14. December 2020

How Europe is reconquering the digital marketplace

The internet is the largest marketplace for goods, messages and opinions of our time. Who makes the rules there? Who governs it and who is monitoring democratic values? The “Digital Services Act” seeks to answer those questions. The new constitution for online platforms in Europe seeks to finally establish strong, transparent rules and clear boundaries for platforms.


Today, the market is dominated by just a few giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. They disproportionately hoard power and control and ultimately even decide who can say what on the internet and which companies can enter the market. The information they spread informs many people’s decisions and opinions, but the rules by which it is disseminated lack transparency; they are subject to lucrative business models, unacceptable in a democratic society. The EU is therefore taking the platforms to task and challenging the established system.


The following five pillars can strengthen EU citizens’ fundamental digital rights:


More transparency: Hatred and hate speech, defamation and misinformation cause great damage because they spread virally, exacerbated by the digital giants’ business models. They can keep users on their sites longer with extreme, polarising content, in turn increasing their advertising revenue. We want to oblige platforms to declare their recommendation algorithms. We will no longer accept that a black box controls our social discourse. Increased transparency enables analysis of the effects on public discourse and our democracy, and is the basis for holding platforms to account, enabling supervision by authorities, and ensuring legal remedies for affected groups and users.


Less manipulation: Surfing, chatting and networking on the internet is not free – we pay with our data. All information about locations, interests, sexual orientation and time spent on a site are sent in real time to thousands of companies who use it for their advertising business, categorising and manipulating us without our knowledge. The technical term for this business is “ad tech”. The large social networks are primarily advertising companies: Facebook earned almost 69 billion Dollars with advertising in 2019, equating to 98 percent of Facebook’s overall global income. At 134 billion Dollars, advertising constituted a good 70 percent of Google’s overall revenue.
This ubiquitous practice of collecting and collating data is also very problematic because it fuels the targeted dissemination of hatred, misinformation and prejudices to susceptible target groups. The algorithms with their die-hard business interests manipulate information to generate maximum attention and retain people on the platforms for longer. That works best if they appeal to our strongest emotions, fear and anger. The advertising mechanism thereby aggravates social polarisation.
The Digital Services Act is an opportunity to ban micro-targeting and behaviour-based advertising. Google and Facebook control large swathes of the ad tech market, to the detriment of the European press. The Dutch public television broadcaster NPO, however, has shown how it is possible to succeed without stalking and spying on people and instead rely on context-based advertising. It is therefore all the more puzzling that, against the will of the European Parliament, the European Commission appears not to be planning a ban on personalised, i.e. spying, advertising, although only internet giants benefit from it.


Interoperability: Online services ought to open their programming interfaces so that users can also receive messages that friends send via Facebook, for instance, on other services. Then, nobody would be forced to install multiple messenger apps or select social networks based on numbers of active contacts there, but rather on data protection or user-friendliness. The switch to alternative services would allow all users to avoid personalised advertising and manipulation on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, without foregoing the benefits of modern communication.


Strong user rights: Handling of legal and illegal content is currently so poorly regulated that in the grey area, platforms arbitrarily decide what is deleted and what stays online. For instance, accounts on “Women on Waves”, a Dutch NGO for women’s rights and physical autonomy, are regularly blocked, whilst criminal hate speech is left unpunished. Clear rules, more supervision, and clear monitoring procedures are needed regarding platforms’ handling of illegal content on the one hand, and users’ complaints about wrongful content deletion on the other. Stricter differentiation between originators, subjects and infringement severity will be key here. In the future, each report of a potential infringement should include URL, date and time, along with a personal declaration that the information is provided to the best of one’s knowledge. We must uphold the credo: my content, my rights. We want to strengthen the right of freedom of expression.


Social Media Councils: I propose “Social Media Councils” as a model for public debate, similar to Citizens’ Assemblies in Ireland, comprising civil society, experts for freedom of expression, democracy and technology, and representatives of groups particularly affected by hatred and hate speech. They can trigger public debates, identify good and bad platform practice, and issue recommendations for action to politicians.
That is the opposite of the alleged solutions proposed by the platforms themselves, namely internal ethics committees. How independent can an internal ethics committee at Facebook be if it answers to the board and their business interests? That would cement the privatisation of justice and ethics.


Our online social discourse must no longer by at the behest of commercial interests. The Digital Services Act offers us the opportunity to sustainably change the digital world and strengthen EU citizens’ fundamental digital rights. The question is: will the European Commission have the courage to propose regulations which really make a difference, or will they succumb to the big tech lobbyists and prefer to stick with the status quo?

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