The skewed debate on big tech and the quest for a transatlantic digital pact

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

‘Techlash’ might be the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2018. The advent of the sharing economy, online apps and social media has improved the lives of millions of people globally. This is a fact. But the unintended consequences are daunting.

Dimitar Lilkov is a Research Officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies.

Ranting about the pitfalls of Big Tech is nothing new, but it is staggering how little has actually been implemented on the policy front. Sadly, the general public is either severely divided between extreme opinions or does not care at all.

So, what makes us locked in such a polarized debate and what can be done?

Privacy is dead

Eight years ago Mark Zuckerberg announced that privacy is no longer a ‘social norm’.  However, the Social (Media) Contract everyone virtually signs never envisaged appropriate safeguard of personal data by default. Privacy was never alive in the first place.

Remember that Facebook pioneered an online referendum in 2011 where it asked its users to vote whether the company can demand more personal data? Above 90% of the ones who voted were against the new data policy but their numbers were far from the set threshold. Since then the company has been the final arbiter when it comes to making data policy changes. Vox Facebook, Vox Dei.

Consent should not be a dead concept. Policymakers should pressure Big Tech to stop using coercive or manipulative tactics when requiring user consent to hoard personal data. Forcing my agreement to provide Facebook with my physical features for its facial recognition software by cheap manipulation should be considered a direct offence.

Privacy is not dead. It is under construction. Even with all of its bruises regulation such as the EU’s updated effort on data protection firmly puts its foot in the door. Unsurprisingly, the first lodged claims under GDPR were for coercively extracting user consent by misleading practices and breaking the new rules.

These rules should serve as a bedrock.

Politicians do not understand technology

Sure, many politicians don’t understand 3rd party APIs or blockchain. But it is very convenient to pass this message to a wider public in order to discredit the call for tighter regulation.

What politicians do understand is that undecided voters can be swayed by manipulated search engine results or that psychological targeting can cause digital mass persuasion. The digital domain still evades the electoral laws of almost every Western country and online platforms manage to dodge official oversight which every print, radio or TV media has to abide by.

Let’s not forget that it is relatively easy to set up fake grassroots campaigns from abroad which feed dirty dollars and rubles for promotion and visibility.

National electoral legislation should be amended to allow for utmost scrutiny of online ads during election campaigns. Politicians may not fully understand tech but they should understand if the state has to assert its authority when democratic processes are under threat and national security is tampered from abroad.

Break-up Google and Nationalise Facebook!

Recently, there have been demands for breaking up of Big Tech companies, the nationalisation of their data by the state or stripping away some of their shares.  I for one, feel uneasy about the thought of the state managing such an extensive amount of personal data.

Nor would I like to see the forceful break-up of a technological leader which drives innovation and addresses societal challenges worldwide.

Again we are caught up by extremes – the public policy choice should not be between Yanis Varoufakis and Wall Street. These companies have to be prevented from evading or paying minuscule taxes, regardless of the transboundary nature of their services. Apple brings high-end products and jobs for Europeans but does this justify less than 1% corporate tax on its profit in Europe?

The FTC in the US and the European Commission’s Competition Directorate should enjoy boosted budgets and political independence to prevent anti-competitive behaviour or market-distorting practices.

The EU might even explore options for pooling resources and research potential in order to pioneer a European body which has secure access to Big Tech algorithm design to ensure independent oversight and democratic accountability. The fact that such measures might be technically difficult does not mean that they should be off the table.

The Way Forward

The polarisation of the pivotal debate on Big Tech goes against society’s interest. We all lose from the status quo. Ultimately, the EU and US should adopt a similar model of Big Tech Legislation 2.0. that clearly sets a benchmark. This upgraded model may have to directly compete with Russian or Chinese domestic policies when it comes to cooperation with national tech champions, data policy and individual privacy.

Western institutions must adapt and develop immunity in a rapidly changing global environment. An ambitious effort spearheaded by the European Union should be followed by the US even if this can be seen as difficult in the current Trump administration.

The current calls for adopting GDPR-type legislation across the Atlantic should be welcomed and followed through. Washington must break away from its decade-long regulatory stance of effectively sitting on its hands.

A Transatlantic Digital Pact is much needed for the upcoming unpredictable decade.

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