October 12, 2022

By J. Nathan Matias, Susan Benesch, Rebekah Tromble, Alex Abdo, J. Bob Alotta, David Karpf, David Lazer, Nathalie Maréchal, Nabiha Syed & Ethan Zuckerman

Society needs trustworthy, independent research to relieve the harms of digital technologies and advance the common good. Research can help us understand ourselves more clearly, identify problems, hold power accountable, imagine the world we want, and test ideas for change. In a democracy, this knowledge comes from academics, journalists, civil society, and community scientists, among others. Because independent research on digital technologies is a powerful force for the common good, it also faces powerful opposition.

Tech companies have developed unprecedented power to observe and intervene in people’s everyday lives. While people benefit greatly from digital communication, these private companies have demonstrated that they cannot be expected to work in the public interest. Society needs independent research to hold companies accountable and continue the search for effective ways to improve human life.

So far, tech companies have obstructed and undermined research necessary for the public to understand the ways in which their platforms are shaping society. Companies often forbid access to researchers who try to work independently. When researchers try to collaborate with companies, those arrangements rise and fall on the whims of corporate leaders, who often renege on their promises to cooperate. Meanwhile companies have amassed large teams of talented researchers, but their findings are typically not shared with the public and are aimed at supporting the corporate rather than the public interest.

Government policies could enable independent research, but poorly crafted or enforced laws could also obstruct that work. Rightly concerned about ethics and privacy risks, governments have adopted policies that companies use as shields from accountability. Independent research can best serve the public and earn public trust when we respect people’s rights. Better standards and regulations could unlock the benefits of independent research while ensuring that people are protected.

Evidence-based governance of digital technologies depends on independent research. Toward that end, we are forming the Coalition for Independent Technology Research.

Our mission is to advance, defend, and sustain the right to ethically study the impact of technology on society.

We are academics, journalists, civil society researchers, and community scientists who work independently from the technology industry. Our coalition is open to organizations and individuals. We are U.S. based, and we are organizing ourselves so we can influence U.S. policy. We eagerly look forward to coordinating and collaborating with our counterparts in other countries.

We value research that is responsible, ethical, transparent, privacy-respecting, and rigorous. We are committed to supporting research by individuals as diverse as the societies we share. We are also committed to making our findings freely available, especially to the people most affected by the phenomena we study.

To achieve this mission, independent researchers need to advocate for change, strengthen the ecosystem of independent research, and stand up to tech companies.

Our activities will include the following:

Conducting Advocacy: We will engage in advocacy because independent research is a cornerstone of technology policy and needs to be supported through public advocacy and through public policy.

Our first priority will be to call for a new system of governance and oversight of tech companies built on industry-independent research. This new system would require tech companies to grant access to independent researchers to detect, and identify ways to diminish, the harms arising through the companies’ platforms. This access would allow researchers to survey and interview people about possible harms, analyze data to understand where and how they happen, and test methods to prevent, mitigate, and remedy those harms.

Convening a Community of Practice: By sharing resources, collaborating on best practices, creating standards, and advocating for funding, we can ensure that independent research serves society and upholds the highest level of ethics and privacy.

For example, we plan to organize a network of the engineers who currently develop systems for industry-independent research. This network will offer mutual support on topics including security, privacy, and ethics, in order to protect individuals whose data is included in our research.

Creating Standards and Oversight: Public trust in independent research is hard to earn and easy to lose. We will work to merit durable public trust by contributing to standards and oversight of independent research. These standards will be flexible enough to enable diverse contributions of knowledge while strong enough to protect the people in whose interests we work. For example, we plan to create inclusive ways that research could be vetted in advance for ethics and privacy. Study designs and privacy practices would be reviewed in advance by independent ethics boards, just as the U.S. government and universities already require.

These ethics standards should protect both the data itself and the people affected by the research. The system we propose would extend access, along with all these rules, to journalists and civil society researchers as well as academics.

Organizing Mutual Defense: Companies continue to attack and obstruct independent researchers whose commitment to truth and transparency put their profits at risk. When independent researchers come under attack, we will organize to defend and support them together.