Digital Public Institutions Part 1: a Quick Survey of New Organisations

Tom Steinberg
Dec 2, 2015 · 6 min read

Updated with link to Part 2

When new technologies become widely adopted they tend to leave new public institutions in their wake, as well as new private companies.

So, silversmithing left behind Assay Offices. Agriculture left the USDA and the Food Standards Agency. Atomic energy led to the creation of the International Atomic Agency. The pattern repeats endlessly.

New organisations, especially big ones, are innately interesting things. Watching the rise of the biggest digital companies has proven so interesting that it has become an industry in its own right, complete with movies, books, heroes and villains.

But across the world governments have not been idle either, they’ve been founding new innately digital organisations all over the place, and overhauling old institutions so totally they are effectively brand new.

As I’ve written before, I think we’re at the early stages of a wave of new public institutions being set up to help governments cope with the digital age. In my next post I will spend some time speculating on what such new institutions might be. But for starters I thought I’d do a quick survey of new kinds of institution that had already been founded. Here’s what I’ve discovered, arranged under some rough headings.

National firewalls and content blocking organisations

The most famous of these is China’s Great Firewall, started in 1998, but under this category I would put any technology organisations that block access to websites and apps for reasons that could be called immoral, illegal or otherwise harmful. Liberal democracies have not been slow in establishing parallels to the Great Firewall, based on different governmental priorities and ethical norms. These include the UK’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (which requests takedowns, rather than blocking content) and the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which is nominally independent, but is actually the main UK mechanism for getting ISPs to block child abuse images. The IWF is nominally independent but the government has made it very clear that if ISPs don’t cough up to pay the bill for running it, unwelcome legislation will follow swiftly. We may well see this model (digital institutions that are state mandated but not state funded) repeated elsewhere in future.

Defensive Internet security organisations

As black-hat hacking has racked up a series of bigger and bigger triumphs governments have started to take measures to support the protection of internet infrastructure itself, and of the users of that infrastructure. Amongst the first of these were CERTS — emergency response teams often located in universities, and thus indirectly publicly funded. The first of these originated in 1988 after an early worm wreaked havoc on a more-or-less entirely unprotected pre-web Internet. Germany followed in 1991 with the Federal Office of Information Security, which now employs over 600 people. More recently a generation of higher profile organisations have been founded, such as America’s new Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center. This has happened as national leaders and governments have decided that they need to be associated with bold moves around fighting ever more serious hacking.

National Security organisations

Perhaps the most famous group of public bodies that interact with the internet are those that surveil it, especially for signs of terrorist activities. The NSA and GCHQ are only the most famous of dozens of organisations that now operate sophisticated monitoring. In more illiberal countries these authorities also target mainstream political opponents, operated by organisations such as the Revolutionary Guard in Iran and the snappily titled ‘Social Networks Security Hazard Monitoring Operation’ in Egypt.

Offensive ‘cyber warfare’ organisations

Branches of the military and national security agencies now exist that specialise in developing offensive hacking capabilities, such as the NSA’s ‘Tailored Access Operations’ team. Whilst secretive, these clearly involve hiring of substantial new skills and must represent considerable new bureaucracies in themselves.

Internet Governance organisations

The internet only works because of a huge series of agreements between a large number of entities: companies, universities, governments, NGOs and so on. The main ways in which these agreements get made and maintained is through a range of governance organisations that try to keep everything ticking over. The most famous is ICANN, but there are now dozens spread across the planet. Needless to say, even when their legal status is independent and non-profit or similar, nation states often exert great power over decisions made by internet governance organisations, as well as providing funding and political cover.

Astroturfing organisations

Perhaps the newest kind of digital public institution is a curious beast. Instead of attempting to block access to content, the newest generation of organisation instead tries to seed mistrust, fear, uncertainty and doubt in the minds of internet users, primarily through use of social media and comment threads. The ultimate goal is to make citizens distrust the ideas of opponents of whatever regime has put this system in place. Whilst doubtless happening in several countries, the Russian systems appear to be the best documented so far, notably the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg, documented by the New York Times. Wikipedia calls this phenomenon ‘Web Brigades’ and has a predictably thorough view.

Broadband promotion organisations

All but the most illiberal of countries are trying to promote greater usage of digital networks in order to promote economic growth, skills, and so forth. Many countries have organisations that are dedicated to this, such as EveryoneOn and US Ignite in America and Britain’s ‘Broadband Delivery UK’. They vary from very direct — state owned fixed line and mobile operators receiving orders directly from government — to rather indirect and hopeful, such as broadband promotion groups that are supported by governments but given nothing in the way of meaningful budget or powers.

State broadcasters

Whilst they were, almost without exception, born as creatures of a pre-digital world many state broadcasters have developed substantial digital arms that produce primarily news and entertainment content. Major broadcasters like the BBC in Britain and RAI in Italy have large digital offerings, heavy investment and large teams of people. These are some of the few digitally skilled public organisations that are actually quite high-profile and transparent, many of the others being subsumed by the national security complex and thus hard to peer into.

Updated — 7th December 2015

Edward Saperia reminds me that, rather embarrassingly, I had forgotten to include GDS. So…

Government Digital Services (plural)

As governments begin to realise that their traditional IT procurement systems are incapable of delivering modern public services that are either usable or reasonably priced, calls for ‘something to be done’ mount steadily.

The ‘something’ that was tried in the UK was the creation of a major new government business unit, the Government Digital Service, staffed with a team with a fundamentally different mindset (agile, user focused, risk-taking), and a fundamentally different mission (high quality user experience) from the previous IT departments. It was also given substantial budgetary control over other parts of government, and strong top level support.

Imitators are now just starting to emerge, for example in the USA, but the spread of true copies is likely to be slow. Vested interests and generational attitudes are likely to block the big changes in procurement, staffing and power structures required. It will probably take a couple of decades before such units exist in most rich countries.

What’s missing?

I’ve intentionally skipped over the digitisation of normal government departments, to prevent this post becoming a list of all known government functions. But I would like to know if readers from any country have come across any other partly or mainly publicly funded institutions that have been born solely because of the rise of the Internet. Are there any teach-kids-to-code organisations so big they could be called real public institutions, for example?

In part 2 of this post, I will move on from documenting to speculating (Update — here is part 2). What sorts of new digital public institutions might appear, around the world? What do you think?

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