Interview with Regulierung und Datenschutz im Internet der Dinge


In September I spoke at Netzpolitik’s annual conference, Das ist Netzpolitik. While I was there, also recorded an interview with me: “Regulierung und Datenschutz im Internet der Dinge“.

A big thank you to Netzpolitik and Stefanie Talaska for the conversation!

Facebook, Twitter, Google are a new type of media platform, and new rules apply


When Congress questioned representatives of Facebook, Google and Twitter, it became official: We need to finally find an answer to a debate that’s been bubbling for months (if not years) about the role of the tech companies—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, or GAFAM—and their platforms.

The question is summed up by Ted Cruz’s line of inquiry (and here’s a person I never expected to quote) in the Congressional hearing: “Do you consider your sites to be neutral public fora?” (Some others echoed versions of this question.)

Platform or media?

Simply put, the question boils down to this: Are GAFAM tech companies or media companies? Are they held to standards (and regulation) of “neutral platform” or “content creator”? Are they dumb infrastructure or pillars of democracy?

These are big questions to ask, and I don’t envy the companies for their position in this one. As a neutral platform they get a large degree of freedom, but have to take responsibility for the hate speech and abuse on their platform. As a media company they get to shape the conversation more actively, but can’t claim the extreme point of view of free speech they like to take. You can’t both be neutral and “bring humanity together” as Mark Zuckerberg intends. As Ben Thompson points out on Stratechery (potentially paywalled), neutrality might be the “easier” option:

the “safest” position for the company to take would be the sort of neutrality demanded by Cruz — a refusal to do any sort of explicit policing of content, no matter how objectionable. That, though, was unacceptable to the company’s employee base specifically, and Silicon Valley broadly

I agree this would be easier. (I’m not so sure that the employee preference is the driving force, but that’s another debate and it certainly plays a role.) Also, let’s not forget that each of these companies plays a global game, and wherever they operate they have to meet legal requirements. Where are they willing to draw the line? Google famously didn’t enter the Chinese market a few years ago, presumably because they didn’t want to meet the government’s censorship requirements. This was a principled move, and I would expect not an easy one for a big market. But where do you draw the line? US rules on nudity? German rules on censoring Nazi glorification and hate speech? Chinese rules on censoring pro-democracy reporting or on government surveillance?

For GAFAM, the position has traditionally been clear cut and quite straightforward, which we can still (kind of, sort of) see in the Congressional hearing:

“We don’t think of it in the terms of ‘neutral,'” [Facebook General Counsel Colin] Stretch continued, pointing out that Facebook tries to give users a personalized feed of content. “But we do think of ourselves as — again, within the boundaries that I described — open to all ideas without regard to viewpoint or ideology.” (Source: Recode)

Once more:

[Senator John] Kennedy also asked Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, whether the company is a “newspaper” or a neutral tech platform. Salgado replied that Google is a tech company, to which Kennedy quipped, “that’s what I thought you’d say.” (Source: Business Insider)

Now that’s interesting, because while they claim to be “neutral” free speech companies, Facebook and the others have of course been hugely filtering content by various means (from their Terms of Service to community guidelines), and shaping the attention flow (who sees what and when) forever.

This aspect isn’t discussed much, but worth noting nonetheless: How Facebook and other tech firms deal with content has been based to a relatively large degree by United States legal and cultural standards. Which makes sense, given that they’re US companies, but doesn’t make a lot of sense given they operate globally. To name just two examples from above that highlight how legal and cultural standards differ from country to country, take pictures of nudity (largely not OK in the US, largely OK in Germany) versus positively referencing the Third Reich (largely illegal in Germany, largely least legal in the US).

Big tech platforms are a new type of media platform

Here’s the thing: These big tech platforms aren’t neutral platforms for debate, nor are they traditional media platforms. They are neither neither dumb tech (they actively choose and frame and shape content & traffic) nor traditional media companies that (at least notionally) primarily engage in content creation. These big tech platforms are a new type of media platform, and new rules apply. Hence, they require new ways of thinking and analysis, as well as new approaches to regulation.

(As an personal, rambling aside: Given we’ve been discussing the transformational effects of digital media and especially social media for far over a decade now, how do we still even have to have this debate in 2017? I genuinely thought that we had at least sorted out our basic understanding of social media as a new hybrid by 2010. Sigh.)

We might be able to apply existing regulatory—and equally important: analytical—frameworks. Or maybe we can find a way to apply existing ones in new ways. But, and I say this expressly without judgement, these are platforms that operate at a scale and dynamism we haven’t seen before. They are of a new quality, they display qualities and combinations of qualities and characteristics we don’t have much experience with. Yet, on a societal level we’ve been viewing them through the old lenses of either media (“a newspaper”, “broadcast”) or neutral platforms (“tubes”, “electricity”). And it hasn’t worked yet, and will continue not to work, because it makes little sense.

That’s why it’s important to take a breath and figure out how to best understand implications, and shape the tech, the organizations, the frameworks within which they operate.

It might turn out, and I’d say it’s likely, that they operate within some frameworks but outside others, and in those cases we need to adjust the frameworks, the organizations, or both. To align the analytical and regulatory frameworks with realities, or vice versa.

This isn’t an us versus them situation like many parties are insinuating: It’s not politics versus tech as actors on both the governmental and the tech side sometimes seem to think. It’s not tech vs civil society as some activists claim. It’s certainly not Silicon Valley against the rest of the world, even though a little more cultural sensitivity might do SV firms a world of good. This is a question of how we want to live our lives, govern our lives, as they are impacted by the flow of information.

It’s going to be tricky to figure this out as there are many nation states involved, and some supra-national actors, and large global commercial actors and many other, smaller but equally important players. It’s a messy mix of stakeholders and interests.

But one thing I can promise: The solution won’t be just technical, not just legal, nor cultural. It’ll be a slow and messy process that involves all three fields, and a lot of work. We know that the status quo isn’t working for too many people, and we can shape the future. So that soon, it’ll work for many more people—maybe for all.

Please note that this is cross-posted from Medium. Also, for full transparency, we work occasionally with Google.

Interviewed for Stories Connecting Dots


stories connecting dots

Markus Andrezak of überproduct kindly invited me to his excellent podcast Stories Connecting Dots. This is episode 12, titled “Ethics for The Internet of Things”.

We had a lovely, intense chat about ethics for the internet of things (IoT) space, how to start new projects, and lots more.

Quoting from the show notes:

That lead to getting to know the community around the Internet of Things, which again led to organising the first Thingscon in Berlin. An epic experience in starting a conference, low on budget, high on energy and even the attention of Bruce Sterling. During the conversation, you will hear a lot about how Peter sees the world. And as I did not choose Peter by chance, you will hear a lot of things on
  • how to start things off
  • how to open things up for a larger community
  • how to be inclusive
  • how to have impact as a person or a small boutique
  • how to work in early phases once things are in genesis so that your impact may still be there when things grow to utility

Learn more about this episode and subscribe to the podcast (RSS, iTunes)!

Interview: ThingsCon & responsible IoT on RBB


RBB Kulturradio RBB, a public broadcast radio in Berlin, invited me to chat about smart homes and responsible IoT. So I put my ThingsCon hat on and headed over to their studio earlier today. You can listed to the stream (in German) over on their website:

RBB Kulturradio Tagesthema: Wie intelligent sollen unsere Geräte werden?

A few things were noteworthy to me.

  • Of course a short show like this (with two interview partners and call-in listeners) can only ever scratch the surface.
  • IoT in general and smart homes are areas both simultaneously so vague and concrete that everybody has an opinion and projects all kinds of hopes and fears. (Which is why I advocate breaking IoT discussions down into the most concrete areas—or arenas—possible.)
  • Lots of fears are of course proxies in which one particular technology or feature stand in for a larger personal or societal fear, like unemployment through automation, loss of control, or invasions of privacy.
  • Somewhat unexpectedly to me, Roombas featured prominently. The show’s host, at least one caller, and I all have a Roomba at home and it seems it’s one of the most relatable, most universally considered “useful” appliances in the connected home. That is, if you want to include a Roomba as part of the connected home suite – after all, most models aren’t connected to anything. However in conversations before, during, and after the show people mentioned the issues with the complexity of formerly extremely easy-to-use appliances like connected TVs or radios.

This show is as consumer-oriented a show as there could be rather, so listeners are unlikely to be involved in shaping IoT as practitioners. So we didn’t get to talk much about ethical or responsible IoT as much as I’d hoped to. But it’s also very clear that the topics we’ve been tackling with ThingsCon are arriving in the most mainstream circles, and that there’s a lot of work to do.

Users/consumers/citizens don’t really trust connected systems, and maybe they shouldn’t. Or rather, they shouldn’t unless they know these systems have been designed deliberately to be responsible, ethical, and built for humans. Which is exactly what the ThingsCon community works towards.

During the interview I also mentioned labels or trust marks for connected products/services/systems. A consumer-readable, simple labeling systems to allow for better informed decisions is, in my mind, essential going forward. I’ll certainly try to poke at this and see if we can make something happen, one way or another. I think this won’t be easy, but is far from impossible given the right partners—and I’m confident we can find them.