Towards a Public Service Internet

With the revelations of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s role as malign hackers of human emotion and democracy, it can come as no surprise that there’s a scramble to look beyond the worryingly dystopian looking internet present towards some preferable futures.

The BBC has historically fallen under the glamour of the larger, shinier and more commercial competition, who are in fact, given the unique way in which the BBC is funded, not really the competition at all. Rather than asking how the BBC can be more like Google and Facebook in theory and method, the BBC could and should be making a crystal clear statement of difference. The corporation should be asking how it can make it’s offer diametrically opposite, even if that means an initial drop off of audience numbers. It should feel a confidence that those audiences, when looking back to survey the smoking wreckage of the data wars, will know that the BBC and other public institutions were on their side.

In recent years there has been a troubling move within the corporation to dodge awkward questions about it’s own (and it’s shell corporation Media Applications Technologies) spending with Facebook,Twitter and Google. Freedom of information requests have been denied on the grounds that information is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature’, and therefore exempt from the act.

Try to sign up for BBC iPlayer and you’ll be asked for not only your date of birth and postcode but extraordinarily your gender. The BBC insists that this information is protected and designed to improve personalisation, but it indicates a hand over fist data grab and collection that mimics the worst practices of the surveillance capitalism behemoths. Similarly the BBC has toyed with ‘addictive by design’ principles in other digital products. The autoplay function hated by anyone with kids, is enabled as a default on their iPlayer Kids app and impossible to remove in settings when viewing in browser.

The intersection of data and AI represents a range of amazing opportunities and risks for us all. The impact of big data on all our lives, is arguably as fundamental an issue for us personally, societally and globally as climate change. Like climate change, the topic can be illusive and hard to visualise. There are few people who can claim to have a clear or accurate mental model of how data and AI are combining to create our futures. Consumers should be in a position to trust public bodies to assist them with making ways of accessing, understanding and making the most of your data, safe, accurate and clear. Consumers need help in understanding the complexities of their own personal data; many just don’t know it yet.

There isn’t one solution or provocation that can serve to both alert consumers to the existential threats to their own privacy and then engage them with action to mitigate against those risks. The issues that we’re all facing are larger than us, and need to be addressed on a level that is outside the experience and influence of many of us. There are however beginning to be significant signs that the challenges and opportunities for combined data and AI, are beginning to concern the population. This is in part because of a growing coverage in the media of the problems inherent with constant surveillance, the loss of privacy, and the mass abdication of responsibility and ownership of our own data. It is also in part due to a simple passing of time, and an accretion of the larger and small signs of how we really are, into more rationally explicable statements of being and truth. The BBC has a significant role to play, as interpreters of these ways of being and truths, on behalf of and alongside audiences and citizens.