EU legislation currently being written will shape our digital future and our rights online. But are we ready to have a public debate about what it all means? For tech to win public trust, we need accountability and responsibility, and to get there, we need a clear agenda to debate.
We all click away our days accepting long legal texts, and we never read them. “Accept all cookies”? Sure. “Accept terms & conditions”? Yes. “Click to proceed?” What else did I come here to do?
Many of us are spending a majority of our time online. So at what point do we take control of our digital lives? Most of our interactions online are funnelled through the giant monopoly platforms of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, and a host of inter-related interlinked apps that funnel our data every which way. These apps achieve a level of surveillance and data collection we could not have even imagined only a decade ago. They don’t leave much power and autonomy in our hands, and they have rightfully earned widespread public distrust.
To really understand what is at stake, it might be useful to turn to two old sayings. We’ve all heard that “knowledge is power”. By knowing absolutely everything there is to know about you, your smartphone has absolute power over you. We’ve also heard that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Who knows what data collected now might be used for just a few years down the line, by either repressive governments or repressive companies with far too much data and power? How long do we really believe that so much unaccountable power can go on unabused, when the incentive for abuse is ever present? How can our society demand accountability and responsibility from corporations and governments? Answering these questions is necessary for democracy to function in a digital world.
Curbing this massive corporate power requires massive regulatory power and political will, and this is where the European Union comes in. With its unique supranational multi-stakeholder decision-making and massive economy, the EU’s legislative power can redefine our digital future, and now is the time to shape it.
That future is being written right now in the form of a myriad of directives and regulations, from the Digital Services Act and Digital Market Act to the AI package, Data Governance Regulation and beyond. All of these pieces of legislation require and contain hundreds of different decisions about how to shape our digital lives, whether or not our rights will be protected and how. Right now, they are being debated in Parliament Committees, Council of Ministers Working Groups and Commission Expert Groups and Roundtables.
When you see hate speech online, should it be removed? And if so, by who? Who should be liable for the content, the company or the user? And who should take these decisions? What are the rights of users and the obligations of big platforms?
All these questions are being answered without any public awareness or debate. It is safe to assume that well over 99% of Europeans do not know that the laws exist or that they will come into force. What’s more, it’s also very unlikely that they have any opinion at all about these many critical issues. Public debate is the engine of democracy. When it is gone, democracies cannot make good decisions. This is because when politicians and governments do not hear loud public voices, when they do not feel the pressure of accountability, they are tempted to follow narrow sectorial, business, or narrow personal-political interests. When there is less debate and attention, those with more resources have more power to purchase influence to push through their agenda when no one is looking.
At a deeper level still, if crucial decisions about our digital existence are made without the general public even being aware that these choices exist, then our understanding of our own society will become out of whack. The societal disconnects that form drive the rise of extremist authoritarian politics that we’ve seen in recent decades.
Public debate, media attention, civic engagement and campaigning all make a difference. Citizens themselves have a civic responsibility and a capacity to act, as we’ve seen from many campaigns on issues like the US-EU trade agreement TTIP, online copyright regulation, or on climate. What’s needed is the right story to spark a conversation.
This is why clear agendas and loud voices matter. Campaigners need to speak out with a loud voice on these issues and cut through to mobilise action. We need a joined up European and international agenda that can be easily communicated and explained, that brings up the urgency and the responsibility to act. Just like the Sustainable Development Goals galvanised the international community to tackle sustainability, what we need now is the digital equivalent. The crucial element is to build a broad coalition of support, and to get loud together.