Liberal Answers to Digitalization
Digital technologies are shaping every sphere of our lives. They influence the way we communicate and learn. They also have an essential impact on how we work, consume and gather information. Even the way we love and think is effected by digital technologies. They redefine the relationship between man and machine and open up unforeseen possibilities for better or worse. The corona pandemic has further accelerated these developments.
Digitalization represents one of the major challenges of our time. Hence, it is crucial to obtain a profound understanding of the digital transformation in order to be able to design and steer it.
In the context of our project “Rethinking Liberalism”, the Center for Liberal Modernity is discussing the issue:
How can liberalism be renewed?
Over the last years, there has been much critique on liberalism – especially under the label of “neoliberalism” — and its pitfalls, however not so much work on its contemporary renewal. This is what this project aims at: Renewing liberalism by discussing liberal answers to the great challenges of our time. There are indeed many: climate change, global migration, social inequality, the rise of authoritarian powers as well as digitalization. They all demand new ideas, perspectives and answers. These great challenges often feed authoritarian thinking and populist movements, which makes the need for liberal answers even more urgent. Our project “Rethinking Liberalism” connects liberal thinkers from different countries, various political families and academic backgrounds. It aims at creating a diverse network of liberal thinkers and political actors.
The internet between utopia and dystopia
In its early stages, the internet often was hailed as an utopia of freedom and direct democracy. Indeed, it played a crucial role in democratic uprisings like the Arab spring, and still offers an unprecedented opportunity of information, exchange and networking. In contrast to these visionary hopes, in recent years the dystopian potential of authoritarian control and manipulation, of an economy in which human individuals become redundant and a society driven by anonymous algorithms pushed into the foreground.
In our workshop, we discussed the following aspects of digitalization:
- the role of digital platforms
- the role of digital technologies in the new systemic conflict with authoritarian regimes
- the ethics of algorithms.
Platforms are playing a defining role in the economy and our everyday life
Platforms play an increasing role in our lives. We communicate via WhatsApp or Telegram, stay in touch via Facebook and get information on twitter. Our access to digital information is widely structured by the google search algorithm and its hidden biases. Besides those well-known examples, there is an increasing number of platforms in the areas of communication, mobility, shopping, health and education. Those platforms can be seen as critical infrastructures, as Christoph Busch, professor at university of Osnabrueck, argues:
Platforms such as Amazon, Google and Facebook, but also digital start-ups that are later bought up by the large digital conglomerates, are extending their reach into areas of life where social participation, democracy and the provision of essential services to citizens are at stake.
Some digital infrastructures provide services of basic interest and therefore need specific regulation. They can be seen as a kind of hybrid institutions: private businesses offering essential public services. This is not a totally new phenomenon, if you think of the role of private energy‑, water- and health care – companies. Thus, the discussion falls short it don’t take into account the basic function provided by some of these platforms in terms of information, communication and structuring the political public.
Therefore, the regulation of platforms is not only a matter of anti-trust-policy, but also a matter of infrastructure politics. Busch states:
It is probably no exaggeration to say that large digital platforms have a certain systemic relevance for the functioning of our digital society.
He opts for a new law on digital infrastructures. This however does not indicate that we need state-owned platforms for all kind of purposes. The state should not presume to act as a better entrepreneur.
But infrastructure regulation, argues Busch, is an essential responsibility of the state (and – even better – for the European Union). Important guidelines for such new digital infrastructure — laws preserve:
- fair access to digital services for everybody
- regulations on the use of data
- restrictions on personalized prices, and
- the obligation to safeguard fundamental basic rights
In the discussion, several questions were posed:
Are platforms free markets or algorithmisized command and control structures?
Can the national state enforce effective regulation?
Whom do we trust (more): the state or privately owned companies?
Has the risk scheme changed: from states to private companies?
The participants agreed that the regulation of platforms is essentially for the future functioning of our democracies as they provide basic public services and act as gate keepers to the sphere of digital information, communication and commerce.
Digital systemic competition with China
Is there such a thing as a digital systemic competition? If yes, at full range only with China, responded Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute. China marks the only authoritarian country which is able to compete on the full scale of digital technologies, comparable only with the US. China combines a bunch of advanced tech companies with global outreach, a huge amount of data that can be used by government and commercial companies, and lax regulation combined with no data protection rights for users. Also in this respect, China widely surpasses Russia which has been able to create some influential digital platforms and media outlets with wide distribution in the Russian-speaking world.
Liberal democracies have to defend themselves, Benner insisted. For him, digital decoupling is the right path to do so. This propoal leads to highly disputed issues: Should western tech companies like Google, Facebook, Apple or Twitter stay in the Chinese market and give security authorities access to the data of their customers? Should they follow the demands of the Chinese government and ban certain content, e.g. on Taiwan or Hongkong? Or should they restrain from authoritarian countries, stick to basic freedoms, letting the markets of those regimes up for grabs for non-western companies? Should we conversely ban Chinese IT-companies like Huawei from Western markets?
While Western big tech companies answer differently to these questions, Benner made clear that he opts for a clear cut decoupling, triggering a controversial discussion among the workshop participants. Would decoupling finally increase the risk of war? Which information- and communication channels are left for critical minds in China? How can the spirit of liberal democracy survive and flourish in those countries if we erect a digital wall between “them” and “us”?
Algorithms and artificial intelligence
“F*ck the algorithm!” This slogan was used by schoolkids in the UK after their grades recently were extrapolated and determined by computer programs – according to the average grades in their neighborhood, not their actual performance. This kind of “predictive decision making” is also used by the police as well as for application processes.
This example demonstrates, that algorithms already have a huge impact on our life. They influence our professional opportunities, consumer choices and even our worldview. They may be more coherent and efficient in decision making processes, but biases inherent in programs have a large effect on people – eventually even larger than individual decisions. The problem with those socio-technological systems: They deeply affect peoples lives, but for most users they look like a “black box”: highly complex and intransparent at the same time.
Carla Hustedt, director of the new “Centre for Digital Society“of the Mercator Foundation, made clear that there is no need for new basic rights with regard to digital products, but already existing rights need to be enforced. Hustedt also made clear that moral questions should be publicly debated and politically decided. We should not leave them to tech companies. AI ethics (“ethixs of digitalization”) can even become a competitive advantage, if implemented rightly. In her opinion, knowledge of how algorithms work must be disseminated more widely, especially among elites involved in decision making processes. Expert communities and oversight bodies that understand the highly complex issues should become more involved in political decision making.
Liberal answers to digitalization – Provisional conclusions
The workshop provided a lot of insight and food for thought on complex issues. In historic terms, we are still in the early stages of exploring the new digital world arising, and in the process of defining ethical standards and democratic rules to make it work for the benefit of the public good. We are facing a growing tension between the accelerated speed of technological innovation – and here we are talking about fundamentally new technologies – and the ponderous pace of public understanding and political decision making, creating a legal-political framework for the digital age.
Similar to climate change, digitization is a test of the ability of liberal democracies to control the dynamics unleashed by technology-driven modern societies. How to come to terms with a technosphere that can be seen as a kind of autonomous, self-referential and self-reproducing system? This question is exceptionally urgent with the development of self-learning technical systems that are becoming ever more complex and sophisticated. Ultimately, all of the discussed aspects rise the question who is in the driver’s seat of ground breaking technologies: the digital elite, autonomous AI-systems, or will society be able to keep a tradition of informed public discourse and democratic decision making? This question has to be answered in the upcoming years.
 Busch, Christoph: Regulation of Digital Platforms as Infrastructures for Services of General Interest. Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, 2021, p. 20
 Busch 2021: p. 15
Ralf Fücks & Rainald Manthe
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