Book Review: The Digital Republic. On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century (2022)

Susskind, J. (2022). The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century. London: Bloomsbury, 464 pages.

By Melanie Kolbe-Guyot

Jamie Susskind’s book, “The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century (Bloomsbury 2022), addresses the issue of the unaccountable, hence undemocratic, power exerted by Big Tech. A lawyer and former research fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Susskind problematizes the fundamental challenges that the engineers who design and control digital technology pose to democratic power and legitimacy. As Susskind succinctly states, “whenever we use an app, platform, smartphone or computer, we have no choice but to follow the strict rules that are coded into these technologies (p. 3). […] Those who write code increasingly write the rules by which the rest of us live. Software engineers are becoming social engineers” (p. 4)

Although technology and computer code carry immense power to shape our perceptions, knowledge, and our behavior, it is also deeply political, despite the industry claims to the contrary. Even worse, this technological power is concentrated in the hands of a minority that is neither guided by public interest and values nor accountable through democratic processes, Susskind argues. However, governments are reluctant to undertake regulatory action, and Susskind takes on the task of critically parsing the ideological underpinnings of this inaction.

Steeped in the political philosophical thought of modern republicanism that admonishes unaccountable dominance, the author puts his finger on a number of powerful but ultimately flawed responses to digital power exerted by companies; he also discusses his own ambitious suggestions for a way to govern digital technology. Particularly notable is Susskind’s vision of a democratic, collective, and public-good-focused approach to digital technology governance. His vision stands in contrast to the prevailing individualistic market-ideological understanding of technology governance that omits “one of the defining political relationships of our time: [the relationship] between those who design and control digital technologies and those who must live under the power of those technologies” (p. 29). Therefore, it is not only a much needed but also a refreshing counter-vision for technology governance.

The book is divided in two parts: In the diagnostic part of the book, Susskind outlines his vision for digital republicanism, of the inherently powerful and political impact of tech companies, and of the reasons that market-driven responses to tech governance are flawed. In the prescriptive part of the book, he embarks on the discussion about ways to reinsert democratic legitimacy and accountability, to enable counter power, to diminish the tech’s power, and to reinsert public interest into technology governance. In my review, in order to discuss the larger underlying arguments more cohesively, I will slightly rearrange the order of introduced concepts and arguments.

Digital Technology as a Powerful and Political Source of Social Order 

In the first half of the book, Susskind discusses, in several thematic chapters, five core points. For the first, and probably most important point, he demonstrates that digital technologies hold power. Power is exerted through the ability to hardwire rules and to control human activity through code, the ability to surveil others via large-scale data collections, the ability to filter, sort, and steer information that is consumed, and the ability to regulate speech and to access platforms thus also affect deliberative processes. Most readers will be already familiar with the presented examples, yet, the author’s focus on the particular power of code is particularly interesting in this section.

As almost all social and economic transactions in the digital world (and by extension, the physical world) are suffused with computer code. And because this code dictates —without exception and inconspicuously— the rules of these interactions, Susskind argues that the people who code, hold power. Invoking Ada Lovelace’s believe that a coder acts as an “autocrat of information”, Susskind points out that code is not the product of democratic processes or citizens’ consent. “Code,” he states, “makes no claim to legitimacy, only efficacy” (p. 37). If code – as the central building block of digital infrastructures – conditions our choices and perceptions thus also limits our agency (or as Susskind thinks of it more generally, our freedom), the companies that design, code, and control technology are in a particularly powerful position, he argues.

For the second point of power, related to the first, Susskind argues that technology needs to be understood as being deeply political. Hence, he rejects the notion that technology (including the machine algorithms and the data it employs) is neutral, objective, and apolitical. “It is often claimed that digital technologies can offer a scientific and objective basis of the ordering of society and its resources. This is a myth. The technologies of power are rarely neutral in their operation, and even if they were, neutrality is usually a poor guide to justice” (p. 66).

He shows that, for example, technology companies frequently make moral decisions, whether it concerns developing apps to circumvent Chinese internet censorship or to support Saudi wife-monitoring apps (p. 67). Furthermore, Susskind argues, human-based data and language used to fuel most modern digital technologies are reflections of biases and prejudices thus inherently non-neutral. Lastly, he also points to the rarely discussed issue of the political biases of the coders: “Every digital innovation comes with a set of presumptions and assumptions. The world is being remade by those who write code, according to their (implicit or explicit) political preferences, and usually without recourse to the traditions or opinions of those who have to live with the consequences” (p. 70).

This last observation is particularly crucial, because it critically connects to the often-implicit political worldview held by technologists and Silicon Valley: that technology is rational therefore not only neutral but also superior in regulating human affairs. This worldview is not only deeply flawed, Susskind argues, but also dangerous, because “it depoliticizes the power held by those who work with digital technology. It makes that power seem natural, inevitable and unthreatening.” (p. 60) This worldview also normalizes the concept, according to the author’s terms, of “computational ideology”: the underlying political philosophy that “there is order in human affairs even if it is not always visible to the human eye; that ranking and classifying human beings is not only technically impressive but socially useful; and that hierarchy and segmentation are more desirable than equality and solidarity” (p. 72) However, this is a philosophy, Susskind criticizes, that leaves little room for human agency and serves as a weak basis for decision-making, as it describes only that which is and not that which is morally acceptable or desirable.

In summary, Susskind argues that, because pervasive digital technology wields tremendous social power, because this power is deeply political; and because it is wielded by a very specific group in society, we face a situation in which powerful but private rulemaking through tech corporations, big and small, has created a sociotechnical system that threatens liberty: “We will […] be unfree if we are the passive subjects of rules written by others, or subject to moral codes that are alien to us – regardless of who writes the rules or moral codes. We will be unfree if made to live under constant scrutiny or dependent on others for the quality of our public deliberations. We will be unfree if we live at the mercy of hidden algorithms for our access to social goods.” (p. 80) Technocratic governance through private companies, he argues, not only disenfranchises citizens who have no say in the creation of rules and the values they reflect, it also lacks democratic legitimacy, and procedural safeguards.

The Poverty of Market Logic and Market Individualism 

Already in these first chapters it becomes clear that Susskind’s critique unearths one of the key insights of this book, specifically that the ideological underpinnings of the reasons that we choose to (not) govern digital technology are fundamentally flawed. He extends this critique more explicitly in his third and fourth core point: First, he argues that digital technology is driven first and foremost by a market economic, not a political logic, thus leading to flawed convictions that technology issues should be solved by markets, not politics. Second, he argues that the approaches to the regulation of digital technologies are steeped in the ideology of market individualism, which informs an atomized and private-good understanding of the impact of technology, which obscures its collective and public good nature.

Susskind’s critique of market orthodoxy as a governing principle of the relationship between technology users and technology producers is not a new one – at least not to political economists or those that have not drunk the neoliberal Kool-Aid. Like others before him, he points out that assuming market competition alone will incentivize companies to provide goods and services that will more closely align with citizens’ values is a flawed idea, because real consumer choice is significantly restricted and conditioned. However, Susskind adds that market pressures, in fact, actively encourage discriminatory behavior through the pursuit of algorithmic efficiency in consumer profiling. Thus, instead of restraining the might of corporations, the market empowers them, he argues.

Market orthodoxy also bolsters ambiguous industry claims of self-regulation, instead of government intervention. However, Susskind persuasively argues that, unlike other self-regulating professions such as lawyers and doctors, the tech industry lacks mandatory qualifications for certain roles, for widely accepted codes of conduct, obligatory certifications, and for concrete sanctions for breaking the codes of conduct. Furthermore, he states: “[…] Self-regulating professions usually involve government oversight in drafting statutory rules, constituting oversight bodies or involving the public in consultation. But in Silicon Valley, ‘self-regulation’ means powerful technologies being left almost entirely to the wisdom of these who design and control them. In truth, this is not regulation at all.” (p. 96).

Underlying many of these responses is the reigning political philosophy of market individualism that sees social progress as the outcome of largely unencumbered individuals’ pursuit of self-interest. According to Susskind’s analysis, there are two reasons this view is problematic for technology governance. First, in its emphasis on the separation of the market and political spheres: Purporting as little government involvement in market issues as possible, market individualism erases any meaningful role for law and government-governing technology in the public interest. Second, it champions an individualized private understanding, instead of a collective public understanding of technology governance. This is evident in the concept of informed consumer consent (for data collection and sharing), for example. Even though it is not only simply impossible for consumers to read through and understand the thousands of digital contracts they enter into while being online, the author argues that informed consent also overlooks the collective effect of individual choices. Individual data might be by itself useless, whereas once aggregated it becomes powerful. Consequently, “even if every consumer wanted less overall intrusion from technology, the aggregation of their individual choices might still lead to collective serfdom” (p. 111).

In sum, Susskind convincingly demonstrates that market-based thinking is not able to recognize or to address the power imbalance between technology companies and consumers. It is also unable to generate public-interest-based governance: Companies cannot and will not work in the interest of the public good and, instead of curtailing their power, the existing law, (for example, in form of exemptions from liability) empowers and protects them. But, Susskind argues, this does not have to remain this way. In his last major point, which also connects the first part of the book to the second, Susskind argues that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the current system. Change, however, requires a fundamental rethinking of the power relationships in digital technologies and of the principles that should guide their regulation to advance public interest.

Foundations and Responses of the Digital Republic

In the second part of the book, Susskind develops a counter vision to the prevailing digital technology governance, guided by four theoretical principles and accompanied by concrete ideas and examples. Already at the outset of the book, he asserts that “the choice has never been between regulation and deregulation. The real question is: what kind of regulation is best?” (p. 8) Susskind argues for a kind of digital republicanism for the guiding principle of such a regulation. Modern republicanism, a contemporary political ideology, centers on the notion of citizenship in a state organized as a republic, thus emphasizing the importance of law and government in serving the common good (res publica). Importantly, it understands citizens’ freedom as freedom from domination, i.e., it “[…] opposes social structures that enable one group to exercise unaccountable power […] over others” (p.10), be it by the state, by private individuals or by corporations.

Using these tenets, Susskind suggests that laws for the digital age should follow four basic principles: (1) They must enable people to live together peacefully in a free and stable political system (preservation principle). (2) Unaccountable power of digital technology should be reduced and kept to a minimum (domination principle). (3) The design and deployment of powerful technologies should reflect moral and civic values of the people who live under their power (democracy principle). (4), And the republican system of governance should place firm limits on the power of the state, and give no more power to the state than is absolutely necessary to perform its regulatory functions (parsimony principle). If not already obvious at this point, Susskind’s political liberal understanding of technology governance appears to set him apart from more autocratic (as in China) or strongly regulatory alternatives (as in the EU).

Susskind reviews an impressive catalogue of policies and ideas. The most innovative are centered on the notions of democratic legitimacy and counterpower. In line with the democracy principle, Susskind introduces, for example, the idea of ‘deliberative mini-publics’, drawing inspiration from deliberative democracy principles. Employed to address, in particular, questions that include value-driven dilemmas, complex trade-offs, or long-term horizons, these small groups of citizen assemblies are envisioned to engage in a deliberative process: learning about policy issues from different perspectives, consulting with input from the public at large, deliberating on the options and then voting on them. Thus, Susskind asserts, policies and governance reflect the citizens’ values actively and more closely than ballot voting alone.

Furthermore, Susskind also considers measures for increasing the counter power to big corporations: for example, ‘tech tribunals’, conducted wholly online and employed in high-stake algorithmic situations. These specialist independent tribunals would offer out-of-court dispute settlements, thus enabling citizens to contest — quickly and at low cost —the tech companies’ algorithmic decisions. He also discusses measures for greater openness, discussing the need for digital transparency and the interpretability of decision systems, as well as algorithmic audits and more effective oversight. Although many of the discussed proposals are in and of themselves not new, Susskind’s discussion clearly demonstrates ways that they can contribute a greater public-good orientation of companies (and the products they release) and can empower citizens to contest algorithmic decisions.

Susskind then turns more generally to the question of how to deal with the current power in digital technology that is embodied by the sheer size of tech corporations. One of the key insights here is Susskind’s argument that, from a digital republican view point, the issue is not if tech companies abuse power but simply that they have the capacity to do so. Hence, he argues for anti-trust measures – although not entirely suitable for digital power questions, as he correctly discusses. Therefore, he suggests that, in addition to economic anti-trust, the entire ecosystem needs to change, and he imagines a kind of ‘political anti-trust’ or “new separation of powers” (p. 246), although the details are less fleshed out in the text. Even though Susskind excels in relating various measures for also curbing companies’ data-related power (such as in the case of data privacy, high-stakes algorithms, and social media) back to his philosophical tenets, this section seems to be weaker compared to the rest of the book. For example, his discussion of proposals such as ‘collective data consent’ or ‘morally aligned high-stakes algorithms’ remain largely abstract. Nonetheless, he still provides several insightful observations throughout the chapters.

Critical Appraisal

“The Digital Republic” is an ambitious book. Susskind not only provides a clear and persuasive diagnosis of the democratic dangers of Big Tech, he also provides clear propositions of the means to combat them, by tying both with a consistent philosophical, or let’s call it ideological, line of argument. Unlike other authors, he does not get lost in the weeds of the specific types of biases or sectoral impacts technologies can have. Rather, he goes beyond this by raising the questions of why such technologies are employed at all and why we accept Big Tech’s power as legitimate to begin with. Some readers will have different ideological leanings, yet we have to commend Susskind for his consistent and clear vision of the way digital technology should be governed and the reasons for this.

Although he is not the first to discuss power and legitimacy in digital technology, he does so in an incredibly insightful and persuasive way. He also aptly unmasks Silicon Valley’s belief in their technocratic superiority and self-regulation. Particularly welcome is his defense of the role of government in technology regulation, and the argument that digital governance needs to be guided by public interests and not simply aggregated private interests. He thus provides an important foundation for the argument that digital technology governance is in fact a public good. This is probably one of the most important conceptual advances of this book. It is important to note that Susskind goes beyond lamenting corporate power and goes to the root of digital power, namely the coder. Computer language as a means of power, which drives the antagonism between democracy and technology, is another important conceptual point put forth in this book.

Susskind’s book is well-written, intellectual, witty yet very accessible. Susskind excels in walking the reader through complex political theoretical and economic critiques, without losing sight of his main arguments. Lastly, it should also be highlighted that Susskind devotes much time and thought to the prescriptive part of the book. Many authors tend to be strong in the diagnostic part, but quite weak and unimaginative in the prescriptive part. Whereas, Susskind goes through a long list of measures – consequently, some of them remain too much on the surface level –and he provides a clear theoretical foundation for their use and objectives.

On the down side, Susskind’s book, as many others, ails from being written for an American and generally, Western, democratic audience. Despite rereading the corresponding section, it remains unclear how digital technology is supposed to be regulated if it is often launched, operated, and controlled outside of national borders. This is particularly problematic as his key argument states that public values and interest need to be reflected in technological design and choices; and these values and interests can differ – even across Western countries. Hence, it is not surprising that the EU, for example, advances most of their interventions on the basis of consumer and market protection, rather than public interest or values.

It is clear that Susskind is not a technologist himself. This is the reason some of his more technically angled prescriptions, on his long to-do list of recommendations, come across as generic or insufficiently fleshed out. And though Susskind is a disciple of contemporary republican thought, he elected to not delve further into its intellectual history or criticism. However, as his book is so deeply steeped in it, it would have been good to also provide defenses to some of its weaknesses, including a required high level (and maybe an idealized level) of civic-ness of digital citizens as well as difficulty in ascertaining the concrete content of the term ‘public interest’. Lastly, there are also some ideological incompatibilities. Although Susskind asserts that ultimately the power of government needs to be constrained (or limited to what is necessary), at the same time, he walks a tight rope with some of his propositions that would be rather interventionist if implemented.

Nonetheless, Susskind’s “The Digital Republic” is an excellent and thought-provoking read that easily traverses and connects a number of issues and topics relevant to digital technology governance.

This edition of the Digital Governance Book Review was authored by: Melanie Kolbe-Guyot, C4DT

Image credit: Cover of The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century by Jamie Susskind, published by Bloomsbury.