Darknet guru: New technology can help build European identity

Jamie Bartlett [Európa Pont/ Flickr]

Modern technology could shore up the European project, boost transparency and help governments collect taxes. Author Jamie Bartlett told EURACTIV.com that the EU should become the great technological innovator but warned that politicians simply aren’t prepared for massive changes ahead.

Jamie Bartlett is a writer, journalist and director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at UK think tank Demos. In 2014, he published The Dark Net and has just released his latest book, Radicals.

In Brussels at the invitation of Full Circle, Bartlett spoke to EURACTIV’s Sam Morgan.

What’s the EU’s role in technological advancements like Bitcoin, blockchain etc.?

There’s a battle going on in terms of regulation. It seems to most people, including myself, that the European Commission is one of the only places that has the courage to give it a go. My view has changed slightly over the years. I used to think that regulation was pointless and wouldn’t work and that the nature of borderless digital communication meant that it was like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. But the coming progress in artificial intelligence, peer-to-peer platforms and the power of modern computing means governments are going to have to start regulating if they want to maintain a serious tax-paying base, if they want all the things about modern society we have come to depend on to remain. They are all going to be under unprecedented threat in the next decade.

Is it something governments are aware of or even willing to be aware of? Is there a comparison with denial of climate change to be made here?

These new businesses become so large and so valuable before the regulators notice them that suddenly they are too big to regulate. It’s unreasonable to expect politicians to have a handle on these issues but they do need to understand the scale of the challenge coming, the biggest of which is AI. I don’t mean killer robots but the twin forces of automation and machine learning, and the effect they are going to have on millions of jobs. The optimist says humans will create new jobs, it’ll be fine, that’s what we’ve always done. But I’m not so sure it’s the same this time around. When you combine that with a more precarious workforce that inevitably comes with the gig economy, the sorts of skills people are going to need and the type of jobs that will become available, I think politicians simply don’t have a clue what is looming on the horizon. We are talking ten years and we are talking massive disruption.

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Is that linked to how short a shelf-life governments and leaders have now? We have referendums and elections all the time, are politicians now not interested in thinking long-term?

Possibly. The horrible factor with global warming is that democracy perhaps isn’t the best political model to deal with it. It might not be right for artificial intelligence either. I think that the last year has been a little skirmish ahead of what lies ahead. The big political parties are going to have to actually decide how to deal with these problems, so we’re not shocked when this all hits us further down the line. When populists make certain promises that can’t be delivered upon and when centrist parties mimic those pledges to try and keep control it results in spiralling frustrations that push people towards the extreme right or left. We are going to have to change how we do politics. Do we really think that people who are in their early twenties or even younger are going to accept the way we do politics in a decade’s time? I don’t.

If it’s a generational thing, what can the EU do to bridge that gap? Should they leap on new technologies like Bitcoin, blockchain, etc.?

Absolutely. Like I said, the institutions have already shown leadership on these kinds of issues, including privacy and antitrust cases against Google and Microsoft. That’s a good example of the size and power of these big companies, and the scale of the technology; it needs a framework with the scope of the EU to confront them. We know the challenge is borderless, like climate change. The EU needs to harness things like AI and Bitcoin in order to address the needs of people. We cannot let technology run away with us.

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You’ve previously highlighted how these new technologies can be used illegally and immorally. If a body like the EU were to focus on something like blockchain, do you think it would appropriate the tech for good?

Well there will always be people that use technology for bad. But if the EU were to do more then it would mean that it wouldn’t just be in the hands of the FinTech industry and criminals. You could well imagine the Commission, which is often seen as being very distant from people, taking that technology and trying to use it in a way where it establishes itself as an innovator, a leader. There are always going to be people abusing new technology but, this way, the benefits could at least be shared.

So could blockchain be a real weapon in the push for transparency? It’s something the Commission has beat the drum about for a while now.

I would love it if the European Union bodies were able to use it to deliver on these promises. The EU has always talked about creating a pan-European identity, where citizens across Europe can discuss ideas with each other. Well that’s already happening, all the time, on these massive platforms. So why can’t the institutions follow suit? Why can’t policy-based documents be crowd-source edited by people from across the EU? That’s how you bring disparate people together and make them feel close to decision-making procedures.

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You’ve written before about ‘crypto-anarchists’, many of whom hope these new technologies can bring about a form of stateless society. Do you think the EU and national governments are aware of this threat to their existence?

Of course not! I talked to the European Commission in 2011/2012 about a paper I had done on far-right activists across Europe, which said that populist groups were building a really good online presence with enormous support bases, which would make a big impact on formal politics. That was five years ago. No one listened. Now, I think they are now going to put all their energies into finally dealing with this so they are going to miss out on other movements. The people involved in this crypto-anarchic world are the very people who run these tech companies, who are building all this technology we use, and they hate the European Union. They hate it because it’s this distant, centralised body that represents everything they dislike about politics.

The sharing economy hasn’t exactly sprung up out of nowhere but everyone has heard of Uber, Airbnb now…

Four years ago, did anyone imagine they would advance like they have? I didn’t see blockchain or Bitcoin coming. But every single person who worked on the internet now says that blockchain is completely revolutionary. It’s as revolutionary as TCP/IP. Does anyone in this town really understand that? I don’t think so.

Is there a glimmer of hope in Estonia taking over the rotating presidency of the EU? It’s often been described as the first digital nation.

I hope people will go there and see the things they are willing to pilot. This is the kind of hackers mentality we need, where things are tried and failures aren’t terminal. But this is at odds with how policy is made at the moment. I hope Estonia bangs home the point that Russia’s propaganda campaign is only going to get bigger and bigger in the Baltics.

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The German army launched a dedicated cyber-defence unit recently. Its offensive capabilities have been criticised but is this likely to be the norm from now on?

They have to go on the offensive. They also knew they were going to be criticised, as we live in an open society, but armed forces are going to carry on doing it anyway. Look at the scale of the offensive propaganda campaigns we’ve always run in Europe, I’ve got no reason to believe we’ll change now.

We can rent a car or house anywhere we want, you showed that you can buy whatever you want on the dark net, but have advancements in technology outstripped how we have developed as a society? Can we be trusted with the power literally at our fingertips or is it like giving a toddler a hand-grenade?

The mere smartphone gives us near godlike powers. Encryption can be used for good and bad, as can the sharing economy. It all makes systems more fragile. British Airways’ latest IT crash was caused by just one person not following the right protocol. Expect more fragility too. Look at the huge increase in the amount of information that has been hacked over the last three or four years from companies: that’s the new normal.

So it’s something we are just going to have to accept and get used to?

It also means a smaller number of people can do greater damage than before. My only hope is that this turbulence we are going through will teach us how to deal with these problems. As a society, we will have to develop new ways of dealing with these threats. At the moment, these are the growing-pains of a system that we are currently not equipped to deal with.

Optimists say we will deal with automation and Industry 4.0 by retraining people in IT, code-writing, etc. Do you think that increases the chances of these threats, if more people know how to manipulate this technology?

We’ll have to think really hard about what we train people in.The stock answer seems to be computer programming but computers are going to be better and faster at that too.That’s only going to lead to a spiral of frustration. There’s also going to be a form of inequality springing up between those who can use technology and those who can’t. It’s going to exacerbate the levels of inequality we already have.

If you could drive the EU towards a certain policy topic or run it in a certain way, how would you handle it?

The EU should somehow be the great innovator and great regulator. A pity that we in the UK will only watch from the sidelines.

How is Brexit going to affect privacy and other developments long-term?

The government has already said it intends to stay with the data passporting system, because it’s too difficult for British businesses without it. So much of the economy involves data and the government is desperate to encourage digital technologies. I originally thought that the UK would say data regulations are too onerous and that it would decide to set up its own little system, with really lax rules, which could attract tech firms. Companies will be attracted by this kind of data-haven as much as by a tax-haven. But the draw of European and American business will ultimately be too great, so Brexit won’t actually have a massive impact on privacy.

This technology seems to offer governments a new source of revenue if anything…

Cryptocurrencies certainly offer them a chance to collect tax more efficiently. Taxes are going to get harder and harder to raise. Truck and taxi companies are suddenly software companies, which are harder to tax than the taxi firm just down the road. Without a tax-raising base, everything goes to pot. But if they start experimenting with cryptocurrencies, the people involved are going to get more frustrated and create more systems that make it harder to raise taxes, so we’ll find ourselves in a vicious circle and a form of digital arms race.

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