Why not regulate digital technology for the public good?

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Why not regulate digital technology for the public good?


Jacob Ohrvik-Stott from Doteveryone writes about how to do it.

The world’s big digital companies are very rich. In August 2018 Apple became the first trillion-dollar company. Since then sometimes Amazon and sometimes Microsoft have been the world’s most valuable company.

But this economic growth comes with a history of bad practices. Facebook is criticised for its role in the Cambridge Analytica data scandal in 2018. It showed millions of users’ personal data. More recently people say it is monitoring smartphone app usage of people who were not Facebook users. Google is criticized for promoting self-harm videos to teenagers via YouTube, which it owns. It also forgot to tell people it installed a microphone into their Nest Security System. Other problems include fining Uber $150 million for a mass data breach, sexual harassment of staff, and when WhatsApp did not deal with misinformation leading to killings in India and Myanmar.

It is not surprising that the UK’s Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee called Facebook digital criminals. It isn’t alone in criticising the digital multinationals’ behaviour. Germany is worried about Facebook because it took customer data from WhatsApp, Instagram, and third-party websites. And cities around the world are taking action against AirBnB to protect local communities. China’s Politburo normally likes techology but people say it is thinking about action to regulate online company Alibaba.

And so there are calls for an independent internet regulator. In the UK, the Cairncross Review of British journalism recommends a new regulator, and the DCMS committee called for a code of conduct which social media companies must follow and a new regulator.

We really need regulation to fight online problems and online misinformation or fake news. But do we also need to think about an opportunity for bigger changes?

There is a risk that we are always a little bit behind technology which moves so fast. This is a game we have little chance of winning. There are digital technologies everywhere and an ‘internet’ regulator could quickly become a regulator of everything.

But we shouldn’t call for a new regulator for each new online problem. To match the power of today’s big digital companies, we must give power to all regulators – those that deal with media, elections, medicine, law, and finance. We need changes to deal with problems before they come and not after they have come.

But regulators alone can’t do it. The public must have the tools they need for a complex digital world.

When Mark Zuckerberg refused to answer questions from the DCMS Committee, it showed the unfair difference of power between global tech companies and states. And these changes need all nations to work together. The OECD’s idea for an international digital tax is a good example of this.

With digital technology companies everywhere in our economy and our daily life, Tim Berners-Lee’s wonderful democratic idea for the internet is no longer possible. But if we give regulators and the public power to make the big tech companies answer for their actions, technologies will work for, not against, democratic values.



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)