When it comes to safeguarding our democracy, much has already been said about the need for more transparency and accountability governing how data can and should be used on digital platforms. Can transparent technology evolve faster than tech used for ill-gotten gains?
With the knowledge that foreign agents used open platforms to influence the 2016 election – and that we must be vigilant to avoid further interference this year – effective methods to combat such actions are top of mind for business, industry, consumers and government officials alike.
As the specifics are better understood, one thing becomes increasingly evident: To achieve this, the technology of transparency and accountability needs to evolve faster than the technology used for corruption and manipulation.
Consider the source
In normal “offline” human discourse, we usually know the person with whom we are speaking and can adequately judge the credibility of the information exchanged. Similarly, when we read a newspaper or magazine, we know the identity of the author, publisher and even advertisers that support the publication, all which provide context for gauging the veracity and perspective of the content.
Similarly, to assess the integrity of information in the digital space, knowing the source is crucial. But ascertaining the source of online information can be difficult, and in many cases the capabilities of the technology have outpaced advancements in the laws regulating online activity.
In the case of the US elections, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) has neither the tools nor the resources to step in to effectively counter bad political actors. Political speech is currently regulated based on attribution of the source of funds. The FEC can easily monitor and police the flow of money in traditional print advertising, radio and television spend.
However, in the digital realm it is much easier to obscure the source of the speech and spend, and it becomes difficult to know where this information originates geographically and organizationally.
So, how can we forge a path forward? First, we can look to the past.
A couple of years ago, the marketing industry began to face the growing popularity of ad blocking and its threat to the traditional advertising model. In response, key industry associations, including the IAB and DMA, immediately developed codes of conduct and new advertising principles to improve advertising standards and promote consumer choice.
In our current situation, today’s platforms must work together to improve transparency into political advertising and funding and assume accountability for preventing harms. By building ethical guidelines into the design of their technological systems and processes they can not only more effectively vet the intent and origination of the users and advertisers that come to their platform, but they can equally empower consumers to make data-driven decisions about the source of the information they consume there.
Considering the global nature of today’s leading online platforms, embracing data ethics by design can help guide and ensure the continued success of these digital companies. By defining and adhering to core values that promote the ethical use of data, companies can self-regulate and gain the trust of the people they serve. With greater clarity and transparency to the sources of information, this goal is attainable.
Act or be acted upon
It was foreseeable that bad actors who wanted to influence our electoral process would be able to do so using today’s technology platforms, including news websites and other publishing platforms that provide a setting where groups of like-minded individuals can converge. Acknowledging what occurred after the fact, however, has limited value. It is equally foreseeable that the federal government will attempt to regulate data to prevent future corruption or technological misuse, and if so, we should support appropriate regulation.
The leaders of digital platforms have far more power and authority over their technology than governments do and should act aggressively to clearly define methods of bringing transparency and accountability into the platforms we use for everyday communication to prevent nefarious misuse.
This article first appeared in AdExchanger on Thursday July 24th, 2018