It's time for a transatlantic digital agenda

Commentary

The pandemic-driven boost of digital innovation holds opportunities, but it needs a sound political framework. From countering disinformation to preventing algorithmic discrimination, the U.S. and the EU need to work together to set the rules for our digital economies and societies.

Mark Zuckerberg in the European Parliament

The coronavirus crisis has changed the way we see digitalization. The focus is suddenly on failings in digital administration and delays in building broadband networks, as both pose enormous challenges to societies on the two sides of the Atlantic. More than ever, our daily interactions in the educational system, at the workplace, and also with government administrations are being facilitated by commercial online services – from Zoom video conferences, to WhatsApp groups amongst colleagues, to Amazon’s cloud server.

This necessity-driven digital boost certainly holds opportunities, but it needs a sound political framework. Europe and the United States need a coordinated transatlantic digital policy, now more than ever, as power and potential for abuse continue to accumulate in the hands of a few technology companies. International cooperation is the only way to regulate global platforms. We need a transatlantic digital agenda that centers around the public’s fundamental rights in communications.

We can’t let platforms do the job of governments

Platforms are taking on more and more quasi-governmental tasks – be it deciding which contents are legal or illegal, moderating political debates during election campaigns, or even implementing measures to combat pandemics. The Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted how personalized advertising can be used to manipulate elections in the United States and in Europe. In the 2020 US elections, the danger of asymmetric demobilization looms once again as online disinformation is targeted with the goal of keeping African American voters away from the ballot box. We lack a transatlantic debate on this business model of personalized advertising and its increasing impact on our public discourse – not based on users’ preferences, but in the interests of advertisers.

The European Union has taken a first step by passing the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), which confines the business model of personalized advertising within the boundaries of fundamental rights by limiting how data is used. The United States does not have anything comparable. In other areas, Europe can learn from American approaches – if not at the federal, then at the local level. In several US municipalities, for example, facial recognition is prohibited in public spaces to protect the population from extensive surveillance and the threat of discrimination of underrepresented groups by apps that use machine learning and produce biased results.

Regulating the internet also means unlocking its potential

Compared to the United States, the European debate on how so-called Artificial Intelligence threatens to reproduce and reinforce discriminatory patterns is still in its infancy. Regrettably, the European  Commission has refused to include a general moratorium on facial recognition in public places in its plans for AI regulation, at least until research is more clear about the dangers it poses to fundamental rights. But it’s notable that, shortly before the AI strategy was adopted in Brussels, a number of IT executives like Mark Zuckerberg happened to be in town.

Still, internet policy must be more than risk containment and management. It also must unlock digital potential. A transatlantic digital agenda must include a fundamental right to broadband internet. In the spring, efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus meant that large parts of our education sector and workforce suddenly had to shift online. Neither the United States nor Europe were sufficiently prepared for this huge challenge, but one thing became clear during the crisis: Access to the internet has long become a basic public-service need. Those who don’t have a broadband connection during a lockdown are cut off from large parts of public life.

By the end of 2020, basic broadband internet service – fast enough for video conferencing – will be mandatory in the European Union. It is more than doubtful whether all member states can meet this target in practice. In order to mitigate the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, we need extensive government investment programs in Europe and especially in the United States, where unemployment has been skyrocketing. A substantial part of such stimulus funds should go towards developing our digital infrastructures in order to be better prepared for the next crisis. Closing the digital divide, i.e. the inequities in internet access between urban and rural areas, the poor and the rich, structurally strong and weak regions, is more than ever a question of social justice.

 

A German version of this article was published in Böll.Thema 3/2020.