Liberal Answers to Digitalization


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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