Wednesday, January 27, 2021

In “geopolitics of bits and bytes”, Europe takes an independent approach on AI

 

        

      The outbreak of Covid19 a year ago intensified the debates about regulation of Artificial Intelligence. Given the role of AI technologies in fighting the pandemics, the attention of all stakeholders to its impact, both positive and negative, was all too obvious. As a result, the extensive use of these technologies by some governments to control the propagation of coronavirus brought to light controversial and disturbing aspects of AI. Human rights advocates and experts sounded the alarm about large-scale use of the facial recognition AI technologies for surveillance purposes. Beyond the pandemic situation, concerns were also raised about military use of Artificial Intelligence and other AI applications that could endanger privacy, amplify the polarization of societies and empower the autocrats. 

     Those concerns are raised periodically by members of the expert community and leaders of the hi-tech industry. Take for example Elon Musk, who already in 2014 said to MIT students: “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence... I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish.” However, the conference organized last week by the Council of Europe showed that now senior government representatives of the continent add their voices to those concerns, sending a clear message: Europe will not sit idle in face of this challenge. 

     The conference’s title “Human rights in the era of AI: Europe as an international standard setter for Artificial Intelligence” embodies the essence of Europe's ambitious goal. The conference was organized by Germany who took over the presidency of the Council of Europe last November and announced that the question of human rights and technologies will be one of its key priorities in this role. German minister of Foreign Affairs, Heiko Mass, who opened the conference set the tone for the discussions that followed when he declared, loud and clear, that it is for democratic parliaments and governments to decide on AI regulation. 

     Minister Mass emphasized two major elements of the European strategy of AI. First, he stressed the importance of developing Europe’s own capabilities in AI technologies and announced that to achieve this goal the EU budget earmarked 200 billion euro for digitalization. The second element of the plan is to establish European standards of Artificial intelligence that can create benchmarks worldwide”. According to him, the Council of Europe, working with European Union, possesses a significant legal framework and instruments to address the problems of AI regulation.  

     Beyond the operational items of its AI strategy, the European vision of the “geopolitics of bits and bytes” and “digital bipolarity” merits attention. German Minister of Foreign Affairs describes the emergence of two poles of power around Artificial Intelligence: the Chinese digital model that prioritizes surveillance, and the heavily market-oriented Silicon Valley model. Instead of choosing one side in this rivalry, Europe will be open to all partners who share the conviction that AI technologies should reinforce democracy and human rights, not erode them. Mr. Mass also had a message for the new US administration: while expressing hope that President Biden will be a partner to his vision, he asserted that

 “... we shouldn’t wait for Washington.  Our ambition must be to continue building our own European digital model that puts humans at the center, remains open to the world and protects our values and democracy.”

( Speech by Federal Foreign Minster Heiko Maas at the virtual conference “Human Rights in the Era of AI: Europe as an international standard setter for Artificial Intelligence”, https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/newsroom/news/maas-human-rights-artificial-intelligence/2435928)

     The contours of the European digital model for AI regulation were first formulated in European Union’s Strategy for AI in 2018. In November 2019 the Council of Europe, another European multilateral organization, headquartered in Strasbourg and whose raison d'être is to safeguard democracy, rule of law and human rights in Europe, entered the fray and established a special ad-hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence (CAHAI). Aside from expertise in human rights protection, the Council of Europe’s additional advantage in forging all-European consensus around AI regulation comes from its significantly larger membership. All European states, with exception of Belarus, are members in the Council, including Russia and Turkey; countries outside Europe also joined CAHAI as observers, among them USA, Canada, Japan and Israel. In December 2020 the CAHAI published a feasibility study, which provides concrete recommendations to the Council of Europe on regulation of AI technologies. 

     The major conclusion of this feasibility study, which was also presented in the conference, is that “an appropriate legal framework will likely consist of a combination of binding and non-binding legal instruments that complement each other”. The report further elaborated the role of binding regulations:

           “Any binding document, whatever its shape, should not be overly prescriptive so as to secure its future-proof nature. Moreover, it should ensure that socially beneficial AI innovation can flourish, all the while adequately tackling the specific risks posed by the design, development and application of AI systems.” 

(Ad-hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence (CAHAI) Feasibility Study, https://rm.coe.int/cahai-2020-23-final-eng-feasibility-study-/1680a0c6da)

     In my conversations with representatives of national delegations to the Council it was quite clear that most of them agree with the emerging approach on AI regulation, even if some had some mild reservations. This impression was reinforced also at the conference where an absolute majority of the panelists, including CAHAI experts, agreed on the need to establish binding regulation. Interestingly, the only voice of dissent came from a representative of Japan who expressed concern about the negative impact of regulations on innovation. And yet, the prevailing opinion of the experts refused to see the contradiction between ethics and innovation, spoke in favor of binding regulations, while admitting that socially beneficial innovation should enjoy more flexible regulation.

     The work of the Committee will continue throughout 2021 with the goal to complete its mission by the end of the year. The Council’s goal of setting European standards for AI is ambitious. However, its determination to establish a European digital model looks stronger than ever. Its sense of direction and destination is admirable. Considering this, it would be sensible for like-minded countries outside of Europe to join the discussion and address together legitimate concerns and differences of opinion. Time is of the essence.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Artificial Intelligence - Between ethic concerns and geopolitics

What can we learn from international organizations’ resolve to regulate AI

Part I

I planned to write this article long before the global outbreak of COVID-19. When I started six months ago my new diplomatic position representing Israel at international organizations based in France, I was surprised to discover how much importance all of them - OECD, Council of Europe, UNESCO - relate to Artificial intelligence, and especially to its regulation and ethics. As I embarked on more extensive research, I realized that this issue has become for multilateral diplomacy both an unavoidable item on their agenda and a reputational gold mine.

As I contemplated this, I suddenly found myself in a new reality of “confinement” decreed in France and almost elsewhere in Europe. A reality of social distancing, of closed restaurants, cafes and theaters (in Paris - can you imagine that?), of frightening reports of the numbers of infected and dead, of attempts, sometimes contradictory, sometimes desperate, by governments to fight the pandemics. A reality where your only hope is for it to be over. What sci-fi movies and dystopian literature showed us with such precision, is now on full display as our everyday life. And the questions about AI and its ethics are part of this reality, not just a fruit of sci-fi imaginary world. 

So, I decided to go on with my article. After all, the best way to deal with the quasi-dystopian present we live in is to focus on things that will last beyond it. William Shakespeare wrote his immortal King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra during 1606 plague in London and Titian painted his masterpieces in 16th century Venice stricken by plague. Let’s be inspired by them. And of course, let us not forget that when humanity will turn the coronavirus page in its chronicles, most of the challenges we dealt with before the crisis will stay with us. Some of them will become even more compelling. Artificial intelligence is probably one of them.


Three Laws of Robotics | Letterpress poster of Isaac Asimov'… | Flickr
"Three laws of robotics", devised by the American science fiction author Isaac Asimov in 1942 story "Runaround"

Just look at the role of AI technologies during the ongoing crisis. Using AI as well as other technologies of mobile surveillance Chinese authorities were able to spectacularly enforce their confinement efforts. AI was used by Chinese, Taiwanese and South-Korean governments to encourage medical research and testing, while US, UK and other countries followed suit.[1] In my home country, Israel, the technology was used, among other things, by Public Health funds to predict the spread of COVID-19.[2] Recruiting AI technologies to fight the virus was welcomed and at the same time met with growing concerns. What implications will it have on our privacy, freedoms and rights as individuals and on our society in general ?

In this context it is worth paying attention to the observation made by Yuval Noah Harari, best-selling Israel’s historian, that many decisions and social experiments that at normal times would have entailed long deliberations and debate, were enforced on us during the COVID-19 crisis in a blink of an eye. His assessment is that at least some of those decisions and experiments would stay with us long after - due to their contribution in fighting the virus.[3]  There is absolutely no doubt, AI technologies have the potential to be one of those irreplaceable tools to deal with future pandemics and other crises of global proportions. Their success and efficiency during the cataclysmic spring of 2020 (and beyond?) will inexorably strengthen the appetite of governments, companies, researchers and ordinary people for promising technology-based panacea. The new push for AI technologies given an ever-growing recognition of its advantages will predictably re-energize efforts to regulate it.

The need for regulation of AI technologies had come under the attention of different players already 4 years ago, resulting in multiple documents of principles and guidelines. We can expect that the upcoming debate on AI will be informed by the work that has been done so far, so it’s worth looking at it. Civil society and non-profit organizations, universities and private companies were the first to identify the importance of AI regulation. Among the first were Partnership on AI founded by Amazon, Facebook, and IBM; Future of Life Institute; Union Network International; and Tencent Institute (China). These initiatives were followed by national governments’ reports like “Preparing the future of AI” by US National Science and Technology Council (2016) and “White paper on AI standardization” by Standards Administration of China (2017). By 2018 it was finally the turn of international organizations to embark on the issue and since then various multilateral bodies added AI regulation to their agendas.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) was apparently faster than others, not only adopting AI Principles (May 2019)[4] but also moving towards implementation of some of them. Thus, in February 2020 OECD’s AI Policy Observatory was established with purpose to provide “evidence and guidance on AI metrics, policies and practices to help implement the Principles, and constitute a hub to facilitate dialogue and share best practices on AI policies.”[5]

OECD was not the first multilateral heavyweight to rise to the challenge of AI regulation. In 2018 the European Union presented the European strategy for AI, followed by the adoption, last February, of the White Paper on Artificial Intelligence. UNESCO, the UN-affiliated organization based in Paris and mandated to promote cultural and scientific cooperation, indicated its interest in the subject publishing in 2019 a “Preliminary Study on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence” and launching in March its ad-hoc experts group to draft “global recommendations on the ethics of AI”. Council of Europe (CoE), an organization based in Strasbourg and convening 47 countries of European continent (sometimes confused with European Union with its 27 members), opted for establishing its own group of experts in December 2019; simultaneously the Parliamentary Assembly of the CoE commissioned a few reports on the ethics and impact of AI technology in the domains of labor force and health system.

            Quite predictably, each one of these organizations aims at highlighting its own vantage point or unique contribution it could make on regulating AI technologies. OECD’s focus on “implementable and sufficiently flexible” set of standards was devised to allow governments of its member-states, representing the most advanced economies, to formulate better policies on AI.[6] The European Union's White Paper emphasized the need to define its own way, “based on European values, to promote the development and deployment of AI”.[7] UNESCO, who joined the discussion only recently and is aware of the work done by other bodies, argues in its “Preliminary study” report that “there was a great heteronomy in the principles and in the implementation of the values promoted” in documents prepared by other organizations. According to UNESCO’s document “AI has implications for the central domains of UNESCO’s work” and therefore its “approach could be complementary at the international level to the OECD’s”. But the goal set by UNESCO is far more ambitious: “by initiating a Recommendation, UNESCO would be able to distinguish itself not only in terms of ethical content but also through specific proposals to Member States”. 

However, is the argument about “heteronomy”of guidelines and principles correct? And how significant are the differences between the values formulated in them? Do they indeed necessitate the growing number of principles and guidelines documents to regulate the use of AI technologies? 


Part II

Let’s have a closer look at these documents and check their recommendations. The OECD recommendations highlight five basic principles for AI policies, namely they should promote inclusive growth, sustainable development and wellbeing; human-centered values and fairness; transparency and explainability; robustness, security and safety; accountability.[8] The European Commission’s 7 principles that laid the ethics basis of the EU’s White Paper are: human agency and oversight; technical robustness and safety; privacy and data governance; transparency; diversity, non-discrimination and fairness; societal and environmental well-being; accountability.[9] Out of fear to overwhelm the readers with reiterations, I will only add the third and last example of the set of AI principles from the UNESCO’s Preliminary Study: human rights; inclusiveness, flourishing; autonomy; explainability; transparency; awareness and literacy; responsibility; accountability; democracy; good governance; sustainability.[10] The AI principles from all three organizations could not look more coalescing, or even identical.   

In fact, the consensus looks even more significant when we compare all known documents produced by other organizations and countries. One of the studies published in “Nature” last September made an inventory of 84 documents on AI principles and ethics (incidentally or not, the absolute majority of those documents originated in the USA and UK). The central finding in the research showed that in most of the documents the recommendations focused on “11 overarching ethical values and principles”.[11] The list of these principles is almost identical to those of OECD, EU and UNESCO. Another more recent study published by researchers from Harvard University have identified only 8 such principles, concluding that “the conversation around principled AI is beginning to converge, at least for communities responsible for development of these documents”.[12] In the world torn by geopolitical rivalries, could we expect that at least on AI ethics the global agreement is just around the corner?

            As a matter of fact, a concern that it is rather a divergence, not convergence, that is underway was raised in both studies. In one of them the researchers wondered, in somewhat subtle form, why “despite the increasing visibility of AI in human rights'' the data they have gathered does not reveal a trend toward increasing emphasis on human rights. In a second article, the researchers have made an even stronger assertion: even though the numerical data indicates convergence between the values, in fact there are “substantive divergences among all 11 ethical principles in relation to four major factors: (1) how ethical principles are interpreted; (2) why they are deemed important; (3) what issue, domain or actors they pertain to; and (4) how they should be implemented”.[13]

The discussions on AI ethics and principles taking place at international organizations reveal the same differences that exist at any other discussion between representatives coming from different countries, cultures, faiths, practices, traditions and languages. The interpretation of values and their importance, as well as their context and ways of implementation are always dependent on these factors. When it comes to relations between states, all the above-mentioned differences are being complicated even more by competing national interests and by geopolitical considerations. States disagree on so many issues - on climate change, on immigration, on human rights, on democracy. How and why could they all agree on principles of use and development of Artificial Intelligence, one of the most promising technologies with a potential to change our lives almost in any aspect?

Therefore, UNESCO’s argument about “heteronomy” of principles is essentially correct, even though the true sources of it were misidentified in the organization’s report on AI. This source of divergence is not “the consequence of the definition chosen for AI or the objectives being sought”, as UNESCO contends, but rather of competing national interests, ideologies and geopolitics that prevent reaching such a consensus. It must be said, to UNESCO’s credit, that its report correctly recognizes those hindrances: it refers, for instance, to a political climate created by “non-transparency, biases or ways of acting by big companies, or the rise of popular mistrust in the face of cyber-attacks”[14]; furthermore, it alludes to tensions between the US and China, two major digital powers, that should be taken into account. These revealing remarks are valuable (especially given the fact that all the other documents discussed above ignored those concerns) in understanding how difficult - maybe impossible - will it be to reach consensus on AI principles.  Consequently, the fundamental question is whether UNESCO, or any other international organization, can forge a global consensus on AI?

To answer this question, we should have a closer look at the functioning of international organizations today. They are considered as platforms where states promote their interests by creating coalitions and getting legitimacy for their acts and policies. Sometimes, states are not able to achieve their goals in existing organizations, so they create new organizations. Let's recall that in some periods of history, we had highly competing, or even hostile organizations - think, for instance, about the Cold War confrontation between NATO and the Organization of Warsaw Pact. The United States itself and its Security Council was a place of diplomatic warfare between the capitalist and democratic West and the socialist and authoritarian East.  But even when the level of hostility in the world is relatively low, the competition between states still exists, and international organizations are just one of the battlegrounds. In fact, the recent years have indicated ever growing tensions as the US-centered system is being challenged by other players turning the international organizations, again, into the places of political confrontation.

From this perspective, the chance for the international organizations to find a common ground on AI looks dubious. UNESCO itself, who aptly emphasized the gravity of geopolitical concerns in this ethics driven endeavor, is not sufficiently equipped with international legitimacy to overcome the inevitable obstacles, as it lacks the membership of the US in its own ranks: two years ago the US and Israel left UNESCO precisely for its... excessive politicization. To overcome this hurdle the UNESCO expert group that was launched in March includes an American scientist. But the AI consensus there is still a very far cry. By contrast, OECD’s recommendations have better chances to serve as the policy basis for its member-states and other countries who joined the initiative. However, absence of China and Russia from OECD limits this effort only to the Western countries. The same constraint is shared by EU’s principles since its emphasis on European values will probably not make it an easy sell in other parts of the globe. The fact that the Council of Europe launched its own expert group on AI, a separate effort from that of the EU, could also potentially highlight the differences existing between western and eastern parts of the European continent.


It may well be that the efforts to reach a global agreement on AI would fail, as it happened with cyberspace regulation a few years ago. Therefore, the most effective way to proceed will be by consolidating the principles among like-minded countries and organizations associated with them. The example of OECD and EU indicates that it is possible to reach a consensus on recommendations and to start acting upon them. These organizations should engage other countries willing to endorse the AI principles, as it happens already with OECD’s recommendations. The urgent need for AI regulation cannot be dependent on reaching a global consensus - a noble, but thus far an elusive goal.


© 2020 Yaron Gamburg.  All rights reserved



[1] Maia Hunt, “Governments turn to AI in fight
[2] Ronny Linder; “Artificial Intelligence in the fog of war”, The Marker, 25.3.2020 (Hebrew).
[3] Yuval Noah Harari, “The pandemics compels unprecedented social experiments which will change the world” (hebrew), 26.3.2020, Haaretz https://www.haaretz.co.il/magazine/.premium.highlight-MAGAZINE-1.8710074
[4] Recommendations of the Council on Artificial Intelligence, OECD website: https://legalinstruments.oecd.org/en/instruments/OECD-LEGAL-0449
[6] “Recommendations of the Council on Artificial Intelligence”, OECD website: https://legalinstruments.oecd.org/en/instruments/OECD-LEGAL-0449
[7] “White Paper on Artificial Intelligence - A European approach to excellence and trust”, 19.2.2020, https://ec.europa.eu/info/publications/white-paper-artificial-intelligence-european-approach-excellence-and-trust_en
[8]  Recommendations of the Council on Artificial Intelligence, OECD website: https://legalinstruments.oecd.org/en/instruments/OECD-LEGAL-0449
[9]  “White Paper on Artificial Intelligence - A European approach to excellence and trust”.
[10]  “Preliminary Study of the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence”, 26.2.2019, Unesco website: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000367823 
[11] Anna Jobin, Marcello Ienca and Effy Vayena, “The global landscape of AI ethics guidelines”, in Nature Machine Intelligence, Vol. 1, September 2019. https://www.nature.com/articles/s42256-019-0088-2
[12] Jessica Fjeld, Nele Achten, Hannah Hilligoss, Adam Nagy, Madhulika Srikumar, “Principled Artificial Intelligence: Mapping Consensus in Ethical and Rights-based Approaches to Principles for AI”, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/42160420
[13] “The global landscape of AI ethics guidelines” 

[14] “Preliminary Study of the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence”

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Innovation in Israel: to the moon and beyond



It’s hard to avoid a jubilant tone in speaking about Israel and innovation when the first lunar spacecraft, made in Israel, is making its way to Earth’s natural satellite. In the last 20 years Israel has become a world leader in new technologies and science and there is no better proof to this claim that the flight of “Bereesheet” (“In the beginning” in Hebrew, the first words in Genesis) that started on February 22 and made Israel the 4th nation in the world, after USA, USSR and China, who sent a spacecraft to the Moon.

Some experts argue that the turning point for Israel’s innovation was in the beginning of the 1990s, thanks to a successful professional integration of the highly educated immigrants from former Soviet Union and as a result of a new form of collaboration between academia and industry encouraged by government. But the truth is that already in the first years after its establishment Israel embarked on innovative solutions to problems that faced many developing countries after the WWII and laid the foundations of its successful journey to innovation… and to the moon.

Instead of looking back, let’s get a glimpse at new innovative trends and solutions being developed in Israel these days. “An Overview of Innovation in Israel 2018-2019” that was recently published by Israel Innovation Authority and which I came across recently, could serve as a perfect guide. Here are a few examples that caught my eye in this document:



Brain Therapy

The Israeli consortium “Brain Stimulation and Monitoring Toolbox”, funded over the course of the past five years by the Innovation Authority, was established in order to develop technological and scientific infrastructure combined with neurological stimulation and monitoring to enable personalized and improved treatment of neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The consortium has had several groundbreaking achievements, some of which have led to technological maturity and clinical execution. HaGuide, for example, software developed by Alpha Omega and researchers from the Hebrew University and Hadassah Medical Center, is used in DBS procedures (Deep Brain Stimulation) performed on patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease or other disorders. 


Another technological and commercial achievement is a digital platform, for functional brain imaging for psychiatric patients. The integration of the platform in therapy is slated to advance personalized medicine and to offer support for doctors’ treatment modalities.

Broadcasting sport events

The Pixellot startup established in 2013 has developed an innovative system that allows production and broadcasting of a variety of sports events with almost no human intervention. The system it developed includes cameras, tracking capabilities, content manipulation through the cloud, broadcasting to different devices, and exclusively automatic live-streaming, allowing spectators to perform simple move manipulation – all at a low production cost. Since its establishment, the company has already sold roughly 2,500 systems producing 20 thousand broadcasting hours a month.

AI at the service of public health

The national Digital Health Plan is striving to make Israel a key player in the field of digital healthcare. To this end, in 2018, the Authority launched a program for supporting pilots in the field of digital healthcare that are either performed in Israeli healthcare organizations, or that are based on capabilities or the data at their disposal. The Digital Robotics pilot, which stands out among the pilots approved, has developed a computerized system based on AI – the first of its kind – aimed at cutting healthcare costs and improving service. The system, which is designed to be used by medical teams, includes a personalized recommendation engine for patients based on a broad clinical picture. In the context of the pilot program, the system will first be implemented in two healthcare organizations: Meuhedet Health Fund (one of the four Health Funds operating in Israel) and at the Soroka Medical Center’s emergency center in Be’er Sheva.

Remote monitoring of cardiovascular diseases

Vectorious Medical Technologies was conceived in 2011 in the RAD BioMed technological incubator backed by the Innovation Authority. The company offered a groundbreaking solution for remote, continuous, precise, and safe monitoring of patients suffering from cardiovascular disease – one of the leading causes of death worldwide.The inimitable technology enables the implantation of a microcomputer for battery free communication. Thus far, the company has raised over $10 million, including a $2.25 million grant from the European R&D program Horizon 2020 and the Innovation Authority. The exclusive grant has helped the company recruit additional investors and accelerate development and clinical trials. The company is currently conducting trials on human subjects in Germany, England, Italy and Israel, on its way to receiving the necessary regulatory approvals and to market the product. The company projects that the development will reach the European market within roughly six months.

Operation of smartphones and tablets with head movements

The Sesame Enable startup, established in 2013, has developed an exclusive app that allows people with mobility disabilities to operate smartphones and tablets using head movements alone, using the device’s front-facing camera. The company was awarded a substantial grant by the Innovation Authority in collaboration with the national Insurance Institute, to encourage the development of assistive technologies for people with disabilities. 

Solutions offered by the company are already in wide use throughout the US, where the company receives government subsidies. Their technology serves an audience with a wide range of mobility disabilities such as spinal cord injuries, neuromuscular diseases, MS, and cerebral palsy. Recently, the municipality of New York chose the company’s product as a preferred solution for children with disabilities in the city’s public education system, and negotiations are taking place with other US municipalities and states to expand this activity.

The Golan Heights Winery’s innovative wine water

Golan Heights Winery ventured to develop a completely new product: Wine Water. The project led to the construction of a concept based on innovative technology: extracting grape waste reduced in the wine manufacturing process and diluting it with water, so that the nutrients in grape peels and the unique aroma and smell of wine are absorbed by the water. The product made its world debut in July 2018 at the Fancy Food Show in New York and gained unprecedented success, with hundreds of distributors from across the globe seeking marketing rights for the product. It is already being sold by leading chains in the US.

I gave you only a glimpse of the report, and you are welcome to learn much more here: https://innovationisrael.org.il/en/report/innovation-report-2018 . More than any particular piece of technology, it shows a deep commitment in Israel to ”perception that innovation is a key engine for economic growth and wellbeing.”

…And if you don’t like reading reports, look up for a great book by Avi Jorish, “Thou Shalt Innovate” (https://www.timesofisrael.com/thou-shalt-innovate-15-earthshaking-israeli-technologies/). Enjoy! 



Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Upcoming crisis of social networks and what governments should do about it

The word “upcoming” at the title of this post is quite misleading. In the last 2 to 3 years the problems associated with the functioning of the existing social networks turned into a real snowball, or even snow avalanche. A fusion of important political events (US Presidential elections 2016, to take the most conspicuous example), as well as decisions taken by the management of social networks themselves, exacerbated situation and created a crisis. As a result, governments of many countries have taken actions against the social networks practices, ranging from demands to change the privacy policies to restrictions on access or complete ban of networks. But the apex of this crisis is ahead of us.

I will argue here that while governments will try to exert a greater control over the contents published on social networks, and while social networks will be willing (or forced) to adopt their policies to these demands, this one-sided, restrictive and “correctional” approach, will not be able to solve the problems we face today. Governments should consider more complex solutions, because this crisis is not only about social networks, but about our society in general and democratic nature of our institutions and political life. I will suggest one such solution further. But, of course, there are more than one to envisage.

In fact, the problems with social networks began before the attempts of meddling in elections or the role of social networks in phenomenon of “fake news” were exposed. It started about 6-7 years ago when teenagers and even younger kids started to complain about digital harassment they’ve experienced on Facebook from their peers. Today we call this phenomenon cyber-bullying, but back then nobody spoke in these terms. Back then, it was a problem for kids, for their parents, and for teachers, but not something that was considered a national or global problem. The next surprise we became aware of was our (lost) privacy on the networks. That was already a reason for grown-ups to be seriously concerned, but things got only much worse since then. After a short period of grace and photo-ops with world leaders who were courting them, CEOs and senior managers of Facebook, Twitter, Google and other companies, are now being called to testify to US Congress and conduct nasty negotiations with governments unhappy with their policies. In some countries there were no negotiations: they were plainly banned.



What are the main areas of concern with social networks?

Social networks today are platforms for circulation of hatred, incitement to violence, racist, xenophobic and antisemitic posts and other versions of bigotry. Of course, it is not deliberate. Of course, it is not their goal and design. Do you know the expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”? Against their will, social networks became global vehicles of hatred.

Last 5 months I spent in France. I could see firsthand how social movement of "Yellow vests", that had legitimate demands from the government, received massive support of the public (70%), and which organized itself through Facebook, was hijacked by extremists, professional rioters and thugs, as well as by provocateurs, racist and anti-Semites of all kinds. This crisis proved once again (as if after the "Arab spring" we needed more proofs) the power of networks to facilitate grass-roots protest movement, but at the same time it exposed the levels of hatred, misogyny and antisemitism you wouldn’t like to believe exist in France. Social networks were helpless in face of the extremely violent discourse taking place on them.

Let’s refresh our memory: two years ago, Facebook founderwas talking about the new ambition for the network: to build more communities,rather than just encouraging connections between family and friends. Algorithms went through a change, and the new approach implemented. Result? The infamous “echo chamber” effect, that was already taking place in the world of partisan media, was now in a full swing. Of course, nothing wrong if you have a community of astronomers or poetry fans. But what about a community of bigots or anti-Semites? They probably will not report “abusive posts” with racist and antisemitic content, will they? By the way, the situation with other networks is not better. You can easily find racist posts on Twitter or VKontakte.

This uncontrolled circulation of hate speech, bigotry and incitement on social networks provided food for thought for some bright, but vicious about using those networks to meddle in national elections campaigns, to make “fake news” and to manipulate public opinion. These and other versions of special operations on internet and social networks represent a new, digital form of information warfare and are used by states against other states. In an attempt to defend themselves in this digital jungle, social networks are trying to develop better prevention policies. Facebook opens centers of moderation, outside United States (one such center works in Barcelona) with help of experts who know foreign languages and are aware of local cultural specifics which enables them to decipher complex social and political realities. But in the world of 196 states (and counting), hundreds of languages, of growing complexity and diversity, of conflicting interests and contradictory definitions of freedom and rights, how many moderation centers will they need to open? And even then – how to moderate two billion Facebook users?


“There is no great thing that would not be surmounted by a still greater thing.”

One of my favorite Russian poets, Kozma Prutkov (who was, in fact, a fictional author), known for his satiric aphorisms and nonsensical expressions, said : “Nobody will embrace the unembraceable”. Social networks should become more modest about their ability to serve as a global platform for creating communities; and they should be more thoughtful about their social responsibility, when they act de-facto as media channel. I believe, If they won’t adapt themselves, they will be simply forced by governments to do so.

But governments, and states in general, should understand that this coercion will not help fix the problems of social media. At the end of the day, social networks are platforms where modern societies function. Social life is happening today also on social networks, more and more each day, and this is irreversible. Social networks of today will disappear in the future, only letting way for new networks to take their place. Therefore, coercion and restrictions won’t solve the problem of social media.

This will also not solve another crisis, which is even more important: the crisis of democracy and government in the digital age, where social media plays such a central role. The governments should reinvent themselves in order to stay legitimate in the eyes of their citizens, which means they should better serve them. The modern technologies, including social media technologies, provide tools to increase efficiency of governments. I believe governments should create national public social networks. They will allow citizens interaction between themselves and their government, where they are not manipulated by anonymous players and secret influence operations. This network will not be for profit, but only for the benefit of its users. Information about them will not be sold to other companies. Users will be protected against hatred and violence. Governments will be able to address the needs and concerns of citizen through interacting with them on this network; and governments will also be responsible for protecting the freedom of expression and a proper functioning of the network, through public institution and other instruments under public supervision.

The model of this network should be elaborated in more details, but it’s clear to me that this is the future of any government if it is determined to solve a crisis of its legitimacy and governance. Recognition of this reality is imminent, and, of course, better sooner than later. Social media is a good idea, but with crisis of private social networks we should take this idea to a completely new level. As Kozma Prutkov said, “There is no great thing that would not be surmounted by a still greater thing.”

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This article is available in French here: Europe-Israel news


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Digital Diplomacy Revisited: Why Ministries of Foreign Affairs hit the “digital” glass ceiling and how to break through it


A few days ago I re-watched a video that I was using extensively in my presentations 8-9 years ago to promote the concept of digital diplomacy. The name of the video was “Is social media a fad?” Apparently, since 2009, when this video was produced for the first time, the updated versions of it, under the same title, were produced almost every year. When you watch those videos, the bottom line is obvious: social media is not a fad. It is a new way of communication, much more now  than in 2009 (even though some of the social networks have proven to be a fad). 



But is digital diplomacy a fad? When I asked this same question on this blog 8 years ago, rather rhetorically, I truly believed it was not. Today I think I should correct my opinion, and here is why.

Diplomatic outreach on social networks: numbers that show nothing?

Digital diplomacy came into existence about 10 years ago with the invention of social networks and appearance of a small group of diplomats that wanted to introduce them into diplomacy. This innovative effort has got different fancy names, among them Diplomacy 2.0, ediplomacy, digital diplomacy, and that all sounded like a promise of a better diplomacy, of a new way of conducting international relations and reaching out to new audiences. Back then, in 2008, I was one of those enthusiasts who tried to introduce this concept and encourage diplomats to adapt to a new – digital - world. After returning from a post in California where I had my first experiences with Facebook and My Space, I believed that the social media will open new opportunities for diplomats and at the same time will revolutionize diplomacy itself. Well, whenever you try to revolutionize something, you shouldn’t be surprised that the first reactions to your ideas will be somewhere in the range between skepticism and mockery. Some of my colleagues-diplomats look at the digital diplomacy as a kind of a game that has nothing to do with diplomacy. Since then many of them have changed their view. What was even of greater significance, Ministries of Foreign Affairs of so many countries embraced digital diplomacy in their work. And yet, 10 years into digital diplomacy “revolution”, it’s my turn to express some skepticism about Diplomacy 2.0 and its unfulfilled promise.

To be absolutely frank, my first self-reflection was that this attitude of mine could be one of the first signs of my aging… But when I started to make a research on current status of digital diplomacy, I realized I was not alone in this growing skepticism and the understanding that something went wrong between diplomacy and social media. In fact, this concern is shared by many practitioners and researchers of digital diplomacy. Look, for just one example, what wrote in February Ilan Manor, one of the more prominent researchers of digital diplomacy:

Last week, when participating in a digital diplomacy conference, I felt as if I had encountered the Battered Bastards of social media. The conference, which was organized by the Dutch Foreign Ministry, brought together diplomats and academics from numerous countries. Over the course of two days, the participating diplomats repeatedly expressed their frustration and disillusionment with social media and its possible utilization in diplomatic activities. Understaffed, ill-equipped and facing growing expectations, these diplomats are still active on social media yet without any strategy in mind. They are online simply because one has to be online, they post because everyone else is posting and they are communicating with that familiar, yet unknown entity called “the public”. - https://digdipblog.com/, February 8, 2018

From personal experience I know that if feels really good to use statistics about Facebook page or Twitter handle, especially when it comes to reporting to the headquarters. I know how exciting it is to see one of your posts or tweets going viral. The networks themselves are going out of their way to provide you with accessible statistics about the “influence” of your accounts, how many likes, interactions, impressions you did on this post and on that picture. All those impressions look indeed very impressive. But after 10 years of tweeting, “facebooking” and “instagraming”, how much diplomatic goals where really achieved thanks to digital diplomacy? What are the new audiences that were successfully reached out through social networks and did you succeed to change their attitudes towards the country you represent?  Did you really improve international reputation of your country or its perception in the world with the help of your digital diplomacy projects? And you know what - what about the minimalistic goal of all – were you better-equipped and successful at least in informing the foreign public about your country’s policies using social media presence? On all these accounts, digital diplomacy will get a “Fail” grade, with minor exceptions here and there.

Beyond this shared feeling – which is so different from the excitement and enthusiasm of the first years of digital diplomacy – there are real concerns, behind the numbers and statistics.  It is important to say that these concerns are coming primarily from diplomats and ministries that were the first-comers into the field and who, till today, uphold the leadership positions in the digital diplomacy world: US, Canada, Australia, Britain, Holland, to name a few. While they are happy to report about growing numbers of the social media accounts of their embassies and consulates there is also an understanding that these numbers are not representing much. (For more explanation on problems with Facebook and Twitter metrics read here: https://www.americansecurityproject.org/ASP%20Reports/Ref%200112%20-%20Challenges%20of%20the%20Internet%20and%20Social%20Media%20in%20PD.pdf). The metrics can show you some general trend about your audiences, but they don’t measure your real influence with them.

Why this does not work?

If you ask any diplomat today what digital diplomacy means in practical terms he or she will tell you this: we should have a Twitter account, a Facebook page and Instagram profile (and the more advanced will add also LinkedIn), and we should post as much as we can and of course keep in mind that we should “target” the right audiences. (It is interesting to analyze why we are using a word from military jargon in this context, but maybe in another article). To sum up this attitude – foreign ministries use 3 to 4 major social networks as a principal and, in most of the cases, the only tool of their digital diplomacy. Is it the essence of the digital diplomacy, really?

We tend to forget that private social networks, such as Facebook, were created for social interaction between people, not governments, some of them for more business-like communication, most of them – for amusement. They suggested a new mode of communication, and gradually started to replace traditional media as a source of information. But as private enterprises they needed a successful business model that will allow them to make money. So, they wanted everybody to enjoy free platform for communication, amusement and information, while providing other businesses with information about us as potential customers for businesses. Governments, that were not the primary targets for the networks expansion, created their own profiles, both institutional and individual, and discovered multiple advantages in their presence on the networks.

With this understanding, suddenly, foreign ministries have fallen in love with digital diplomacy. Opening account on Facebook or Twitter is so easy and - free of charge! Every embassy, consulate, ambassador, every diplomat and international agency should open it! And of course, Instagram – the more the merrier! Some foreign ministries, like in UK, even encouraged their ambassadors to write blogs, which is a much more complex and sophisticated operation than managing FB or Twitter account. And the fact is that this symbiosis between diplomacy and major social networks is coming to its full realization. This is so much so that in the near future we can envisage in some foreign ministries establishment of Facebook departments, Twitter bureaus, or offices for Instagram affairs. After all, governments are bureaucracies that need to institutionalize their own activities. As a result, digital diplomacy is preoccupied today with expanding audience and influence on existing networks, using tools provided by those networks and within the rules set by the networks; therefore, the emphasis is on sustaining presence, on writing more attractive posts or tweets, on streaming more live videos, and on trying to decipher the ever-changing and elusive algorithms of the networks.

The current model of digital diplomacy, namely using major social networks, isn’t working and here is why:
First, the factor of freshness and innovation was important when all this started. Foreign ministries and embassies who were the first to open its pages benefit today from greater numbers of followers and general attention, more than those who joined the club later. Today, the effect of opening new diplomatic page for consulate or embassy will be relatively insignificant among millions of accounts and billions of posts and tweets.

Second, and more important factor was that over the years the governments and foreign ministries began to realize that this new mode of communication was not only about strengthening democratization, expanding transparency, improving public services, about branding and reaching out to new audiences. It was also about hate language and obscenity, about security concerns and threats, about social protests and violence, about reputational blows on the international arena, and lately about fake news and meddling in elections. The major social networks became platforms for spreading false information and are struggling to find mechanisms to deal with defamation, radicalization, hate language, Holocaust denial and recruitment of terrorists. There is no doubt, the major networks’ image and reliability is compromised on too many levels, and, according to my assessment, we are just in the beginning of this process, not in its end.

Third point: social networks encourage a simplistic, superficial and emotional engagement that is beneficial to celebrities, provocateurs and politicians, but is detrimental to diplomats or any other kind of expert community. Diplomats will never be able to outwit on social media those people or groups whose language is not limited by norms and national interests, unless diplomacy will compromise its own goals.

And last point: in the current model of digital diplomacy there is a hidden assumption that the major social networks of today are eternal entities. Do you really think they are here forever? If so, see all those networks that have disappeared in the last ten years. Fashions change, trends reverse: social media is here to stay, but social networks will fade away and give way to new ones. Look for example for a generational change that is taking place today: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jun/01/facebook-teens-leaving-instagram-snapchat-study-user-numbers.

Before we move to the next chapter, I want to make it clear: I am not against the presence of foreign ministries on Facebook or Twitter and I  don’t even want to say anything bad about social networks (I mean, I could, but not now), I just want to say, very diplomatically, that governments in general, and diplomacy in particular, simply cannot limit their embrace of the social media to the major social networks. Their capability to have an impact there is decreasing, and what is even more troublesome in my eyes -  this pursuit after a better tweet and a “cooler” post will have grave consequences and could compromise status of diplomacy as a profession. If we agree about this common denominator between us, let’s have a discussion about new models for digital diplomacy.

Looking through the "digital" glass ceiling

For the reasons stated above, ministries of foreign affairs should carefully revisit their vision of digital diplomacy and its implementation. They should keep their presence there, but not dedicate its dwindling budgets and all of its digital work to the major networks. They should rethink how goals of public diplomacy could be achieved on the existing platforms, and at the same time to think how they could bypass these platforms and bring the digital diplomacy to a broader digitalization, or as Matthew Wallin hinted in his article:

“It may prove that a government’s best use of social media might not be to instigate or create, but rather to guide, facilitate and moderate. While a government may often be unable to generate viral content in a manner consistent with its principles, it can still use its influence to help steer conversation, and it can still help provide the tools or forums that allow conversation to happen.” (https://www.americansecurityproject.org/ASP%20Reports/Ref%200112%20-%20Challenges%20of%20the%20Internet%20and%20Social%20Media%20in%20PD.pdf)

What should be done to increase effectiveness of digital diplomacy?

First, foreign ministries should not use their accounts as bulletin boards while avoiding conversations with the audiences they want to engage (“Australian digital diplomacy developments 2016”, by Danielle Cave). When you look for new audiences you don’t bombard them with your messages. Rather you start listening and respond to their concerns. However, as I already explained, to do so on major social networks is becoming more challenging.

Second, think outside the American networks. Go to WeiBo or VKontakte, but don’t forget you have to be fluent in these languages. Also, search for niche social networks, less-commercialized, more community-oriented. Heard about Diaspora or Letterboxd? Check them out. As PCMag puts it, “The future is in drilling down into niche social networks… Instead of sites that are all things for all people, these networks are happily staying small and serving only the folks who want to be there.” (https://www.pcmag.com/feature/353300/9-niche-social-networks-to-use-instead-of-facebook)

And finally, here is my central suggestion: Ministries of foreign affairs should create their own social networks -  platforms for supporters of their countries around the world. I think all of us will be surprised how much support countries can get from the international audience. Many countries have big diasporas worldwide and this phenomenon keeps growing. This is but one major group of potential supporters for your country, many others you will be able to discover when engaging them through social network dedicated to your country.

Today, all countries are competing for better reputation internationally to attract investments and tourism, but also to explain their policies and positions. Private social networks are not making it easier to implement these goals, quite the opposite. So, instead of working only on major networks that became too monstrously big, attract both supporters and detractors, and above all, set their rules, countries can establish virtual platforms on the international scale, on its own terms, allowing engagement and raising support for their policies.

The advantages of these networks are obvious, but the opposition to this idea, of course, will be enormous. Some people will say that the governments cannot allow a free dialogue about their own policies, without being suspected of greater surveillance. I beg to differ. The networks of today are already a kind of a Big Brother.  Setting up some norms and rules will not damage but rather help prevent inappropriate behavior that became so common on existing networks. How can you trust the information on the networks that became the very tools of “fake news” and manipulation? On the other hand, democratic governments should put to test their ability to engage public in a transparent and democratic way if we want to preserve the principles of democracy in the age of social media.

By the way, there is nothing new about niche social networks developed for or by public sector. Ten years ago, Govloop and Ozloop were the first great examples of how public employees can engage socially and professionally through the social media platform. Inspired by them I tried to create the social network of the Israeli public sector (what was good 10 years ago still makes sense - Workplace social network platform, that was developed by Facebook, by the way, is now being used by the ministry of social welfare in Israel). Back in 2010 I even had an idea of creating a social network “My Israel” in several foreign languages, having the same model in mind, but I just did not have time to dedicate myself to this project on my own.

This post is already too long, so let me conclude it: I don’t think every ministry of foreign affairs would or could launch international social network, even though technologies are already at hand and the time is ripe. Why? Because such a move will entail a deeper institutional reorganization, which of course will require courage and vision. However, given a slippery road towards superficiality paved by social networks, more courageous and sophisticated digitalization of the foreign ministries could be one of the ways to overcome the ongoing crisis of modern diplomacy.