Digital Rights Archive Newsletter - Eighth edition
Mid-August, the last gasp of summer before things get serious again in September. We’re all just trying to relax, maybe with a light beach read? Carl Hiaasen’s a trusty standby, and I can personally vouch for John Scalzi’s latest, the delightful The Kaiju Preservation Society. Maybe not the best time to send out a newsletter touting readings, and a couple of videos, on the latest in digital policy?
Unless! As tempting as a fizzy read may be, I’m swayed by American humorist and former Spy magazine columnist Roy Blount Jr’s contention that, actually, “Summer is the time for heavy reading, reading that works up a sweat.”
In his essay, “Summertime, and the Reading is Heavy” (reprinted in his delightful collection, Now, Where Were We?), Blount Jr argues for the heavy beach read:
“When it’s summer, people sit a lot. Or lie. Lie in the sense of recumbency. A good heavy book holds you down. It’s an anchor that keeps you from getting up and having another gin and tonic. Many a person has been saved from summer alcoholism, not to mention hypertoxicity, by Dostoyevsky. Put The Idiot in your lap or over your face, and you’ll know where you are going to be for the afternoon.”
I found this argument convincing when I first read it in 1990 and, as you’ll see, I’ve followed his advice ever since. So, let’s see what we can do to meet your heavy summertime reading needs. True, we don’t have anything quite as heavy as Dostoyevsky for you, but we do have Astrid Voorwinden’s PhD dissertation on smart cities that uses Sidewalk Labs’ failed Toronto experiment as a jumping-off point. What’s heavier, and more crammed with insight, than a dissertation?
The other readings and videos on offer may lack dissertation heft, but they all make for perfectly heavy summertime contemplation. State involvement in promoting and regulating the growth of artificial intelligence (I guess we’re stuck with that phrase, aren’t we?) is a recurring theme this month, whether it’s as a consideration (or re-consideration) of industrial policy (a video courtesy of the AI Now Institute), EU regulation of AI (another video, from the Geneva Graduate Institute), or a CBC report from Geoff Nixon on Canada’s efforts to “woo ‘digital nomads’” as a means of helping Canada to compete at the high-stakes global digital-economy table.
To repeat something I’m sure I’ve written in a previous newsletter, the CBC report on digital nomads served for me as a reminder that the digital revolution has probably changed the world less than we might have imagined. Nixon’s “digital nomads” seem to be the latest version of the rootless transnational businessmen that have been a feature of global political economy for decades now (for me, it brought to mind Pico Iyer’s 2001 memoir The Global Soul, which contemplated the nature and consequences of this rootlessness).
Elsewhere, and still on the labour front, Andrew Deck’s fascinating article on how generative AI is transforming outsourced labour highlights how, while generative AI is shaping the lives of the precarious workers that both use generative AI and make it run, it’s doing so within the same context of Northern exploitation of Southern labour that long predates the rise of AI. The details are the different, but the story’s the same.
That said, the details are fascinating, and the article includes a very useful side-by-side demonstration of how these outsourced workers perform their tasks (e.g., copywriting, graphic art) with and without AI. Very clever.
What’s heavier, and thus more appropriate for some poolside summer reading, than power itself? In that vein (and how’s that for a transition?), we highlight articles that reconsider the concept of free digital labour (by Carlo Vercellone, Antonio Di Stasio, also a nice complement to the generative AI labour piece), and explore the case for the democratization of AI, the latter by John W. Murphy and Randon R. Taylor. And in keeping with the notion that digital spaces are not sui generis, Sarah J. Jackson and Daniel Kreiss turn to existing theories and place right-wing publics on digital networks within a larger context that centres power and social structures. And there’s certainly power imbalances at play in the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice’s discussion of digital public infrastructure and digital identification systems.
If you’re ready to go really deep, try grappling with the idea, proffered by Jonathan Hall KC, that fundamental human rights do not provide a very useful framework for dealing with content moderation for counterterrorism. His argument’s definitely worth working through.
All fine works, and all appropriately heavy. Still, since Roy Blount Jr’s essay was dedicated to heavy fiction, I’ll end with a newsletter-appropriate novel that kicked off my own 2023 summertime reading.
In the era of generative AI, underwritten by a belief that the entire world can be quantified completely, Samuel Beckett’s Watt (1953) offers a reminder of the limits of rationality and how easily our misguided faith in logic can lead us astray. What is the error-prone ChatGPT other than “a dimwitted Mr. Spock,” as New Yorker writer describes Watt’s titular character: “helplessly, pedantically logical,” possessing little-to-no actual understanding of the world? And what does their faith in generative AI tell us of ChatGPT’s creators and boosters?
- Blayne Haggart
AI Policy as Industrial PolicyAmy Kapczynski, Jeremias Adams-Prassl | AI Now Institute
Discussing the growing interest in ‘industrial policy’ approaches for the tech sector across the political spectrum. Industrial policy refers to ‘sector-specific policy-making aimed at shaping the economy to meet public goals’.
Regulating Artificial Intelligence at the European UnionKalliopi Terzidou | Geneva Graduate Institute
In the rapidly evolving landscape of technology, AI has become a defining feature of the contemporary world. As such, it has drawn the attention of policymakers and academics alike, who are grappling with the challenges of how to regulate the development and use of AI systems while ensuring their safety and ethicality. This podcast, will explores the EU’s approach to AI governance, discusses the proposal for an AI act and the challenges of balancing innovation with protecting the safety and rights of citizens.
Canada Wants to Woo ‘Digital Nomads.’ Can We Compete?Geoff Nixon | CBC
Canada is trying to convince highly skilled remote workers to try out life in this country by announcing a targeted strategy to woo them. But Highly mobile workers able to weigh cost of living, quality of life across markets.
The Workers at the Frontlines of the AI RevolutionAndrew Deck | Rest of World
As businesses increasingly move towards offshore labor for lower wages, freelance workers in the Global South are standing at the frontline of the generative AI revolution. This has already resulted in greater price competition, as well as shorter deadlines, leading to exploitation of vulnerable workers. However, labor researchers have noted that generative AI is more likely to create new employment opportunities than to displace existing jobs completely.
Recentering Power: Conceptualizing Counterpublics and Defensive PublicsSarah J. Jackson, Daniel Kreiss | Communication Theory
This article offers a comprehensive exploration of the concept of counterpublics, their application to digital networks, and the need to consider social power when studying right-wing publics. It traces the genealogy of the concept and shows that classifying right-wing movements as 'defensive' is more theoretically and empirically accurate. Finally, a framework is proposed to understand public spheres through the lens of history, social differentiation, relations, resources, and access.
To Democratize or Not to Democratize AI? That Is the QuestionJohn W. Murphy, Randon R. Taylor | AI and Ethics
This paper debates the merits of democratizing AI and considers the challenges and benefits of such an approach. It suggests that community-based strategies can provide better, more human-centric AI solutions, yet cautions that care should be taken when delineating the boundaries of participation. It further argues that the legitimacy of AI is reliant upon active participation, not only from stakeholders and users, but also from local narratives that shape information landscapes. The success of democratizing AI lies in understanding the needs of the context and the various participants.
Rights and Values in Counter-Terrorism OnlineJonathan Hall KC | Studies in Conflict & Terrorism
Content moderation for counterterrorism purposes is hobbled by the problem of specificity: the difficulty of knowing what content could lead to violence. The presence or discoverability of terrorism content may serve real and not merely abstract interests of freedom of expression and personal development. However, the traditional approach of identifying fundamental human rights which may or may not be outweighed by the counterterrorism interest is complicated by two factors discussed in this article: firstly, the unsuitability of the human rights framework in the online space; secondly, the difficulty of understanding trade-offs between restrictions on free expression and the capacity of the internet in its current form.
Free Digital Labor as a New Form of Exploitation: A Critical AnalysisCarlo Vercellone, Antonio Di Stasio | Science & Society
The notion of Free Digital Labor has emerged at the center of scientific debate with the advent of platform capitalism. This notion denotes the apparently free activity that users perform on digital platforms, producing, often unknowingly, data without any monetary remuneration. It is therefore particularly useful in signaling the progressive loss of a clear distinction between working time and leisure time. The paradigmatic example of the valorization of these activities is provided by Google and Facebook. Their accumulation system is based on a multi-sided market logic, in which the extraction of user data is combined with online advertising. Recent debate has raised several objections to the notion of Free Digital Labor. The article tries to clarify the terms of the debate and to revive the relevance of the notion of Free Digital Labor through a historical and theoretical analysis of the transformations of the relationship between capital and labor.
Contesting the Foundations of Digital Public InfrastructureElizabeth Atori, Grecia Macías, Danilo Ćurčić, Yasah Musa | Center for Human Rights and Global Justice
Exploring four recent case studies of digital ID related litigation from Uganda, Mexico, Serbia, and Kenya. The panelists have been at the forefront of efforts to raise the human rights concerns at hand and discuss the current evidence around human rights risks and the key questions surrounding the digital ID systems deployed within their country.
Smart Cities: Private Means, Public Ends? Challenges in Regulation and Governance of Smart City ProjectsAstrid Voorwinden | University of Groningen
More and more municipal governments invest in ‘smart city’ projects. A ‘smart city’ is a city where new technologies are deployed to collect data, automate infrastructure, and shape policy making, in order to deal with issues such as sustainability or security. Such technologies are produced and sold by private companies, but their design embeds choices that affect citizens.. Outsourcing these choices creates risks for public values such as transparency and accountability. Therefore, this dissertation examines how municipalities govern and collaborate with private parties in smart city projects whilst safeguarding public values.