Why it is inevitable and indispensable for political power to intervene.
Mark Zuckerberg, the president and founder of Facebook, who, in 2010, called privacy simply a “social norm”, created a sensation by stating publicly: “I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators [in controlling Internet content].” He asked for public intervention in order to ensure the suppression of harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability. Even if this volte-face is above all a PR move to attempt to regain the trust of Facebook users, Mark Zuckerberg’s appeal marks a turning point in the history of the Internet. It effectively puts to rest the libertarian myth of its ability to self-regulate by technology or by some invisible “global community”, as well as the myth of its neutrality which masked the total asymmetry of information between platforms and their users. In the last 30 years, the Internet has brought about the fastest and most profound technological change in history by connecting 4.5 billion people with each other. But it has given birth to two monsters that are a threat to both capitalism and democracy: the oligopoly of GAFAM in the USA and the digital totalitarianism of China where facial recognition and social license have enabled the setting up of a digital Big Brother.
The Internet model has thus become intolerable, for it results in the suppression of individual freedom – by state control in China and by the creation of monopolistic giants in the USA. It is intolerable for its users, who make a pact with the devil by transferring personal data, without any protection, in exchange for illusory free access. It is intolerable for contributors to platforms, who are being used for the benefit of doubtful ethical projects or being reduced to the level of poor workers. It is intolerable for governments, which are being circumvented and deprived of tax income from the digital economy. It is intolerable for democracy, because of infringements on the rights of individuals, population control programs, open forums for violent talk (by Jihadists, white supremacists, etc.), intervention by démocratures (a combination of democracy and dictatorship), and Russian troll farms and robots that skewed the 2016 US presidential elections as well as the Brexit and Catalan referendums.
Now that it has been shown that the digital industry can neither self-regulate nor manage the risks generated by its algorithms, it is inevitable and indispensable that political power should intervene, in five areas:
- Re-establishing competition, not by increasing the number of fines, but by dismantling Google, by having Facebook get rid of its other messaging sites (Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp), and by forbidding GAFAM’s systematic acquisition of start-ups that could become their competitors.
- Sharing added value and advertising revenue with content editors and with authors and artists, as laid out in the new European directive on copyright.
- Reintegrating Internet platforms into tax and social law, by means of global rules on digital taxing to be introduced by the OECD in 2020.
- Making social media responsible for the content they publish and restricting political advertising, cf. Singapore’s draft legislation concerning fake news.
- Finally, and above all, recognizing individual rights of ownership of personal data, which is the only effective way of protecting such data.
The correct regulatory model for the digital economy has yet to be found. It cannot be entrusted to any trustworthy third party without political legitimacy, nor to any nation states, and must remain compatible with innovation. The Internet could become the testing ground for the global risks facing us in the 21st century, particularly in the field of the environment. Europe can play a decisive role by proposing an alternative both to the deregulated American market and to Chinese totalitarianism, based on a rule of law applied to the single market. The General Data Protection Regulation, which came into force on 25th May 2018, is the first step and could be imposed as the international standard for the developed world. Connecting people with each other is a fascinating and valuable concept, but it can lead to subservience as well as to freedom. This is why it is time to restore the Internet as a servant of the people, not only by breaking GAFAM’s economic oligopoly but, furthermore, by destroying the monopoly they hold on Internet governance.
(Column published in Le Point, 11th April 2019)