Europe, we need to talk about institutional corruption.

The “multi-stakeholder model” is nothing more than a fancy name for the institutionalisation of corporate influence on public policy.

Janice Richardson and myself on Inside Edition (Al Jazeera television)
Janice and I don’t see eye-to-eye on the role of corporate influence in kid’s lives.
(Still courtesy of Inside Edition, Al Jazeera Television.)

Yesterday, I was a guest on Inside Story on Al Jazeera live, discussing Google’s latest app aimed specifically at children: YouTube for Kids. The programme was hosted by Sami Zeidan and my co-panelists were Brendan Gahan, a YouTube marketing expert, and Janice Richardson, senior advisor at European Schoolnet and network coordinator of Insafe.

The programme, which you can watch online, was a genial affair and yet I found myself constantly (and strongly) disagreeing with Janice at every turn. We ran out of time before I could reply to her final comment on how young people don’t need the concept of privacy explained to them, and that we should invite industry “to the table” and embrace the multi-stakeholder model and “co-regulation”.

I want to do that now while also putting yesterday’s conversation into the greater context of something that has been troubling me for some time now: the rise of institutional corruption in Europe.

Some background

I first met Janice in the March of last year when I was invited as a guest keynote speaker at the Insafe conference in Bratislava.

After presenting my talk on corporate surveillance and independent technology, which I also presented as an RSA Talk last year, I was personally pulled aside by her to be told that she did not appreciate my talk and that I had presented “a sales pitch”.

Ironically, the same event had invited guests from multi-billion-dollar publicly-traded corporations, Facebook and Google, who actually did present sales pitches for their products. When I pointed this out on Twitter with photos from their presentations, I was again approached by Janice and told that Facebook and Google were unhappy about it and that I should delete my tweets (I didn’t).

I’m retelling this story here because it was my first, jarring glimpse into the world of “multi-stakeholderism”.

Up to this point, I had rather naïvely assumed that European Union and European Commission funded programmes to protect children’s rights would have only one mandate: to protect children’s rights.

Unfortunately, that is only part of their mandate…

Conflicts of interest

After yesterday’s programme, I got a number of tweets (see this, this, this, this, and this) from people who were concerned about Janice’s position. I can see how it might be hard to reconcile Janice’s statement that Facebook should be used in schools “as a learning tool” with her stated role at European Schoolnet and Insafe as a champion of children’s rights.

The confusion is understandable given that a crucial piece of pertinent information was not mentioned in the programme: European Schoolnet’s mandate also includes carrying out corporate development and forging partnerships with corporate entities including Facebook and Google.

Once this important detail is revealed, Janice’s comments on yesterday’s programme begin to make more sense.

While it might sound odd for someone tasked with protecting children’s interests to suggest that Facebook should be taught at schools, it makes perfect sense for a person tasked with maintaining a healthy partnership with Facebook to suggest that Facebook should be taught in schools.

While it makes perfect sense, it is a far from perfect state of affairs.

Let’s not forget that when we talk about Facebook, we are talking about the flagship product of a publicly-traded American corporation whose business is to sell us as products. (Facebook’s business is to store and analyse everything you do on their properties so that they can sell the insight they derive about you to their actual customers.) This is the flagship product of a company whose founder once described their earliest users as “dumb fucks” who willingly give him their personal information. This is the product that the senior consultant of European Schoolnet and the network coordinator of Insafe recommended should be taught at schools in yesterday’s programme.

Due to the dual mandate she’s operating under, Janice must find herself in the unenviable position of keeping her corporate sponsors and partners happy while also attempting to protecting the interests of European children.

Needless to say, this represents a classic conflict of interests — especially when it comes to keeping children safe from the very corporations that you are tasked with creating partnerships with.

And while we might like to think that this situation is unique to European Schoolnet and Insafe, it is not.

In Europe, today, this state of affairs is not an anomaly.

This conflict of interests is institutionalised and it has a name:

The multi-stakeholder model.

How big is your stake?

As Janice mentioned in her closing comments, she wants to invite everyone to the table — “the kids, the parents, industry, teachers” — to “co-regulate”.

This is the multi-stakeholder model in a nutshell.

At first glance, the multi-stakeholder model seems reasonable enough. After all, why shouldn’t everyone who has a stake in an issue be invited to the table to present their unique perspective? Surely, we can debate the matter in a rational manner and come to some conclusion that makes everyone happy? And perhaps that could work, if every stakeholder was equal.

Unfortunately, not all stakeholders are created equal.

When you include “industry” in that list, you are talking about a group that has vastly deeper pockets and thus vastly greater power and influence than the rest.

Yes, we might be inviting everyone to the table but we also know exactly who’s going to pick up the bill. (And we’d really rather not piss them off because we don’t want to be left washing the dishes.)

So just how big is a big stake?

So big, I found out, that sometimes you can erect a huge outdoor tent around it like Google did at the Internet Governance Forum last year.

Stakeholders like Google and Facebook have billions in the bank. They don’t just sit at the table, they paid for the table and they might just pay for your meal too… if you’re a gracious guest.

Google’s Big Tent at the Internet Governance Forum
Google’s stake is so big you can erect a tent around it.

An influence within an economy of influence

Let’s call the multi-stakeholder model by what it really is: a euphemism for institutional corruption.

The multi-stakeholder model is nothing more than a fancy name for the institutionalisation of corporate influence on public policy.

Lawrence Lessig, political activist and professor of law at Harvard, defines institutional corruption as “the consequence of an influence within an economy of influence that illegitimately weakens the effectiveness of an institution”.

The result of this model is that we are rapidly losing our democratic institutions to corporate influence. This collusion between corporations and governments (and intragovernmental organisations like the EU/EC) is a grave danger to both our individual freedoms and to the future of democracy in Europe.

It is hugely disconcerting to me, for example, to see EU and EC officials acting like cheerleaders for Silicon Valley startups, inviting them in to privatise our digital public spaces and fence off our digital commons into their private silos.

A democracy is far more than just a vote, it requires a healthy public sphere. And we are losing our digital public sphere one venture-capital-subsidised startup at a time. Every euro spent on creating venture-capital funded startups is a euro not spent strengthening the commons and our digital public sphere. Needless to say, that’s a very high opportunity cost for the future of our democracy.

Equally worrying, if not more so, are secretive trade agreements like TTIP and CETA that, if ratified, will exponentially increase corporate influence in Europe.

Democracy or corporatocracy… pick one.

We are rapidly approaching the point where we need to make a very important decision: do we want democracy or capitalism? Because it is becoming clear that we simply cannot have both.

Contrary to anything that the laissez-faire capitalists and libertarians of Silicon Valley will tell you, the two — far from being complementary — are diametrically opposed.

If we want to live in a new feudalism — a corporatocracy — we can just keep going as we are. We’re well down that path anyway.

If, however, we want to live in a democracy, we have got to make a radical course correction.

We can start by simply calling the multi-stakeholder model by what it really is: institutional corruption.

Then we can continue down the long path of combating institutional corruption to remove corporate influence from our public institutions and reclaim our democracy.