The SGIs’ Democracy Index is oriented toward the institutional and organizational realization of sound democratic standards. Its normative reference point is an ideal representative democracy. The SGI criteria by which government systems in the OECD and EU are measured derive from those dimensions identiﬁed by democratic theory as most signiﬁcant, and contain key indicators by which the quality of democracy can be assessed. In total, 15 qualitative indicators, comprising four criteria, are used to evaluate the fabric of democracy in each country. Criteria include the following:
Assessment criteria for the quality of democracy
- The electoral process, which includes the rules governing political-party ballot qualification and voter registration as well as the issue of party financing; for the first time, this edition of the SGI also evaluates direct-democracy structures and participation opportunities
- The public’s access to information, which can be measured by the extent of media freedoms and media pluralism
- Civil rights and political liberties
- The rule of law, including legal certainty, the judicial review of laws and the prevention of corruption
Algorithm matters. It conditions the way how we see the world, also in communication.
Following a special workshop convened by the Media Policy Project on ‘Automation, Prediction and Digital Inequalities’, Suresh Venkatasubramanian, Associate Professor at the School of Computing, University of Utah, here outlines the case for interrogating the inner workings of algorithms. A summary of the workshop will be available on this website shortly.
The algorithm is out of the box. Decision-by-algorithm is no longer something amusing to help us decide where to eat, or what to watch. These decisions have a material impact on our lives in ways small and large.
And that is worrying. Algorithms seem inscrutable. Mysterious. They’re balls of mathematics wrapped up in layers of code, patiently constructed by wizards sitting at keyboards in campuses.
And so we demand explanations. Unwrap the code. Expose the inner workings. Demand accountability, transparency, and above all hope that algorithms are fair, that they do not transmit or amplify all the biases present in society already.
BECKY HOGGE 19 July 2016
The BBC’s remit is not just broadcast. It has the power to improve our experiences online, and to realise the digital public sphere we want.
Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.When it transpired in May this year that the BBC would remove its database of recipes from the web in response to the Government’s accusation that such online endeavours represent “imperial ambition”, the country was up in arms. Petitions were launched. Celebrity chefs were asked to respond. I was struck with sadness by how low our ambitions had sunk. Because twelve years ago we’d thought the BBC could do what it does now with cake recipes witheverything it has ever made.
The BBC is a unique institution, a beautiful example of collective investment in the public sphere, and that is why so many people love it. It’s also why twelve years ago, when the BBC announced its ambition to put much of its archive online, published (like much of the content on this website) under a Creative Commons licence that allows people to watch, re-appropriate and republish it freely, that idea made so much sense. The Creative Archive, as it was then known, died a death at the altar of rights ownership – sacrificed in part to the BBC’s awareness of its dominant position in the market and its role in stimulating the independent television industry. Instead we got the iPlayer: a fantastic project that nonetheless, when set against the potential of the BBC to enrich and define the digital public sphere, begins to look slightly pathetic.
Writing on Medium this May, Lloyd Shepherd, who had worked on the recipes database during a brief stint at the BBC, complained:
“The BBC could have a powerful public sphere strategy — a big public discussion about how the networked digital world needs a public space in the same way as telly and radio did, and how it is the BBC’s role to do that. But it won’t make the case for it…”
At first glance, treating the digital public sphere the same way we treat radio and TV seems wrong. Unlike radio and TV, which are broadcast on a limited resource – called “spectrum” – the internet is unbounded, limitless. The web pioneers of the nineties and early 2000s believed the internet would usher in an age of radical plurality. Give everyone a voice, a machine to encode it and a network of limitless bandwidth over which to transmit it, they said, and you’d get a public sphere so rich it would make Jürgen Habermas blush. But the digital public sphere we have today is a long way off from that vision, because it turns out that a really good way to make money online is by teaching computers how to entertain people with their own prejudices, and then selling their eyeballs to the highest bidder.
Commercial online endeavours build what Tim O’Reilly in 2004 called “architectures of participation”: websites and platforms that transform the contributions of each user into more than the sum of their parts, through structured databases and machine-learning. But these all too soon become architectures of control, as we find ourselves locked in to platforms like Facebook and YouTube, stranded in silos designed to parcel us off to advertisers.
The online echo chamber
In his 2011 book, The Filter Bubble: What the internet is hiding from you, Eli Pariser portrays today’s online environment as a place where technology corporations and the advertisers they serve use algorithms to define the news you see based on your salary, education and – crucially – your social milieu. The internet has ushered in an age of “me media” which consists of echo chambers. And the problem with these echo chambers is that when they come into contact with one another, conflict ensues. This is not good news for the public sphere.
If commercial interests create a digital public sphere that simply consists of separate communities that cannot meaningfully engage with one another, then we need non-commercial interests to counter that. We need market intervention. In short, we need to begin imagining the digital public sphere we want and working out how we might shape it. James Bennett’s thinking on public service algorithms is just one idea to consider.
Achieving the digital public sphere we want
The BBC needs to accept that its identity now extends beyond broadcast.
Right now, government intervention in the online space falls into two categories. The first is bandwidth, evidenced by the Government’s ambitions to introduce a universal service obligation (USO) for broadband. This will be the first time a USO has been imposed on a historically commercial service – electricity, gas, post and telephone networks all have histories of public ownership. The second is protection from harmful or illicit content, embodied in various legislative and non-legislative (voluntary) schemes imposed on internet service providers.
This regulatory picture reveals how comfortable those in power are protecting the internet as a wholly profit-led information space. Indeed, digital rights campaigners, myself included, are guilty of aiding and abetting the complacency as they justifiably resist “freedom from” intervention (disconnection for copyright infringers, family-friendly filters) while remaining silent on the need for positive intervention in the digital public sphere. For a start, we should be making a lot more fuss over the Government’s proposals to remove from the BBC’s new Charter its sixth purpose, “to develop emerging communications technologies and services”.
It is the sixth purpose that currently protects the BBC’s ventures into online services, experimentation that has been ongoing for almost two decades. The BBC’s online endeavours have always been contentious: at the beginning because they only benefitted the small percentage of licence fee payers who had got themselves online; later because they were accused of taking business away from commercial online content providers. But enabling the BBC to continue experimenting online is more vital than ever.
We are only just starting to see how digital technology is changing the contours of the public sphere. We know in the future that all media – newspapers, books, music, video, games – will converge online. What we may glimpse today without fully understanding is how information economics will dictate our discovery of and engagement with that media. Removing the sixth purpose now prevents the BBC from taking a more active role in this future and crafting it for the good of all.
We know in the future that all media – newspapers, books, music, video, games – will converge online.
What role for the BBC?
There are roles here both for the BBC and for its new regulator, OfCom. OfCom should deploy its internationally-recognised expertise and research resources to begin enriching our understanding of the digital public sphere, and the role it plays in our democracy. And the BBC needs to accept that its identity now extends beyond broadcast, by systematising and privileging its continued experimentation online. To do this, both institutions need to get a little braver than they have been to date about the need for intervention in this space.
Public service media is market intervention, and that’s fine. Labelling the BBC’s ambitions online “imperial” is disingenuous, because it conflates markets with democracies. Democracies need strong public spheres, and information markets, both online and off, may not deliver strong public spheres. Living in information echo chambers makes us not only more commercially exploitable but also more politically exploitable. Now more than ever, we need media to challenge our prejudices, not media to entrench them.
About the author
Becky Hogge is a writer and researcher. Between 2006 and 2008 she ran the Open Rights Group, a UK-based grassroots campaign to establish and protect our rights in the digital world. Between 2008 and 2013 she was a non-executive director of open data pioneers the Open Knowledge Foundation. She has just finished a major piece of research work commissioned by Omidyar Network “Open Data: Six stories about impact in the UK”. The full report, whose findings are reflected in this piece, is available here.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. If you have any queries about republishing please contact us. Please check individual images for licensing details.
But what if a public service algorithm also made some recommendations from left field – to open our horizons: if you liked Top Gear, here’s a programme on environmentalism and fossil fuel, or Woman’s Hour. If you liked a music documentary, here’s a sitcom. Choice will remain the key ingredient: but it should be a genuine choice – to choose to continue to watch more of the same, or have the option of exploring something new.
In a digital world, ‘information, education, entertainment’ should be appended by “Explore”: the BBC should once again open up a window on the world. A PSB Algorithm would mark the BBC’s services out as distinct from the market and connect viewers to a greater breadth of the Corporation’s amazing output and a diversity of voices and viewpoints. And that is what PSB should always be about.
James Bennett (@james_a_bennett) is Head of Media & Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London
According to Graham Murdock (University of Loughborough), in a communications environment increasingly organised around digital networks, and with dominant players (such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple) based outside the UK, there is a compelling case for a digital commons and therefore an extension of the BBC’s public service remit. In the UK, the BBC offers ‘the only effective institutional base for a comprehensive alternative to this corporate annexation of the internet’. Furthermore, as Murdock argues, there are series of issues such as the ecological impact of infrastructures, the open source movement, and internationalisation of networks, which all need to be taken into account in policy making processes. Read Murdock’s submission in full here.
In this report, we examine how public service media in six European countries (Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and the United Kingdom) are delivering news in an increasingly digital media environment. The analysis is based on interviews conducted between December 2015 and February 2016, primarily with senior managers and editors as well as on survey data from the Reuters Institute Digital News Report.