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Global Media Forum

Is the IoT an existential threat to free media?

Technology has been a blessing. But if we don't figure out a system of governance for our data, our human rights are at risk. Mark Nelson of CIMA spoke with DW on the affects of the Internet of Things on press freedom.

Deutsche Welle: The name of your session at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum this summer is "Data explosion - How the Internet of Things will affect media freedom and communication systems." How will the IoT affect media and press freedom?

Mark Nelson: The Internet of Things (IoT) implies a massive explosion of the amount of data that is available to firms and to organizations and to people who are interested in controlling the transactions that take place between human beings and devices. And We're talking about a massive increase in the tracking of people's movements, of their health problems, of the clothes they wear, the clothes they buy, their preferences - it's an extraordinary vision of a highly interconnected world where much of what we do will be tracked and available for analysis. And this has enormous implications for personal privacy. But we haven't looked at the press freedom or the media development angle of this I don't think quite enough and we need to think about that very carefully because if so much of what our world is is being digitized and recorded on the IoT, that means that journalism and the information that journalists will be seeking will also be there on the IoT. So the whole question of the boundaries between transparency, press freedom and privacy are going to be thrown into very stark contrast and I think we have a lot of work to do to think about that and to come up with a governance system that makes it possible for this new technology to do good and not harm to the societies that we live in.

What about the argument, I don't mind being tracked because I've got nothing to hide. What do you say to that argument in this context?

Well I think that individual freedoms have always been predicated on the concept that we protect even the most vulnerable people through our laws and through our protection of individual freedoms. And I think the argument, 'I've got nothing to hide' may work very well when you're perfectly healthy and perfectly fit and you don't have a dispute with your health insurance company or a question about whether or not your refrigerator is broken. But when those kinds of issues arise, the threat to the individual can come into stark contrast. And when there is a recording of every single thing that a person does or thinks or wears, or all of their health issues or all of their movements throughout the city or throughout the world are recorded, those facts can be perverted and misused by both government and private sector players. So I think we have to be very cautious about maintaining the kind of freedoms that were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that people have a right to a certain level of privacy and that we take for granted some times that those rights may even protect people who are guilty because the protection of people who should not be under suspicion at all may require a margin of overprotection to ensure that we don't entrap people in behaviors that are not harmful.

So it sounds like it could become even more difficult for journalists to protect their data and their sources. Do you think that proper journalism will even be possible in a system like this?

I do. I think that just as we defined a system of transparency and openness in the non-digital world, I think we can do it in the digital world. It will be challenging. But I do think with proper governance and oversight, we can come up with ways of managing the system. It will require very high quality security systems and other things that we don't have right now to protect the individual data that people don't want to share with others. But we will also have to come up with a level of data that should be public, the things that should be in the public eye because we know that transparency is part of the working of our governance system that ensures that the behavior of our leaders and the actors in our societies are behaving in ways that are acceptable to the society. So we need a balance between privacy and security of that privacy and transparency and the openness that ensures that our governance systems are working properly.

Who decides where the balance lies? Isn't that the question?

Yes it is. And I think that's really the critical issue here - how do we engage in a broad debate and decide these things in a way that represents not just citizens of northern countries and northern consumers but also the citizens of the developing world, who right now are not even participating very actively in the decisions that are being made. The IoT is a reality taking shape before our very eyes. I have a connected thermostat on my heating system at home and I can look at my phone right now and notice if anybody is moving in my house or what the temperature is, I can change my furnace, I can do all kinds of things with this device and all the decisions about the governance of that system, how transparent it, the security of it, was made by a private company. There was no public participation or no public awareness or anything involved in that decision. And as we go forward, the governance of the Internet and how information is shared and protected is a subject that needs to be widely opened to a broad debate with participation of people all over the world. Much in the same way that we went through the process of creating the United Nations or other global bodies, we need a participatory open process to decide on the governance of the Internet.

Some people in Germany seem to be skeptical of the IoT - the idea that everything will be connected still seems somewhat futuristic here. As we become more and more connected and see some of the drawbacks associated with that, are we nonetheless headed in the direction of greater connectivity with the IoT?

We're heading quite quickly in that direction and that future is here now. It is exploding before our very eyes. All of these connected devices are being conceived and in many cases have already been around for the past few years. We should not be naïve and think that people will back off from this because I don't think that's going to happen. I think we are facing a very real future of a very highly connected world that we need to quickly get a handle on and understand more deeply. And I am particularly worried about the participation of developing countries in this process because in all of this future, their participation and their understanding of how news and information will be dealt with, they need to have a voice in that.

GMF16 Mark Nelson

Mark Nelson is Senior Director of the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA)

We need to get much more serious about thinking about a workable governance system that makes this burgeoning reality of the IoT something that is a positive for our societies rather than a negative. This IoT can do incredible good for health care and elderly care and to improve our efficiency; it can be an enormous societal good and we need to think about the governance of this in order to prevent it from becoming a societal bad.

But when it comes to protecting our data, isn't it a game of cat and mouse? Won't there always be more technologically savvy with more access to more access to information to others and it's simply a matter of government chasing them to create legislation for this?

I think that's right. I think we are behind in thinking about this and we haven't really confronted the governance issues. Governance is being digitized. The governance of our societies is being digitized and put online. Many of the things that used to be decided through processes where humans came together and talked and met and discussed or voted or when human beings decided to organize a process of getting feedback from people through interactions - those things can be turned into digital information that is automatically sent back to a server, where decisions are made about the information that is coming in to improve the processes that we need in order to survive as human societies. So we are very far behind in thinking through this broad governance issue of how we organize our societies and how this massive increase of digitized information is going to affect that. This is a major challenge for us right now: to get a handle on this and to think about how we want to organize this because it really affects many of the political systems that we live in and the way that we think of participatory democracy in the near future.

Yes, private companies deciding what happens to which data seems counterintuitive to a democratic society.

Yes, I think that it is in many ways and that is why we really have to raise awareness of this and think about ways to improve the participatory nature of the governance of the Internet.

What about the positive influence of the IoT on the media?

Well the explosion of data has already had an enormous impact on the media systems that we have in our societies today and it has not necessarily always been easy for the media systems to adjust to this change. It has really thrown the traditional business model of traditional independent media off kilter and I think it is going to take us a long time before we figure out a way to make an open and free information system work for the benefit of the people. I do think that there is a role for media institutions in this new world - for institutions that help people gather data that's relevant to them and provide that data in ways that is independent and verified and where information is checked and where we have the role of editors in the old sense of the term.

But exactly how that's going to work in the future is something we are still struggling with. It's going to be something that this next generation is going to have to resolve. There is no doubt that the Internet provides enormous benefits to human societies - to the access to information, to the access of communities who are struggling to deal with poverty and agriculture and issues that many years ago would have been cut off from the rest of the world. They now have answers just a click away. But as we deal with this massive and generally positive increase in information, we have to remember that our societies require good governance - thoughtful systems of regulation that protect people's rights and obligations to society and we need to really spend a lot more time thinking and talking about those issues as we move forward. And it needs to be an open debate that includes people all over the world.

Interview conducted by Sarah Berning

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