Most readers of this blog have probably never stolen anything from a supermarket. Yet it is fair to assume that many of these same people have downloaded or streamed a video or a song illegally online, without paying for it. Similarly, many of us expect that when we send a personal letter to a friend (for those of us from a generation that still does this sort of thing) that no one from the Post Office or any other institution opens it and reads it. That expectation is diluted when we exchange an e-mail, especially when we see targeted ads next to that e-mail.
These are some of the issues that were debated in a highly interactive meeting on “Norms, Culture and Governance in Digital Media” that took place on 4 June, within the context of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, North Africa and Eurasia. More than 35 experts from the media and technology industry, joined by heads of civil society organizations bloggers, media leaders, Young Global Leaders and Global Shapers, exchanged opinions on intellectual property, freedom of expression, identity and privacy in digital media. The difference between offline and online norms, the trade-offs societies have to negotiate and the unintended consequences of corporate or government policies concerning these issues were some of the main discussion topics.
Our new hyperconnected world has created a digital reality that our society and our institutions have not quite adapted to. We are retrofitting social norms that have existed for decades, if not centuries, to a digital, world that is new. Companies are holding on to business models that have served them well until recently and legislators are playing catch-up to a technology so fast-moving that it is proving impossible to regulate.
While many of the issues are not new, the speed and amplitude of digital, and especially social, media have interwoven a complexity that spans from the practical to the philosophical. Who decides when free speech infringes on national security or is offensive to certain groups? How does one strike a balance between rewarding individual innovators (whether they are people or companies) versus the progress of a society through the unfettered spread of information? Who decides (and later enforces) policies that put national security above personal privacy and safety?
Trust in institutions becomes a crucial issue when attempting to answer some of the above questions. It was clear that in the MENA region trust in government was low, while in Europe people preferred to entrust their safety and privacy to governments rather than commercial entities. However, one emerging idea was the use of crowd sourcing, either for making online decisions (such as resorting to users voting on whether online content should be removed rather than allowing governments to interfere further in citizens’ life) or to crowd-sourcing regulation.
On privacy, there were some views insisting that we should expect the same kind of privacy online that we enjoy offline – as it was one of the fundamental, though not absolute, human rights. Another view was that while most companies and governments strive for the security of their citizens and customers, the interpretation of how that was achieved differed among stakeholders.
On intellectual property and innovation, the tension between rewarding the innovator and the public good (e.g. scientific research for medical progress) was clear. A combination of remedial options seems to be the only solution, starting from educating the consumers, to the media industry investing in technology and business models that make it easier and cheaper for individuals to access content anywhere, to a cross-industry collaborative approach where content creators, advertisers and payment companies cooperate to fight piracy.
With the issues complex and connected, and a mix of remedial options required, the request for cross-stakeholder collaboration and meaningful action was never so clear. At the World Economic Forum, we commit to pursuing these issues and advancing the dialogue through the project on “Culture and Governance in Digital Media”.
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Diana El-Azar is Director, Head of Media, Entertainment and Information Industries, at the World Economic Forum.
Pictured: People wear masks during protest calling for protection of digial data privacy in Berlin. REUTERS/Thomas Peter