Professor Mark MacCarthy Discusses Data Flows, Big Data, and The Future of Journalism

By Angela Hart

An interview with Professor Mark MacCarthy, Ph.D., adjunct faculty member in the Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT) Program at Georgetown University conducted, videotaped, and edited by CCT second-year graduate student, Angela Hart, Washington, D.C., held on December 2, 2015.

What are your thoughts on Big Data and Journalism in terms of the new media age?

That’s two very different ideas, Big Data is a complicated concept; it has to do technically with whether the information that you’re dealing with has appropriate velocity, variety, and volume, which is the standard definition. So, typically, when they talk about Big Data and Journalism, they don’t really mean Big Data in that sense, in the sense that people use it. They mean, “Can journalism be done with sort of advanced techniques of data analysis? Can you somehow replace the day-to-day operations of journalists who interview people and follow leads and sources and all that kind of stuff? Can you replace that with people who do basically computer research, analysis of trends, in that kind of statistical sense?” And the answer is, “You can certainly get a long way in journalism by doing all that good stuff; the new techniques do allow journalism to be done cheaper, better, faster, which is all very good but you’re not going to find the basic answers that you need in what’s going on online. You need to talk to real humans and get inside of their heads and understand motivations and so on. And that can only be done through the old-fashioned techniques of journalism: you’ve got to have sources, you have to be an expert in the field, and you have to know the institutions that you’re dealing with.”

So, in other words, it’s not going to overtake journalism, you’re still going to need people?

Yes, I mean, people are able, right now, to write very complicated stories based upon a large volume of input that they take in and notes that they take so they can write these wonderful stories. One of the things that people have discovered is that these complicated stories which journalists are so proud of and they think that they’ve been so creative about it, can be largely mimicked by alga rhythms that have the same input. It’s disheartening, but one of the things that the new techniques of data analysis tend to show is that the higher levels of cognitive capacities that people thought were immune from automation and the takeover by robots and machines; they’re really well within the grasp of these techniques. So, in that sense, writing up the final product, right, might very well be turned over to a story-writing alga rhythm. But getting the information that makes that tick that’s still something that’s going to require some of the old-fashioned techniques: you’re going to have to find the right sources, you’re going to have to interview them, you have to ask the right questions, you’ve got to get people who are reluctant to talk to talk, those techniques are still not the kind of things that can be done through techniques of data analysis. Who knows? Maybe they will be at some point. We’ve all seen the movies and they’re all very persuasive but what’s really within reach now wouldn’t eliminate the human beings.

For current Journalism majors that sounds as if it’s going to be a very competitive field to get the few jobs that are out there?

Well, there might be fewer jobs, yes, but the function has to be performed. I mean there’s a great quote from Clay Shorkey several years ago when the crisis of journalism first hit in a big public way, he says, “What the country needs is not newspapers, it needs journalism.” And he didn’t mean data analysis, he meant journalism. And his point was he didn’t need the old-fashioned paper product that was going to be delivered in trucks to people’s doors, that was gone. I mean you mine as well just wave it goodbye but you do need people who could do the job of finding the information that needed to be distributed and fulfill the functions of journalism. I still think that’s a very important thing and I’m hopeful that enough people volunteer to be part of that world so that we, in our democracy, can get the kind of ideas and information we need to be a self-governing people.

My other question was about Big Data targeting voters for the 2016 election. How do you think it will be used in the upcoming presidential race?

I wish I had more detailed information about that but I don’t; it’s a very technical field and I read every day there are articles coming out and about the way in which different data analysis techniques are used to reach just the right voters and make sure that they get just the right messages. There’s a lot of AP testing and it’s clear that the same techniques that can be used in an advertising context or a marketing context can be used in the political process. Not a surprise, I mean there was a book, not that many years ago, about Richard Nixon called The Selling of the President – it was a great book – and it took the marketing and advertising techniques at the time and said they’re being used in the same way that they used to sell regular products to sell political candidates. So fast forward four years and guess what? The new techniques that are used for marketing and advertising are being used in a political process and it’s not a surprise that we use the most advanced and most effective techniques in a political process.

Do you think Big Data is intrusive on public life, particularly when people don’t necessarily realize that their information is being aggregated? What are your thoughts on privacy in regards to Big Data?

Privacy is a big deal. I know a lot of people say you can get over it; it’s been like ten years or so but people won’t get over it! I’m sorry, people are going to want to have a certain level of protection from intrusive surveillance. I think you see that more evidently in government surveillance or people’s reaction to the NSA surveillance situation indicating people are not comfortable with the government collecting everything they can about you and then deciding what they would collect and what they wouldn’t collect. So there clearly needs to be some constraints on data collection but it’s surprising how accommodating people can be to the new data collection techniques. We’re all familiar with the camera situation in London, where if it happened in the United States and was known to be happening in the United States, there might be a different reaction. But, with that population, it’s more or less accepted; it’s like, “We’re glad we have those.”

I know that Google had a different impact in Europe than it did here, for instance, is that part of this in a way?

There’s a curious thing going on in Europe but they seem to be a little bit more accepting at the personal level. Their own government surveillance, right, but they react very strongly against commercial surveillance so Google is a problem. But if the French police want to make sure that everyone is under surveillance because they’re worried about ISIS, then they’re okay with that.

So I do think that there’s a difference in the United States, I do think people are less accepting of government surveillance and I think that’s evident in the political reactions to some of these issues; nevertheless, on the basic question of Big Data, I do think there are going to have to be some well-understood limits on what can be collected and what it can be used for. The basic chip point for understanding how to control abuses is less understanding on stopping people from collecting the information although that’s important and I think there has to be limits there.

It’s when the information is used in ways that people find to be harmful, that’s what causes them to backup and say, “You know, you never should have collected that information to begin with, look at what you’re doing with it.” And I think, both industry and government, if they’re going to be collecting large amounts of information, it’s not always going to be possible to ask people’s permission beforehand. If you are going to be doing that, you have to do an analysis of what you’re going to do with the information and be good data stewards and have an assessment of the value of what you’re doing with the information. “Is this really beneficial to the person whose data you are collecting?” If not, if it’s something that can be used to damage his life prospects, can be used against him in the context of employment or insurance or the granting of credit, you would probably have a lot of explaining to do to the people’s information that you’ve collected. On the other hand, if it can be used to their betterment and improve their life prospects then I think you will have a lot more acceptance of the data collection.

You recently testified before Congress on International Data Flows. Can you briefly explain what this issue is and state your stance on it?

Flows of information across borders is a fundamental issue for U.S. businesses, for any global business. If you have customers and employees around the world, you need to be able to collect the information about your customers, your employees, your suppliers as well. And you need to be able to store it and process it in ways that make the most sense from a computer-networking point of view. If you’re not doing it yourself, if you’re retaining an outside company, Oracle or IBM, and have them do it for you, then they have to be able to collect and maintain the information in the most efficient way.

Countries, on the other hand, are very concerned about the movement of information across borders and many of them have required computerized facilities to be located domestically and have said, “No, you cannot take the information out of the country at all.” And, for a variety of reasons, some of which are protectionist in character, they want to build up their own industry and some choose religion and public policy concerns. The principal of cross port of data flows is an economic principle that says, “Generally, speaking, information should be allowed to flow.” And, of course, countries have legitimate objectives that they need to achieve. But they should be narrowly tailored so that they don’t restrict data flows any more than it’s absolutely necessary; those principles are actually present now in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the “TPP” Agreement, for the first time, actually, a clear statement of the principle server location requirements and data location requirements that are against international trade principles. And, again, the exception is there but it’s an exception to a generally accepted principle. So that’s the importance of the issue but beyond that there’s a larger, you know, sort of human rights issue at stake here which is an odd thing to say in the context of a trade agreement, but it is. Look at Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it talks about the free flow of information across borders; this has been a foreign policy objective of the United States since 1946. Hillary Clinton in her speech before a museum audience in 2010 called for Internet freedom which was a single unified Internet governed by the norms of the free flow of information and those are all good principles but the good news is that they have not been embodied in the trade agreement; their language isn’t the same, it’s the dry language of trade agreements – we’ve talked about businesses and covered entities and parties and so on and so forth. But, the principle’s the same, that information should be allowed to cross borders and that kind of activity is a protected activity. So I do think that there are larger issues at stake than just the economics of cross port data flows, there are larger principles with the free flow of information.

I watched the video of your testimony and in it you made the point that data flows affect all parts of the economy. Can you elaborate on this point?

People think that data flows are conducted by technology companies and, therefore, the technology companies must be the people who are experiencing the economic benefit but consulting firms, McKenzie is the obvious one – I’ve done some outreaching – and there’s a value associated with these new communications technologies and seventy-five percent of the value is obtained not by the technology companies themselves but, basically, by the customers of the technology companies. So if you’re a bank or you’re a hospital or you’re a government agency or you’re a school, the fact that you’ve got at your disposal this broad array of communications technologies means “you do your business better” and it’s better, faster, smarter, everything is improved because you can use technology just the way people want. And, of course, the technology companies that provide that, they benefit from it, but the real advantage is to the customers of those companies and the same is true in the cross port of data flows. If you look at who benefits from them, it’s financial services companies, it’s businesses processing people, it’s accountants, it’s professionals, it’s people who make use of the technology to transfer information across borders for their own business purposes. And that’s why I said this is not just a technology issue, it’s a broad business issue.

Do you think the everyday person needs to become better educated in regards to this then, if there’s only a select few that are really taking advantage of this opportunity?

Well, I’m not sure it’s just a select few. One of the success stories about the international data flows here is a company called eBay where, for astonishing reasons, they have been able to allow small merchants on their system to trade internationally in ways that, frankly, is not as easily available to other countries and companies. So I do think it needs to be further known that you can reach a global audience with your message or your product or your service. I think that needs to be better known but I do think companies might take a couple of steps to do that but the people who are in the business of selling products or producing ideas in trying to get them understood, they already recognize the global nature of the medium that they’re dealing with; it would not be a surprise if you told people, especially people under the age of 60, “You know, the Internet is a global communications network, if you put it up, it’s available just about everywhere.” So I don’t think it’s news but I do think it’s the kind of thing that deserves this medium.

In your testimony, you also said that we need a new Safe Harbor framework. What specifics do you hope to see implemented?

The original Safe Harbor was set up in 2000; it was negotiated in 1999 and approved in 2000 so it’s been in place for 15 years and what it did is to allow companies that do business in Europe to take information about European citizens and their customers, their employees, their suppliers, whatever, and move that information out of Europe for processing in the United States, for storage in the United States, and to do so in compliance with the European Privacy Laws; it was a series of principles where companies promised they would abide by those principles and the European Commission said that if you abide by those principles, and through making this promise enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission, that will count as adequate privacy protection and you will be able to take the information out of Europe.

In October of this year, the European Court of Justice said that that decision by the Commission was invalid, and that means there’s no longer any existing Safe Harbor that would allow companies to take information out of Europe in that fashion. So they did that not because there was any internal inadequacies in those principles but because there was an escape clause that said, “This doesn’t apply to national security measures that are necessary in proportion.” Well, it turns out, that the court of thought, the NSA surveillance activities were not necessarily in that proportion so that escape clause turned out to be an improper escape clause and the courts said, “You’ve got to fix it.” So the European Commission and the United States, essentially the United States Department of Commerce, they’re in the process of renegotiating a new Safe Harbor agreement that attempts to fix some of the defects – and the old one they call Safe Harbor 2.0 – very original – some people call it the Safer Safe Harbor – but the expectation is that something will be agreed upon by the European Commission and the United States by the end of January.

Well, do you think it has to do with it being fifteen years later with more technology, too? I mean aside from the caveat in the escape clause, do you think there are other ramifications nowadays versus then?

I think any agreement that’s fifteen years old and any framework that’s fifteen years old probably means that it’s dated and so the improvement is probably overdue and some of the outlines of what the new principles are, are pretty clear, and we have a sense of what they’re going to look like and some of these changes are probably appropriate and timely. And then it would have even been so without some of the difficulties associated with surveillance activities.

Taking in the timeline of the Safe Harbor Act and what they’re trying to implement, do you think this will be an important factor in the 2016 election in any way in regards to their stances on it?

I’m not sure. I do think trade, generally, is going to be a big deal; you know, the different positions of the candidates I think on trade will be discussed and debated and, you know, we’ll see where people come down at the end of the day on that. I think surveillance very well might be an issue, especially with the Paris Attacks and there’s been some conversation about surveillance. The Safe Harbor Act, that’s probably a level of detail that they won’t get to; it’s a little in the weeds for a presidential level debate; you might get something in the way of, “What about privacy in the modern age?” something like that and we’ll see what the candidates would say about that. But I don’t think you’re going to get the level of detail that the Safe Harbor Act deserves – it’s a little geeky – can you imagine Donald Trump talking about the Safe Harbor? I mean it’s just not something he would want to focus on; he’s got other issues he wants to raise.

I saw on your online profile that you teach Political Philosophy and I thought that sounded really interesting. So what are your thoughts on the current political realm in regards to the morals, or lack thereof, of the candidates and things of that nature?

I’m not sure that I have any reflections on the state of the political culture; a lot of people have some abstract and some strongly felt views about that. I do think that the country would benefit from a kind of education in some of the stuff that’s dealt with in philosophy and, in my classes, I try to get my students to think about it. You really need to have a sense of what motivates you in your thinking about politics and public policy. I mean, “Are you someone who really fundamentally believes in human rights? Do you care about freedom of religion, freedom of speech, privacy? Are those the things that really motivate you? And is that what you want to see government do?” That’s one sort of way of thinking about it.

Do you run into the issue of it being more issue-specific than if somebody only cares about that one?

Maybe, but, the other way of thinking about issues is not to focus on the rights that people might have but to talk about, “What’s good for the country? What’s the greater good?” And I think people really differ on how they come out on that way of thinking, “Is it my rights that I’m worried about? Or is it the good of the country that I’m worried about?” And then there’s a third way of thinking about it which is we all live in communities and we have values and traditions, and customs, and beliefs, and many people approach politics as a way of indicating their traditional beliefs, their customs, their values, and so on; they want to make sure that government protects that and indicates that those are traditional ways of thinking about things – that’s just a certain way of how people approach politics – I think people are talking past each other because they don’t recognize when one is talking about rights and the other is talking about community values; they just go right past each other. And a little bit of clarity about where you’re coming from and a little bit of understanding that other people come from very different places at a very basic level, I think that could help a little bit in dialogue. How much might it help? I don’t know but it’s worth a shot; and, as I say in my classes, I try to get people to clarify their thinking about those issues as a preparation for doing the more detailed policy-oriented work so if you’re playing in the privacy realm, “How are you thinking about this? Is it a matter of community values or establishing privacy? Does privacy have a real function in sustaining certain social practices? Is it a matter of the integrity in social life? Or is it a fundamental right – I’m here, I’m me, get out.” Or is privacy the kind of thing that is just one economic good among others whose been aggregated up along with preferences and you do a cost benefit analysis and that’s how it fits into the public policy debate. If you have different reactions to those ways of setting up the privacy problems, that’s probably because you’ve come into public policy issues, generally, with a very different perspective and it’s worth having a little bit of self-awareness about that.

How would people clarify their thinking if you’re just the everyday person? How could they implement that?

Take my courses; it’s as simple as that! Come to Georgetown! Or put these things online so everybody could look at it. But, no, I do think that kind of fluency with political ideas, political debate, is something that is an important element of citizenship and you can’t take people who are already fully-educated and engaged in the rigors and business of life and say, “It’s time for you to go back to school, now, and learn these basic things.” I do think it’s part of a general education and something that should be done at a formative stage and then it can be reawakened and focused in further applications later on in life. But if you don’t get it when you’re getting your basic education, it’s really hard to go back and –

Basic education meaning high school level?

High school, college, whatever level you could be taught at, these ideas are not impossible for a conversation at a high school level. I mean people study these things professionally. The philosophers can make them extraordinarily detailed and complicated but, at their heart, they’re really a fundamental aspect of the way we look at the world and can be understood; like in the way we write and understand good novels, books, movies with detailed moral plots, and so on.