January 12, 2018
This is the cover/motivation letter to the application for the High Level Group on Fake News. It was successful. It tells a story why tackling fake news matters to me.
In 1984 (yes, the year made famous by George Orwell) I was the editor of a micro-computing magazine in what was then socialist Yugoslavia. With a colleague we traveled by train to London to a computer fair. Crossing the western border included a long wait, inspection, payment of a hefty tax and dealing with rude police and customs officials. We were still students, young, full of optimism and we were dreaming up plans how we will, in the future, get rid of borders using telecommunication equipment, electronically connect to the computers on the other side, get some data, process it at home, and sell the service abroad. No stupid Yugoslav customs official, no borders would stand in our way.
Ten years later I was able to do just that. I crawled the sites which at that time enabled the downloading of legal, freely available software and created a search engine. Users from all over the world were using a service in Slovenia to find software which they would then download from the US or Finland or Germany. Open and free internet allowed a guy from Slovenia to be globally competitive.
Yes, by that time Slovenia became independent. In the meantime, in June 1991, Slovenia declared independence and a short war with Yugoslavian army followed. We did not yet have the internet at that time, but we had modems and were connecting to bulletin boards where people exchanged news, opinions, ideas. One such network was DECNET for users of DEC computers. Another was Bix – the information exchange of the computer magazine Byte. On those platforms we were waging an information war on what was really happening in Slovenia and Yugoslavia. Mainstream media did lion’s share of convincing the global public opinion on the just cause of our struggle. However, those of us who were spreading the truth* on the forerunners of social media also made a tiny contribution.
Ten years after the cyberspace borders fell, Slovenia joined the EU and Schengen, and there were also no more physical borders.
I am mentioning these early experiences because they shaped an opinion I am still holding dear – that open computer networks and free exchange of ideas are something truly valuable and that these liberties – to innovate, to think, to speak, to publish are worth protecting. I have lived in a country that actually had a ministry of truth and I now live in the EU where there are no borders, not on rivers and mountains, not in the minds of its people.
Perhaps these early experiences influenced my work in politics – in 2012 as minister responsible for information society – I pressed for implementation of network neutrality legislation in Slovenia. On European scale, at the Council of Ministers, I supported European solutions in that direction. It is important that all traffic on the Internet is treated the same way; that Internet remains open for innovation of new startups and new services. Before and after my venture into politics I was studying that as a researcher in the field of Internet Science.
What does this have to do with fake news? Throughout history the powerful would want to control the flows of information in their societies. There is an emerging danger that the good intentioned fighting of fake news would put more tools of control into the hands of those who already are powerful – the governments and big social media companies. Each separately or both together could control which voices on the internet are heard and which are not. This is at least as dangerous as are fake news.
In finding the balance between the right to free speech and right to reliable information we should strive for two things – (1) content neutrality which would require the social media platforms to treat all content equally and not abuse their platforms to push one or the other political agenda. And there has to be more (2) individual responsibility built into those services – users and platforms should have an incentive to use real identities which lead to responsible persons in case of defamation, lies, libel, fake-news, illegal content etc. At the same time, anonymous accounts which might be fighting oppressive regimes should remain an option as well.
Finding a balance between free speech which includes the right to disseminate fake news and the right to reliable information will not be easy. In my career I was working both on technical issues related to text mining, natural language recognition and socio-technical issues such as internet science. I have hands on experience with publishing on the internet in the era of freedom and publishing on paper in socialist Yugoslavia where a ministry of information was making sure fake news was not spreading.
Looking back at some of my research it is interesting to compare the early work on the impact of internet and social media on democracy and what we discuss today. In the pilot phases of the ESPAS project I contributed the chapter on information technology. In the period of Arab spring and “color” revolutions, the Internet was seen as a source of good and a tool to fight bad regimes. Now that some of the power of the Internet has been exploited in the West, we are beginning to see its dangers. But it depends on how we choose to see it.
Post factual reporting, fake news and populism point to issues that are not fake but real and need to be addressed. Fake news are symptoms not causes. If the politics chooses to treat the symptoms of the disease we may forget about the real issues. At least this is my opinion and perhaps you want the HLG to be pluralistic in that respect. A have been outspoken about that on Twitter and on various digital media (Digital Post, Medium, Martens Center).
I had several jobs in the academia and in politics over the past ten years where I was learning how to reconcile different opinions; as minister in two Slovenian governments, chairing HLEG on GEANT, member of HLEG on H2020 and now HLEG on Open European Science Cloud.
In a more general sense, a fantastic learning opportunity has been the position of Secretary General of the Reflection Group on the Future of Europe (2009-2011). It was chaired by Felipe Gonzalez and included eminent Europeans such as Lech Walesa and Mario Monti. In the final report titled “Project Europe 2030” we wrote, inter alia:
“In the coming years, the EU will need to pursue an ambitious agenda. It will need to bring the EU, its Member States and its citizens closer together; renew Europe’s economic and social model at a time when internal and external forces challenge its sustainability; create the knowledge society by empowering the individual; make the most of changing demographic patterns and immigration; turn energy scarcity and climate change into opportunities for societal and economic development; strike the right balance between freedom and security; and contribute to shaping the world so that Europe’s values and interests are safely taken care of”.
The point on empowering the individual to freely and responsibly use modern technology, to strike a balance between freedom and security and to contribute to shaping global policies according to European values are a good guidance for the HLG on fake news as well.
Fake news have been a popular topic recently. Many actors have vested interest in “fighting” it. Some politicians would like more control over society. Old media see an opportunity to get support for fighting on-line competition. Social media would like to do make money on one hand and, sometimes, would enjoy the role of political king makers on the other. In addition to providing valuable service, some see fact checkers as a kind of ministry of truth 2.0. On the other hand, quality information remains important.
I have grown up valuing freedom, openness and European integration. As a member of the HLG I would make an effort to keep the internet a tool for democracy and a force of societal good: of equality and pluralism, of freedom and responsibility.
* The other side would call it fake news.Žiga Turk