... in democracy

Machines vs Elections

08 Aug 2023 | 500 words | artificial intelligence democracy elections

So over the wekend we learned that Sam Altman is apparently nervous about the impact of AI on democratic elections:

i am nervous about the impact AI is going to have on future elections (at least until everyone gets used to it). personalized 1:1 persuasion, combined with high-quality generated media, is going to be a powerful force. (@sama on x, 04-08-2023)1

And that even though he is the CEO of the company that has arguably done more than anyone else to get generative ML tools into the hands of the public, he cannot come up with anything better than “raising awareness”:

although not a complete solution, raising awareness of it is better than nothing. we are curious to hear ideas, and will have some events soon to discuss more. (@sama on x, 04-08-2023)

It seems that Altmans “concern” is something that has already had its impact on OpenAIs public policy narrative. A few hours after Altman’s tweet, Open AI’s new European head op policy and partnerships had translated this into a call to action:

Who are the best thinkers/builders at the intersection of generative AI and elections in Europe? Ideas welcome! (@sGianella on x, 04-08-2023)

Now, there are plenty of reasons to suspect that Altman’s “nervousness” is nothing more than self-serving criti-hype (see here for such an interpretation), but in this case it is worth dwelling a bit on the particular connection being made between AI and elections (especially since both the US and Europe have upcoming elections).

There are indeed reasons to be concerned about the impact of generative ML models on elections and other democratic processes2, but it is beyond absurd that such concerns are being articulated by Open AI and its representatives:

The way in which Open AI introduces its models into the public sphere stands in stark contrast to the very norms of openness, transparency, and equality on which democratic elections are based. Instead of these values, Open AI deliberately hides how its models are trained, making it impossible for researchers, policymakers, and the general public to understand “the impact AI is going to have on future elections.”

If Sam Altman and his surrogates are truly interested in limiting any undue interference of the technology they are peddling to the public with upcoming elections, then they should apply the same level of transparency to their publicly available models. Until that happens, we should keep ML systems as far away from the electoral process as possible.

  1. Given the unstable nature of the platform formerly known as twitter i have made a screenshot of the posts quoted in this conversation available here↩︎

  2. Although the impact is probably overstated, the underlying problem is not so much “AI” but rather disinformation that may or may not be aided by “AI” systems. As Sayash Kapoor & Arvind Narayanan have convincingly argued the real bottleneck for disinformation campaigns is not its generation but rather its distribution and as a result it is at the distribution level where this problem should be adressed. ↩︎

Live from Luxembourg

23 Apr 2022 | 658 words | copyright democracy justice europe

In November 2020 - as the second wave of covid infections crested over Europe - I drove 418 kilometres through the night to report on the hearing in Case C-401/19 at the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. At the hearing I was one of two accredited members of the press and the only one writing for a free access publication (the other journalist wrote for a paywalled trade publication). Apart from the two of us, the hearing was attended by a small group of lawyers who were following the hearing to privately report back to their industry clients (both entertainment industry and online platforms) and otherwise the spacious halls of Europe’s highest court were largely deserted.

Before driving down to Luxembourg i had considered to try to live stream the hearing. I had set up a twitch channel ("Radio Luxembourg") and brought some audio equipment that would have allowed me to capture and stream the audio of the hearing from the court’s audio system. Once arrived at the court and set up in the press centre, I quickly abandoned these plans after being reminded that the Court really does not want to have its workings communicated to the public. Usually I am not someone who quickly complies with senseless rules — but even I did not want to mess with Europe’s highest legal authority.

Sign on the wall of the press room of the CJEU

So I settled behind my laptop and engaged in a furious sprint of note taking (not necessarily an easy task given the multilingual nature of proceedings at the CJEU) and published the only(!) publicly available report of the hearing.

All of this is to say that I am extremely happy to hear that yesterday the Court has finally decided to embrace modern technology and will start streaming Grand Chamber hearings and judgements as of next week (pdf).

Coincidentally this means that the first judgement that will be live streamed by the court will be the judgement in Case C-401/19, the case that made me drive through the night to cover back in November 2020. Stock up on the 🍿 and tune in for episode one of season one of CJEU-TV on Tuesday 26 April at 0930h CET (and then join us for our COMMUNIA Salon to discuss the implications of the judgement on Thursday 28 April at 1530h CET).

Apart from this - happy? - coincidence the decision of the Court to finally stream its public proceedings is extremely welcome in general. Justice and democracy do not flourish in darkness and scenarios in which public access to the deliberations on fundamental rights is dependent on some random activist being able to drive across borders are not conducive to trust in our democratic institutions.

Do not travel abroad unless necessary — signboard alongside the A2 highway at the Dutch - Belgian border

Back in November 2020 after the hearing, i expressed my frustration about the senseless aversion to stream the hearing to the court’s extremely friendly and helpful press officer, who turned out to be just as frustrated with this decision as i was. He also hinted that there were discussion ongoing among the judges and that he and his colleagues were pushing for more openness. As it is well known, the wheels of justice turn slowly but now — with a number of additional waves of covid behind us and the acute urgency gone for now1 — the court has finally realised it does indeed make sense “to facilitate the public’s access to its judicial activity” by streaming its proceedings.

Now let’s hope that the CJEU’s streaming infrastructure will be up to the task to provide access to Tuesday’s judgement, which is highly anticipated by a lot of people.

  1. Even if you can now follow proceedings online, if you ever have the possibility you should still go and attend a hearing of the court in person at least once. ↩︎

Towards a Shared Digital Europe

Today, we are launching a project that i have worked on for the last 6 months: A Vision for a Shared Digital Europe. I started working on this while i was still at Kennisland (where the idea was born) and i have continued this work after my departure from KL with Centrum Cyfrowe and the Commons Network. This vision is an attempt to set the stage for a different way about digital policy making in Europe.

With our vision we are proposing a uniquely European way that refuses to the the digital space as a marketplace alone and that sets out to identify a number of principles that can guide policy makers in developing alternatives for the status quo that go beyond an essentially defensive approach that relies on curtailing and regulating practices and operators that are considered to be problematic. In publishing our vision we hope to kick-start a conversation about what kind of digital environment we want for Europe:

Today we are launching a new vision for digital policy making in Europe: Our Vision for a Shared Digital Europe lays the foundation for a new frame for digital policy making in the EU. We propose an overarching policy framework that brings together varied issues and policy arenas, including copyright reform, platform regulation, privacy, data-protection and data governance, antitrust, media regulation or innovation policy.

Digitalisation has led much of our interaction, communication and economic activity to take place through data or over online intermediaries. What kind of space should this digital sphere be? We believe that seeing this space as a market place only does not do it justice. This space is in effect our society – a society that is experiencing a digital transformation. Therefore we cannot accept the digital sphere as a place where only market dynamics rule. Society is more than an interaction between market players, and people are more than entrepreneurs or consumers.

As supporters of the European project, we believe that Europe needs to establish its own rules for the digital space, which embody our values: strong public institutions, democratic governance, sovereignty of communities and people, diversity of European cultures, equality and justice. A space that is common to all of us, but at the same time diverse and decentralised.

Over the past five months we have worked with a broad group stakeholders on developing a frame that can replace the existing Digital Single Market frame that dominates discussions about digital policy making in the EU. We propose a new, society-centric vision that is intended to guide policymakers and civil society organisations involved with digital policymaking in the direction of a more equitable and democratic digital environment, where basic liberties and rights are protected, where strong public institutions function in the public interest, and where people have a say in how their digital environment functions - a Shared Digital Europe.

The Shared Digital Europe must be based on four principles that aim to ensure that the balance between private and public interests is safeguarded. We believe that a Shared Digital Europe must enable self-determination, cultivate the commons, decentralise infrastructure and empower public institutions.

Combine these four elements with a truly European set of values and a new strategy presents itself. **A strategy that policy makers and civil society actors can use to counter the current lack of democratic oversight in the digital space, the deteriorating online debate, the monopolisation of the digital sphere, the enclosure of knowledge and the means of knowledge production and the increasing violation of human rights in the digital space. **

**Most importantly our Vision for a Shared Digital Europe provides policy makers with an opportunity to work towards a truly European idea about how society should function in the digital age. **

Are you working on digital policies and want to learn more or join our effort? Or do you want us to come by and share and discuss our vision with you? Don’t hesitate to reach out to hello@shared-digital.eu

Public policy vs. ideology

Earlier this week i found myself in the bathtub reading through this list of voting recommendations by the ‘Audiovisual Coalition/EP CULT Committee‘ on the ‘Proposal for an orphan works directive’. The voting list makes voting recommendations with regards to amendments (proposals to change the text of the proposed directive) suggested by various Members of the European Parliament. In total it lists 230 amendments and recommends either to vote for them or against them. Here is one of them (amendment 195 by Jean-Marie Cavada):

CULT voting list on orphan works directive, amendement 195

For me these two boxes full of text pretty much capture a lot of what is wrong with public policy making in the field of copyright. But first, let’s recall what this directive is about:

  1. There is a large class of copyright protected works where the rights holders are unknown or where it is unknown if they are still protected by copyright.
  2. Copyright law makes most uses of a copyright protected work conditional on the permission by the rights holder(s).
  3. Such permission cannot be obtained when the rights holder is unknown when it is unknown if there still is a rights holder.
  4. As a result works without a known rights holder (‘orphan works‘) cannot be used without infringing copyright.
  5. This outcome is highly undesirable since it does not benefit anyone, neither the rights holders nor members of the public who might want to use such works.

The proposed directive on orphan works seeks to address this issue by allowing certain uses of orphan works on the condition that a diligent search has been carried out and that this search has failed to locate the rights holder. The core of the proposal is relatively undisputed. The discussion in the European Parliament (and in other places) centers on the scope of the above mentioned ‘certain uses’ and the question who should be entitled to make such uses.

This is where the above snippet from the voting list becomes intresting. MEP Cavada proposes (left box) to add a new article to the directive that would allow broadcasting organizations to use recognized orphan works (i.e works where a diligent search to locate a rights holder has been unsuccessful):

4a. For this Directive to be fully effective, broadcasting organizations need to be able to use recognized orphan works, under the conditions established by this directive, in the course of their normal activities.

In response, the voting list compiled by the CULT committee indicates that MEP’s should vote against this amendment and provides the following argument to support this recommendation (right box):

The inclusion of commercial broadcasters is not compatible with the public policy objectives of this proposal.

Now the interesting part of the argument is the reference to a ‘public policy objective’ that is said to underpin the proposed directive. As i have outlined above the objective of the proposal is to make copyright protected works that have been rendered inaccessible by a dysfunctional copyright system available again.

Available for the public to access these works, but also available for the public to re-use them, and to build upon them. So the public policy objective of the proposed directive is to provide access to these works and it should be self evident that (commercial) broadcasting organization are an important platform facilitating such access.

For some reason the CULT committee of the EP (and many other stakeholders in this debate) seem to have completely lost track of this objective. Instead of promoting access to works that are rotting away in archives (often at enormous costs to the public that is paying for archiving and preserving them), every possible effort is undertaken to limit access to orphan works as much as possible.

The general consensus seems to be that only non-commercial uses by non-commercial cultural heritage institutions who have the actual works in their collections should be allowed. Quite obviously this is not in line with any public policy objectives, since it keeps the works out of reach of most of the public.

The reference to the public policy objective in the voting recommendation perfectly illustrates to what degree the discussion about orphan works (and more broadly copyright) has been captured by special interests. Those trying to limit the scope of the directive are willing to risk enormous amounts of collateral damage in order to make sure that the ideology of unalienable exclusive rights of authors does not get undermined.

It is pretty disappointing to see that the CULT committee of the European Parliament seems utterly incapable to distinguish between special interest driven ideology and public policy here.

Harwood on the 'Steam Powered Census'

04 Apr 2011 | 392 words | politics democracy

Over the last couple of month i have completely lost my ability to follow the exchanges on the nettime-l, and i have come close to unsubscribing for a couple of times. Fortunately i have not had the guts to do so yet and have forced myself every now-and-then to scan through the subject lines of 100s of posts before dragging them to the trash. During my last scan-and-trash operation i have come across a intriguing essay titled ‘Stream Powered Census‘ by my old friend Graham Harwood.

In his essay Harwood examines the contemporary open (government) data movement in it’s historical context: the emerging bureaucratic apparatus and the census data that enables its mechanisms of ordering and control. Through this lens Harwood provides us with a much needed critical perspective on the contemporary perception of ‘open data’ as a panacea for the effects of the crisis:

The government’s radical pension reforms of last year were based on the current life expectancy figures of 77.4years for men and 81.6years for women. This statistic sent thousands of analysts scurrying off during lunch hour. Flurries of emails later revealed that people in Kensington and Chelsea’s life expectancy for females is 85.8 years, almost nine and a half years more than Glasgow’s 76.4:therefore the question was,who was living longer and who would pay.

Due to historical and social formations too numerous to mention here, the gap between the wider public’s perception of data and the social experience it attempts to model, creates a form of indifference toward the expectations of this kind of narrative. A partial remedy for this

indifference might be found in making data more vital through taking a more critical view of transparency. This would require seeing it, not so much in technical terms – the protocols of the enlightened yet unequal participants of the governed and government – but more in terms of the data itself having some kind of agency.

Such a perspective can be imagined through a critical reading in which we are able to see what decisions the data has informed and evidenced and how that data has been collected, for what purpose and by whom. Taking this thread a little further it would also be illuminating to see in which positions the data places the subject of its records, and where too it places the user of the data.

Telecom Package: we are not going to take it

The French/European advocacy group La Quadrature du Net (Squaring the Net) has issued an urgent appeal to act against a number of entertainment industry sponsored amendments to the legislative undertaking to reform the European law on electronic communications (“Telecoms Package”) which are currently being discussed by the European Parliament in Brussels. These amendments are aimed at closing the open architecture of the Internet and to introduce more control and surveillance of users as well as the introduction of censorship of internet communications by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) at the request of the entertainment industry and/or national governments:

European Internet users could be blocked from lawful activities by mandatory spyware, in the interests of their security. The right to use free software for internet access would therefore not be assured anymore. The neutrality of the Internet is also directly attacked, as is the principle that technical intermediaries have no obligation to prior surveillance of contents. Other amendments will de facto enable administrative authorities to obligate ISPs to work with content producers and rights-holders’ private police, including the sending of intimidating messages, with no judicial or regulatory oversight.

These measure goes further than the French “graduated response” project, which has been subject to widespread opposition, including by the European Parliament on April 10th. That is undoubtedly why those amendments have turned up on early July, and why those drafting them use subtle rhetoric and crossed-references to make the overall text harder to understand (more than 800 amendments on 5 directives were tabled).

“The politicians who engage in these summer manoeuvres dishonour Europe and their mandate. They rely on the fact that nobody watches them a week before Parliamentary holiday, to divert the Telecoms package from its primary objectives of consumer protection. They pave the way for the monitoring and filtering of the Internet by private companies, exceptional courts and orwellian technical measures. It is inconceivable for freedom but also for European economic development. We call on all MEPs to oppose what they have already rejected.” said Christophe Espern, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net (Squaring the Net).

These torpedo amendments are currently subject of a series of secret, back-room negotiations between a handful of MEPs who do not always understand all the implications of these issues. Accomplices of lobbyists who hold the pen are in every political party. Instructions for the plenary vote will be established this week for a vote in IMCO and ITRE committee on Monday, July 7th.

La Quadrature du Net has compiled detailed instructions on how to contact the Members of the European Parliament involved in this process and how to attempt to convince them that these amendments are extremely harmful to the interests of all European Internet users. More background information on the amendments in question can be found in this excellent (and very timely!) draft briefing paper on the Telecoms Package by Monica Horton. The paper also contains a very good summary of the core argument against introducing legislative measures that transform the position of ISPs from neutral providers of a bitstream into chain-dogs of the content industries and governments:

Why we should protect “mere conduit”?

The political issue here is that the “mere conduit” status of the ISP was put in place to protect individual privacy and freedom. Once this change to telecoms framework law is in place, “mere conduit” is effectively eroded, and this apparently small legal change will give corporations and governments control over the Internet which they have not previously been able to get. If it is legally possible for Internet content to be monitored and blocked to support copyright infringement, what is to stop it being used for other forms of censorship, including political purposes?

Under the current legal framework, we are protected from such censorship by the “mere conduit” status, combined with data protection law. It is therefore vital to retain that “mere conduit” status, in order to protect citizenship rights to communicate freely using the Internet.

And if we are going to make any changes at all to the ISP status, it must be properly and publicly debated and go through the full legislative scrutiny in a transparent manner, so that all stakeholders, including civil society, can input to it.

Apart from straightforward censorship at the ISP level these amendments also pave the way for the graduated response (three strikes and you are out) type regulation currently under discussion in France and the UK. If these stealth amendments will pass the EU parliament and get enacted they would undermine (if not reverse) the explicit condemnation of activities aimed at cutting off internet access from European Citizens passed by the same parliament back in April. Cory Doctorow has a spot-on observation regarding these insane propositions in yesterdays guardian which underlines why these henchmen of incompetent and inflexible corporate interests must be stopped.

So if you have a little time to spare, go contact your local MEP (especially in case (s)he is in the ITRE or IMCO committee) or bring this whole mess to the attention of friendly journalists to shine a bit more light on the whole affair.

p.s: The title of this post obviously refers of the song ‘we are not going to take it‘ by twisted sister.

Pirates for Obama

Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas brought together a bunch of american musicians and actors to record a video clip (song) based on the ‘yes we can’ thank-you speech held by Obama on January 8th in Nashua, New Hampshire. The whole clip (‘yes we can song‘) is extremely well done (you might want to call it ‘slick’) and certainly makes me want him to win as many delegates as possible tonight. Especially since, towards the end, there is some proud display of a pirate flag tattoo by one of the female vocalists (excuse my ignorance, but i have absolutely no clue who most of these people are, but then i have mostly listening to Bach in the last couple of days):

Bonus points for the reader who tells me the name of the depicted person.

When i am president (Obama vs. Osama) ...

Just read a fairly impressive speech on terrorism by US presidential candidate (technically he is a candidate for nomination as a candidate) Barack Obama. The speech it is quite a contrast to what you hear from the current US administration and for large parts actually makes sense even though it contains a fair share of patriotic pathos. For all i know this speech is the first time i have come across a US presidential candidate (who actually has a realistic chance of winning) who seems to realize that there are people outside of the US who hate the US not because they hate freedom but because of the way the US are bullying around the rest of the world:

When you travel to the world’s trouble spots as a United States Senator, much of what you see is from a helicopter […] And it makes you stop and wonder: when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?

I guess realizing that the way the US are behaving themselves in the rest of the world is one of the root causes of what is labeled ‘global terrorism’ is one of the core qualifications you would wish any future president of the US to have. Lets hope that he still remembers this should he ever come to sit in one of these new presidential helicopters. Now unfortunately Mr Obama gets a little bit over-excited about his proverbial helicopter ride in the rest of his speech:

[…] That child looking up at the helicopter must see America and feel hope. […] I will speak directly to that child who looks up at that helicopter, and my message will be clear: “You matter to us. Your future is our future. And our moment is now.” […] The America I know is the last, best hope for that child looking up at a helicopter. It’s the country that put a man on the moon; that defeated fascism and helped rebuild Europe. […] And we can be what that child looking up at a helicopter needs us to be: the relentless opponent of terror and tyranny, and the light of hope to the world.

Not sure if this is a particularly realistic scenario [especially since mr. Obama also hints at invading pakistan in this speech]. Also, given the demographics of your typical ‘terrorist’ i think he should be more concerned about (young) adults than children, but then politicians seem to be generally unable to formulate unrealistic scenarios without referring to children. Guess this is because they are ‘pure’ or ‘innocent’ or both….

Update [22.08.07]: Shudda adds: ‘Nobody invades Pakistan without India’. Interesting times ahead indeed…


26 Oct 2006 | 82 words | brazil elections democracy music

Love this picture which i found when i was going through reports from the submidalogia#2 conference this morning:

Picture by Cris Cabello

From what i can make up from his tags the picture was taken in Olinda in Brazil and shows a mobile sound system used to campaign in the presidential elections (see the ‘Lula e Eduardo’ sticker on the car door).Ii particularly like the mixing panel build into the ceiling of the drivers cabin and the serious expression of the driver.

Observing elections

17 Sep 2006 | 124 words | berlin germany elections democracy

If I was an election observer i would definitely sign up for the early shift. the one were the city is still half asleep and disgruntled volunteers head to the polling stations they have been assigned to to open them hours before the first 10% the electorate show up to exercise their democratic rights.

If there is a mood that expresses the status of those tired, self-defeating and worn-out parliamentary democracies societies it is probably the mood which prevailed in the streets of Berlin this morning at half past 7.

No clue where this particular party gets the inspiration for its economic program from but i would be rather surprised if attracting heavy industry to Berlin will really give the youth a glorious future.

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

I also maintain a collection of cards from African mediums (which is the reason for the domain name), a collection of photos on flickr and a website collecting my professional writings and appearances.

Other things that i have made online: