Politicians do not treat Facebook, Twitter and others as the players they have long been. The EU is now presenting a kind of basic law for technology groups.
What comes out of Brussels usually sounds like gray bread, or so the unwritten rules of politics would have it. That’s why fans and lobbyists in particular are likely to be watching this week as the European Commission presents its draft law for digital services. Which is a mistake. Because the project, which Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared to be one of her personal priorities immediately after taking office, has what it takes to set the course in the digital world for years to come. And in what it contains. And in what it lacks.
The Commission is working on a kind of basic law for the big tech companies from Facebook to Amazon; there is talk of uniform Europe-wide regulations for content moderation and data protection, a powerful EU supervisory authority instead of small-scale national offices or prior approval requirements to prevent market-dominating positions before they occur. And because the EU is big and important, and because there’s not much else coming from anyone else, Europe’s rules have long had a tendency to catch on around the world.
But there’s one thing the law probably won’t change: It continues to treat the digital giants primarily as companies whose economic power must be controlled. But they haven’t been that for a long time. Google, Twitter, YouTube and the like already intervene so deeply in questions of power, perception and personal freedom that they can help determine how societies are constituted and how people live their lives.
Twitter and Facebook in the US election campaign
With the next wave of technological innovation, a question that Democrats have been negotiating for a good 200 years will arise even more forcefully. Who gets to dictate to someone, when, where and how? “Private actors now have the ability to influence society in areas where capitalism used to play no role,” describes Thorsten Thiel, who researches democracy and digitization at Berlin’s Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society. “This also creates entirely new potentials for domination.”
The most recent foretaste of this occurred in the run-up to the American presidential election: Short messaging service Twitter blocked the account of the New York Post newspaper for weeks in October because it had published a half-silly article about corruption allegations against the son of now President-elect Joe Biden. Competitor Facebook only restricted the dissemination of the incriminated piece while it considered how best to handle it. At the same time, however, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided, after years of hesitation, to block content glorifying or trivializing the Holocaust in the future.
Clearly, there shouldn’t be much wrong with either of these things for halfway normal people. However, the question arises as to what Twitter has to do to analyze the truth of newspaper articles. Or rather, who exactly at Facebook decides what counts as trivialization of the Shoa and what doesn’t? Or, taking it a step further, what criteria do the platforms use to grant or withdraw publicity in a world in which it matters more than ever – and in which they have de facto control over it? (Z)
by Xavier Cuesta – European Correspondent