With up to $10 million in annual funding from philanthropic organization Luminate and the Sandler Foundation — a U.S.-based donor that also supports the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union and media outlet ProPublica — Reset hopes to level the playing field between Big Tech and lawmakers. It will help officials gain access to data, and insider knowledge, that so far have been largely shielded from public view.
“The concentration of power that a few companies now have on a global level is unprecedented in human history,” said Scott, the former director of policy and advocacy at Luminate, a funder of nonprofit organizations that’s backed by Pierre Omidyar, a co-founder of eBay. “People are pissed off.”
From his base inside Luminate’s headquarters, whose glass-fronted meeting rooms and designer furniture give off a startup feel, the American plans to target national capitals across Europe, North America and in Australia.
His aim is simple: to provide an alternative to Big Tech when policymakers are seeking evidence and advice on how companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter shape people’s everyday lives. The message will go out via a barrage of on-the-ground lobbying, well-funded academic research and public calls-to-arms.
Scott’s initial targets are lawmakers in Brussels, London, Paris, Berlin, Ottawa and Canberra — but not in Washington, D.C., where, he says, digital rulemaking has stalled for more than a decade.
“The geopolitics of internet policy has changed. Washington isn’t making any policy right now,” said Scott, whose policy talk is peppered with pop culture references.
To help him marshal evidence, Scott has tapped Dan Blah, a co-founder of the Open Technology Fund, a digital rights nonprofit financed by the U.S. government, as Reset’s director of technology. He plans to recruit more people in the coming months.
“It would be a mistake to get countries to do the same thing at the same time in the same way,” said Scott. But “we need to mandate access to data to be able to analyze the social impact of these companies to make regulation.”
David vs. Goliath
Picking a fight with some of the world’s most well-resourced companies may not sound like the smartest move, even if the political winds have shifted against Silicon Valley.
But Scott is not coming into this blind.
Ever since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in which Russian-backed groups targeted voters with sophisticated social media campaigns, according to U.S. national security agencies, he has been working across several Western democracies to combat this ever-evolving online warfare.
Clinton’s election loss in 2016 left its mark, though Scott tries to play it down.
“It’s painful for me, but in a Forrest Gump sort of way,” he said, in what feels like a well-used line about the hero of the 1994 film who finds himself present at a series of world events. “I’m not Hillary Clinton or John Podesta,” he added, referring to her campaign manager whose emails were hacked. “I was just there watching it all happen.”
Ahead of the 2017 German federal election, for instance, he teamed up with a Berlin-based think tank to track misinformation, highlighting how domestic groups, not foreign actors, were the most likely to disseminate highly partisan and mostly false messages online. That strategy, in part, led to Alternative for Deutschland, the country’s far-right party, gaining its largest-ever percentage of the vote.
In Canada, he advised Justin Trudeau’s government on how it could sidestep some of the failings of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and funded, through Luminate, work at McGill University to analyze the spread of disinformation and hate speech. The country passed some of the most far-reaching digital election rules in the world, though was still targeted by coordinated misinformation campaigns, mostly from domestic groups.
He also backed several projects at the Mozilla Foundation and New York University to track political advertising on Facebook, which highlighted the company’s inability to police such content. Despite pumping millions of dollars into transparency efforts around paid-for messages, social media companies have been powerless to stop misinformation as it has shifted toward so-called organic content like people’s regular online posts.
“Ben is one of the few funders that I can periodical call up and say, ‘Ben, I don’t know what to make of this, what do you think?'” said Laura Edelson, part of NYU’s Online Political Ads Transparency Project, who met Scott in late 2018 and has received roughy $100,000 from Luminate for her team’s work. “He has broad understanding of the issues, a lot better than I do.”
Scott plans to replicate these tactics in his new global push.
He’s already started to write big checks to fund academic research into everything from misinformation campaigns on Facebook to algorithmic bias on YouTube, so when policymakers are looking for evidence of wrongdoing they do not have to rely on tech companies to serve up data.
His first big lobbying push will be to urge lawmakers to demand access to tech companies’ user data — information that is often held back from public scrutiny because of either commercial or privacy concerns.
If he’s successful, such greater access to data may change the power dynamic when regulators look to overhaul competition policy, rulemaking around harmful content online and proposals to tweak global privacy rules.
“I’m tired of getting into policy debates with a bunch of tech company employees and they win the argument because there’s no competition in who has access to data,” said Scott. “My first focus is mandatory access to data.”
Despite Scott’s enthusiasm — and the millions that he’s secured from his backers — he goes into this fight as the significant underdog.
His credential as a former Obama-era tech policy official may open some doors in national capitals. But the likes of Facebook have hired Nick Clegg, the U.K.’s former deputy prime minister, to lead their own global lobbying efforts.
U.S. tech firms, collectively, spent more than €20 million to influence policymaking in Brussels in 2018 alone, according to the latest figures available from the EU transparency register, a voluntary database of lobbying interests that significantly undervalues the overall investment these companies have made.
Still, Reset has started to prepare for the fight.
Scott has brought on Marietje Schaake, the former Dutch lawmaker in the European Parliament and current professor at Stanford University, as an adviser.
He’s tapped AWO, a law firm and lobbying consultancy to do the leg work in both Brussels and London. That firm was created by Ravi Naik, a lawyer who filed several high profile lawsuits against Cambridge Analytica; Eric Kind, a former senior official at Privacy International; and other digital rights specialists
Mathias Vermeulen, a former aide to Schaake, will lead AWO’s operations in the EU capital. In Canberra, Reset will be working with Responsible Tech Australia, a local digital rights group.
Several tech executives, industry lobbyists and digital rights campaigners said they welcomed new voices in the battle to set new digital rules. But some questioned how effective Reset would be, as a relative newcomer, because much of the lobbying had been underway for years, with rivals already entrenched across the countries where it planned to operate.
“It’s important to have a more strategic counterweight to the tech companies,” said Schaake, who added Reset planned to work with others, and not as a standalone entity. “We need to start thinking creatively.”
For Scott, his new lobbying push represents an almost full-circle from his experience in 2016, when he and almost everyone in the U.S. stood by, mostly unaware, as foreign actors used social media to pepper divisive messages to would-be voters.
“I’m focused on how we reset the rules within digital information markets so that the balance between profit and the public is more balanced,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re going to match the wallet of a Google or Facebook — we don’t have too. They’re wrong and I’m right.”