The Five Spot: Jeff Chester

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, is a student of mass media history. Chester says that anyone familiar with that history knows companies have used their powerful lobbying arms to forge media he says are “largely unresponsive” to the needs of society at large.

Chester has always been interested in communications’ potential for promoting access to information necessary for democracy.

He said it’s been apparent since the early 1990s that “pervasive, ubiquitous data collection for commercial targeting” is where the digital media is heading. “That’s a threat to both personal [and group] privacy, undermines environmental sustainability, and plays a major role in weakening democratic institutions.”

Here’s an edited transcript of Chester’s conversation with B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton.

What is the Center for Digital Democracy?
In the early 1990s, we recognized that a new and more powerful communications system was emerging.

The capabilities of digital media, along with a business model based on the "1 to 1" tracking and targeting of individuals for marketing purposes, posed opportunities—but also risks. We knew from the history of 20th Century that—like radio, broadcast TV and cable—there would be claims that the new medium didn't require regulation. But safeguards promoting ownership and content diversity, while ensuring privacy, would be needed for internet-based commercial services.

We closely track digital media and marketing developments and help educate the public, news media and policymakers about what needs to be done to keep the industry accountable.

What is the biggest threat to privacy?
Led by Google and Facebook, but embraced by nearly everyone else (cable, telcos, content companies, global brands, etc.), there is a determination to obliterate privacy as we know it.

They have created a digital data monster that continually expands to grab, analyze and "monetize" every bit of information, behaviors, actions and more. We are closely surveilled on all our devices; tracked when we walk or drive; bought and sold to advertisers and media companies via trading platforms in milliseconds; ever-growing data and marketing "clouds" provide one-stop shopping providing marketers and publishers an array of our "profile" information. There are no limits.

In the last presidential election, we witnessed one of the consequences of this digital data-driven system. The "programmatic" ad buying services pioneered by Google and others fueled—and funded—fake news; the viral and influencer marketing endorsed by the digital ad industry helped spur the spread of hate speech. The tools of commercial data were used in Facebook "dark posts" to help suppress voter turnout from communities of color.

Who are the gatekeepers?
Everyone in a leadership role, as well as shareholders, share the responsibility for decimating privacy and unleashing manipulative and unfair practices that harm society and consumers. The two largest companies—Google and Facebook—play an extraordinary role shaping digital media data practices globally. You could also say that all the members of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) are key here—it includes cable, phone, media and ad industry leaders. The U.S. government has failed to address all this—hemmed in as both major parties give deference to the political clout of various media and telecom lobbies. One reason we pushed for a law protecting children's privacy as early as we did—COPPA passed Congress in 1998—was to try and get at least something minimally enacted. We had hoped it would lead to protections for all—today in the U.S. you no longer have any real consumer privacy protection once you turn 13.

What should the government do about them?
The European Union is setting the standard for privacy-known as "data protection" over there. Starting in May 2017, companies operating in the EU—and that includes Google, Facebook, Verizon, WPP, Viacom and many others—will have to change how they do business when it comes to the collection and use of our information. These companies are going to [be] called on to treat the U.S. public in the same way [they] have to accommodate Europeans.

Beyond EU regulation, we see movement on privacy at the state level as well. I don't expect Congress or the Administration to be willing to address digital privacy and regulate e-Commerce and related data gathering practices. But expect CDD and the other consumer and privacy groups we work with to keep pushing.

Who are your heroes and why?
I.F. Stone is one. He showed how someone determined to get the "record" out to the public can impact the public. "Network" author and TV dramatist Paddy Chayefsky had an influence-his bold creative work and criticism of the industry.

Media historian Erik Barnouw has been a model for me. I also have a lot of people I admire who are champions of the public interest. They include Ralph Nader and Joan Didion. I very much admire the work of Color of Change. They are making a major impact on the media industry.