Liberal Answers to Digitalization

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Work­shop Report

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.

Rethink­ing Liberalism

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.

[1] Busch, Christoph: Reg­u­la­tion of Digital Plat­forms as Infra­struc­tures for Ser­vices of General Inter­est. Friedrich-Ebert-Foun­da­tion, 2021, p. 20

[2] Busch 2021: p. 15


Ralf Fücks & Rainald Manthe 

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