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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.

 

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Can Journalism be Virtual?

I have an article in the Columbia Journalism Review that explores virtual reality, Facebook, the challenges of doing journalism in and on virtual realities, and the importance of holding platform companies accountable for the worlds they are building.  Full piece is here, below is from the introduction:

As Facebook and others begin researching and developing technologies that could augment our lives in significant ways, a new space is opening up for journalism. And unlike early virtual journalism experiments in Second Life, which ultimately mimicked traditional “real world” reporting, journalism inside these new virtual worlds will require an entirely different set of skills and approaches, and will challenge three core journalistic concepts: representation, witnessing, and accountability.

First, virtual reality challenges the ways in which journalists think about representation. At the core of VR’s unique power is a deception–that the user believes she is experiencing something she is not. The goal of journalism in VR, therefore, is to inform the user by blurring the act of journalistic representation. But journalists cannot appropriate the physiological power of virtual reality without also thinking seriously about how leveraging it for journalistic purposes changes the way the world is represented.

Second, virtual reality challenges journalists’ ability to serve as witnesses with agency. It is entirely unclear what tools will be needed to observe events and institutions in a virtual space that is created by a confluence of human intervention and algorithmic control. If the boundaries between observation, participation, audience, and social structure fundamentally break down in virtual worlds, it is uncertain whether virtual reality journalism can be done by a human at all.

Third, as Facebook begins to build a virtual world and signals its ambitions to augment human capabilities, there has never been a greater need for accountability journalism, both within virtual spaces and for the companies building them. These virtual experiences will be designed and increasingly automated to be as addictive as possible. They will be marketed aggressively and widely, and could radically change our lives. The technologies driving them will undoubtedly be used by governments and militaries to seek ever greater control. But as the cluster of Silicon Valley companies building these futures rises to significant and largely unchecked social, political, and economic power, technology journalism has proven insufficient to hold them responsible for their actions.

Whether or not these technology futures emerge, they are being discussed and researched at one of the largest companies in the world, with a user base of over 1.5 billion people and rich data about much of the world’s consumption, movements, knowledge, and networks. How these virtual worlds are designed and created, and how humans will evolve to engage with these new technologies, pose fundamental problems for journalism.

 

 

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Article in Foreign Affairs

Last year I was fortunate enough to get to attend a remarkable workshop at the University of Sidney lead by James Der Derian. It was part of a workshop series and documentary project that James is leading called Project Q: Peace and Security in the Quantum Age. The goal of the project is to bring together a broad range of interdisciplinary scholars, (physicists, biologists, philosophers, political scientists, artists, poets) to explore the potential implications of a second generation of quantum science. James is better than anyone I have ever encountered at developing creative and thought provoking conversations and his documentary about this project is going to be remarkable. This article builds on the summary remarks I made at the Q3 workshop, and explores some of the potential implications of various strands of quantum science for international peace and security.

The full article, Quantum Leap, is here, and below is a concluding excerpt:

The promise of quantum science has always been epistemological. It changes how and what we know. As a second generation of quantum technology comes online, three critical questions raised by and explored through Project Q are critical.

The first is whether quantum technologies will prove emancipatory or will reconcentrate power in the hands of states. At the Q Symposium, Professor Michael Biercuk, an experimental physicist and director of the Quantum Control Laboratory at the University of Sydney, pointed out that “new technology drives radical social change.” If we are going to take seriously the proposition that quantum could be disruptive, let alone emancipatory, then we need to ask who are the nimble outsiders developing these technologies to take on legacy institutions, and at what point will access to these technologies be democratized and available to the many in ways that challenge existing structures. It is far more likely that the early stages of the deployment of the technology will benefit incumbent actors.

Take the case of quantum positioning and quantum communications. On the one hand, these technologies have the potential to dramatically increase military capabilities. On the other hand, they could also profoundly empower individuals, providing new levels of privacy and agency if they trickle down into the public sector. For example, the tech journalist Patrick Tucker has suggested that quantum location technologies could potentially provide a replacement for the GPS in phones and hand-held devices, allowing them to run offline and perhaps keep the location data out of the hands of carriers or snooping government agencies. But power is often zero-sum. And it is worth assuming that the interests of those developing these technologies will determine who is empowered by them.

Observers also need to ask who is competing to get these technologies, and is there a tension between and within emerging strategic alliances. As Biercuk pointed out, the research has moved from “things to study to things to exploit,” meaning there will be real competition for capabilities that can be monopolized. There is a profound tension between the spirit of cooperation (the U.S. government and Silicon Valley, International Research labs) and the opportunities for strategic, scientific, and commercial gain: a confluence of interests that has led commentators to warn of an impending “quantum arms race.” We may have lost the window for a truly international project because the incentives for commercial and security gains are too strong. Along with the United States and China, Australia, Russia, and United Kingdom all are involved in the global race for quantum computing.

Third, and perhaps most important, it is time to begin thinking through how the world will govern emerging quantum technologies. In order to control the digital space, one needs both data and the tools to give them meaning. With meaning will come control and power, which opens up a wide range of governance challenges. According to Jairus Grove, director of the University of Hawaii’s Research Center for Futures Studies, quantum technologies pose a “direct challenge to democratic decision-making and accountability.” As government agencies seek to collect “the whole haystack,” as the former NSA chief Keith Alexander once put it, and utilize increasingly algorithmically oriented forms of governance to rule their citizens, how do we ensure that even more opaque quantum algorithms are employed responsibly?

As a limited number of states and corporations seek fault-tolerant quantum technologies to exploit a decisive military advantage, they will surely change the ways in which we think about power and control in the international system. But even beyond shifts in power, so-called quantum social theory could be used to help researchers metaphorically and empirically understand social phenomena. In a new book on quantum theory, Alexander Wendt, a professor of political science at Ohio State, argues that although classical physics cannot explain concepts such as consciousness, perhaps thinking of collections of human minds as a quantum machine, and subject to the emerging scientific knowledge of quantum phenomena, can scientifically ground our understanding of social collectives. Quantum science could change how we know the world.

The first generation of quantum science unleashed not only the power of atomic weapons but new ways of understanding the universe. The scientists developing quantum technologies were actively engaged in heated debates about the moral responsibility of both. Project Q has sought to replicate this moment. As research continues at a breakneck pace, and as the hype around quantum technologies continues to escalate, it would be wise to not lose sight of the very tangible promise and peril that this new quantum era embodies—for much like the nuclear age, it may arrive sooner than we think

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Towards a Whole of Government Digital Strategy

I have a short article in Policy Magazine summarizing a broader argument that I have been making about the limitations of a siloed digital foreign policy. The argument draws extensively on Disruptive Power.  In short, I argue that a digital foreign policy:

will first and foremost require a rethinking of the approach to online governance. It means addressing the misalignment between our international institutions and the actors and technologies that currently have power. The status quo governance discourse delegitimizes many of the emerging actors with real power, and because of this it is blind to some of the core policy challenges of the 21st century.

It also means assessing what new technologies or socio-technological processes currently sit  utside of our international governance structures. Algorithms, autonomous weapons, quantum computing and cryptocurrencies all exist in ungoverned spaces that fundamentally challenge the legitimacy and authority of the state. What does governance in this rapidly evolving space look like? Finally, taking digital foreign policy seriously means moving beyond siloed digital foreign policies. The idea that surveillance policy, digital diplomacy, autonomous weapons development and digital humanitarianism can be discussed in isolated departmental silos is absurd. They all intimately effect each other, are based on the same data flows and algorithmic tools, and contradictions between them seriously harm our credibility and impact in the world.

Put another way: What does a Whole of Government Digital Strategy look like—one that addresses surveillance, IP, C-51, dual-use technologies, cyber war, autonomous weapons and online finance? Taking this question seriously, with all of the complexities it entails, is a pre-requisite for for any country seeking to engage with responsibility, legitimacy and continued relevance in the emerging global digital system.

The full article is available here: “Towards a Whole of Government Digital Strategy

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Coin Toss: Will blockchain undermine or buttress state power?

I have a review of Don and Alex Tapscott’s new book, Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business and the World in this month’s Literary Review of Canada.  The full piece is here, but in short:

The book is at its best when explaining the complex concepts underpinning blockchain, but ultimately falls victim to an irreconcilable conflict at the heart of the blockchain movement—the growing divide in the cryptocurrency community between those who want to normalize its use and those who remain steadfast in its revolutionary potential. Put more starkly, while some view blockchain as a more efficient tool for financial services, market exchanges, online purchases and information sharing that can be adopted by established actors, others see it as a fundamental challenge to the hierarchical nature of power itself. These two visions of blockchain cannot coexist.

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Interview on The Agenda

I was on The Agenda with Steve Paikin a couple of weeks ago to talk digital technology, power and some Canadian foreign policy. We got into both my Disruptive Power and The World Won’t Wait books.

At the end though, I was asked about Trump. My answer relates to Brexit as well though.  The growing desire to burn down the house stems in part from a failure of governments to deliver on their promise & rhetoric to large segments of society. This, in turn, is because states have diminishing power to control citizens and events. Their monopoly over collective action is over. While much of the resulting nihilism is manifest in the right, this is a particular challenge for the left, who’s central proposition is deeply rooted in the role of the state.

 

 

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Speech at Public Policy Forum Dinner

I recently received the Public Policy Forum’s Emerging Leader award. It was presented at their annual Testimonial Dinner, which brought together a pretty remarkable group of over a 1000 policy, business and media leaders. Below are the remarks that I gave:

The video is here:

Full text:

Thank you Premier MacLauchlan. It is an honour to receive this recognition from the Forum, and to be included amongst colleagues and friends who have received this award in the past. And I feel privileged to address this – somewhat intimidating – room.

I am particularly excited to be presented this honour from the acting and newly minted presidents of the Forum, my friends and mentors Larry Murray and Ed Greenspon. Over the years I have had the tremendous fortune to learn a great deal from them both.

The challenge I’m facing tonight, (they might say irony), is that as I have told them both many times I believe that our industrial-era institutions (our universities, governments, media organizations and think tanks – the places they have spent their remarkable careers running) are increasingly ill equipped for the 21st century.

It is this moment of transition, from what I would characterize as the analog world to a digital one, from a world of hierarchies to one of decentralized networks, an industrial era to a post-industrial age, that I want to spend a few minutes speaking about.                                                                          

I have spent the past decade studying how digital technologies are transforming the worlds of journalism, international affairs and public policy.

I would suggest that each of these once distinct spaces and communities of practice are now faced with a radically different operating environment.

One where power is shifting from large organizations to individuals and groups and where participation and authority are moving from the few to the many. A world ruled byinformation abundance rather than scarcity and where our public discourses are mitigated by Silicon Valley platforms rather than the traditional media. Where gatekeepers to power, influence and audience are dissolving (or being replaced by algorithms).

A policy space in which increasingly complex challenges are deliberated in an ever more fragmented and fluid media space. And where the practices, norms and cultures of journalism, scholarship and policy are blurring.

I would argue that this is an uncomfortable world for industrial-era institutions that were purpose-built to provide stability, certainty and continuity.

The reality is that command and control bureaucracies are just no longer needed to make large numbers of people do things. These institutions have simply lost their monopoly on collective action.

What’s more, individuals and groups that are successful in this new environment are empowered in ways that sit outside of, and in many ways challenge, the very legitimacy and relevance of our 20th century hierarchical organizations.

Even more problematic, efforts to enforce control and order in the digital space risk either failing (think paywalls), or worse, breaking the network itself.

For example, many of the things states are doing to stop what they perceive as negative actors online, also undermine the free expression and commerce that make the internet so beneficial.

It is a very difficult world for control freaks.

And herein lies the policy challenge, because it is in these legacy institutions that we as a society have embedded our social, ethical and political values.

So as these organizations evolve, decline, or in many cases just go bankrupt, a central governance challenge we face is how to transition the societal values they enabled into this new and evolving space.

And it is here that I want to suggest is the opportunity for think tanks such as CIGI and the CIC, where I am engaged, and indeed for the Public Policy Forum. We desperately need a new generation of think tanks that can serve at this intersection of technology, civil society and governance.

But in this current environment, a failure to adapt and innovate is leading many legacy think tanks to a fate worse than their death: their irrelevance. The days of back room briefings, printed reports and closed workshops are as obsolete as print newspapers.

New communication technologies and platforms, such as the one that I run, OpenCanada, play a role in this transition, but I want to propose that the need for change goes far deeper. The lesson of the digital age is that successful organizations actually structure themselves, and the ways in which knowledge is produced, disseminated and implemented, differently.

So as Ed takes over this institution, an organization which I say with the utmost respect, was built for the policy world of the 20th century, I think there is a tremendous opportunity to experiment confidently in this complex nexus of media, policy, scholarship, activism and governance, and to help us transition as a society to the 21st.

Thank you again for this honour.

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New Book: The World Won’t Wait

9781442626973Roland Paris and I have a new edited volume out on Canadian Foreign Policy.  The World Won’t Wait: Why Canada Needs to Rethink its International Policies features analysis from a wonderful group of wicked smart colleagues and friends.  The abstract is below and the intro chapter from Roland and I is available here: ‘A Transforming World’

The need for an ambitious and forward-looking Canadian international strategy has never been greater. The worldwide changes that jeopardize Canadian security and prosperity are profound, ranging from the globalization of commerce, crime, and political extremism to the impact of climate change on the economy and environment. The reaction from Canada’s policymakers, at least so far, has been underwhelming.

In The World Won’t Wait, some of Canada’s brightest thinkers respond. Covering both classic foreign policy issues such as international security, human rights, and global institutions and emerging issues like internet governance, climate change, and sustainable development, their essays offer fresh and provocative responses to today’s challenges and opportunities. The proposals are striking and the contributors diverse: Toronto’s chief city planner makes the case that Canada needs a global urban agenda, while a prominent mining executive explains how to revitalize the country’s position as a world leader in the sector. Their essays are sure to spark the kind of debate that Canada requires if its international policy is to evolve into the twenty-first century.