. 2003. “Measuring Human Security: Overcoming the Paradox”. Human Security Bulletin. October, Vol.2 No. 3.
  • Owen, Taylor. 2002. “Body Count: Rationale and Methodologies for Measuring Human Security”. Human Security Bulletin. October, Vol.1 No. 3. pdf

Magazine Articles

  • Owen, Taylor, 2016, Can Journalism be Virtual, The Columbia Journalism Review
  • Owen, Taylor 2016, Quantum Leap, Foreign Affairs
  • Owen, Taylor 2015, The Violence of Algorithms, Foreign Affairs
  • Owen, Taylor, 2016, Coin Toss: Will blockchain undermine or buttress state power? Literary Review of Canada
  • Owen, Taylor, 2010. A World Turned Upside Down. The Literary Review of Canada. link
  • Owen Taylor and David Eaves, 2008. Progressivism’s End. The Literary Review of Canada. September, Vol 17, No 7. (Winner of national New Voices competition)
  • Liberal Baggage: The national party’s greatest burden may be its past success, Literary Review of Canada, May 2012.
  • Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, “Bombs Over Cambodia. The Walrus Magazine. November, 2006. (Finalist for National Magazine Award)
  • Taylor Owen and Emily Paddon, 2008. Zakaria, Kurdish Nationbuilder, The Walrus Magazine, December 2008.
  • Owen, Taylor and Ben Kiernan, 2008. Iraq Another Vietnam, Try Cambodia? Japan Focus. May, 2007. Reprinted in Outback Magazine.
  • Owen, Taylor & Patrick Travers, 2007. 3D Vision. The Walrus Magazine. July/August 2007.

Policy Reports

  • Owen, Taylor, 2012. Taylor Owen and Alexandre Grigsby. In Transit: Guns, Gangs and Trafficking in Guyana. A Working Paper of the Small Arms Survey, Geneva.
  • Owen, Taylor 2012. Media, Technology and Intelligence, a Report to the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, March 2012.
  • Jackson, T., N. Marsh, T. Owen, and A. Thurin, 2005. “Who Takes the Bullet: The Human Cost of Small Arms”. Oslo: Norwegian Church Aid.
  • Owen, Taylor & Aldo Benini, 2004. ‘Human Security in Cambodia: A Statistical Analysis of Large-Sample Sub-National Vulnerability Data’. Report written for the Centre for the Study of Civil War at the International Peace Research Institute Oslo.

Selected Opeds

  • Owen, Taylor “Why governments must embrace the new global digital reality” The Globe and Mail, April 10, 2015
  • “Why the U.S. should but won’t partner with hactivists Anonymous” San Fransisco Chronicle, May 1, 2015 link
  • Owen, Taylor “The promise and peril of digital diplomacy” The Globe and Mail, January 9, 2015
  • Owen Taylor, “Drones don’t just kill. Their psychological effects are creating enemies” The Globe and Mail, March 13, 2013
  • Taylor Owen and Rudyard Griffiths, 2010 “Let a commission, not broadcasters, call the shots” Globe and Mail.
  • Owen, Taylor and Robert Muggah, “With think tanks on the ropes, Canada is losing its bark and bite” Globe and Mail, October 10, 2013
  • Review of The Canadian Century, Brian Crowley, Jason Clemens and Niels Veldhuis, The Globe and Mail, August 10th, 2010.
  • Owen, Taylor, “Afghan army: If you build it, who will come?” Globe and Mail, Sept 6, 2011.
  • Taylor Owen, 2010. Why Wikileaks will Lead to More Secrecy, not Less. Macleans Magazine, November 29th, 2010.
  • Taylor Owen, 2010. Five reasons David Cameron’s coalition government is not a harbinger for Canada, The Globe and Mail, May 14, 2010.
  • Taylor Owen and Rudyard Griffiths, 2010. Learning from Britain’s Three Election Debates, The National Post, April 30, 2010.
  • Taylor Owen and Rudyard Griffiths, 2010. Let the Debate Begin, The National Post, April 16, 2010.
  • Taylor Owen and Adrian Bradbury, 2009. The Rhetoric of Foreign Policy. The Mark News, Dec 1 2009.
  • Taylor Owen, 2008. One Step Closer to an Obama-Ignatieff Continent, The Prospect Magazine, December 2008.
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2008. Real Liberal Renewal. The Toronto Star, November 20, 2008
  • Travers, Patrick, Taylor Owen, 2008. 2011 is a date, not a goal. The Toronto Star, April 5th 2008.
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Failed strategy connects Afghan fields, city streets, The Toronto Star, December 7th, 2007.
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Kandahar deal breakers: The Afghan poll is not a blank cheque, The Globe and Mail, November 2nd, 2007
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Africa is Not a Liberal Idea, Embassy Magazine, October 3rd, 2007
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Iraq Suddenly Appears on Canada’s Radar Screen. Toronto Star August 29th, 2007
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. How the internet humbled the NYT, The Tyee, October 10th, 2007
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Blogosphere at Age 10 is Improving Journalism, The Toronto Star, July 30th, 2007
  • David Eaves and Taylor Owen, 2007. Prime Ministerial Power Stifling Decision Making. Toronto Star, June 28th, 2007
  • Taylor Owen and David Eaves, 2007. Getting Back On Track in Afghanistan. Toronto Star, February 23rd, 2007
  • David Eaves and Taylor Owen, 2007. Beyond Vimy Ridge: Canada’s Other Foreign Policy Pillar. Globe and Mail, April 18th, 2007.