What if...we regulated digital technology for the public good?

Jacob Ohrvik-Stott from Doteveryone on how to get the job done.

The world’s digital giants are in rude financial health. In August 2018 Apple became the first ever trillion-dollar company; since then Amazon and Microsoft have taken turns holding the title of the world’s most valuable publicly traded company.

But this remarkable economic growth is matched by an equally remarkable track record of questionable practices. Facebook is under fire for its role in the Cambridge Analytica data scandal last year, which exposed millions of users’ personal data. More recently it was shown to be monitoring smartphone app usage of people who were not even Facebook users. Google, criticized for promoting self-harm videos to teenagers via YouTube (which it owns), also forgot to tell people it had installed a microphone into their Nest Security System. Other lowlights include Uber being fined a combined $150 million for a mass data breach and sexual harassment of staff, and WhatsApp’s failure to tackle misinformation leading to mob killings in India and Myanmar. Another day, another dollar – earned from another depressing breach of trust.

Little wonder then that the UK’s Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee recently labelled Facebook ‘digital gangsters’. It isn’t alone in taking a dim view of digital multinationals’ behaviour. Germany’s competition regulators have Facebook in their crosshairs over the acquisition of customer data from WhatsApp, Instagram and third-party websites, while cities across the globe are cracking down on AirBnB to protect local communities. Even China’s normally pro-tech Politburo is said to be mulling over regulatory action against online retail behemoth Alibaba.

Against this backdrop, calls for an independent internet regulator are growing. In the UK, the Cairncross Review of British journalism recommends a new statutory body, while the DCMS committee has called for social media companies to be subject to a mandatory code of conduct enforced by a new regulator.

Regulatory action to fight online harms, data-driven surveillance capitalism and online misinformation (aka ‘fake news’) is long overdue. But in our collective eagerness to tackle these issues, are we missing an opportunity for much-needed deeper reform?

A short-sighted focus on the issues of the day means we risk playing perpetual catch-up with fast-moving tech; a game of whack-a-mole regulation which civil society and the public have little chance of winning. With digital technologies found in all corners of society, an ‘internet’ regulator could quickly snowball into a regulator of everything.

But we should also resist the temptation to call for a new regulator for each online harm that emerges. To match the scale of the unprecedented economic, political and behavioural power wielded by today’s digital giants, we must empower all regulators – whether they deal with media, elections, medicine, law or finance – to respond to the challenge and opportunities tech poses to their sectors, giving them the remit, powers and digital skills they need to address them. These changes should be founded on a radical new ethos for regulation, shifting from current reactive and ad hoc interventions towards an agile and proactive approach.

But regulators alone can’t do it. They must be accompanied by equally ambitious reforms, giving the public the tools they need to navigate a complex digital world. Grassroots action and public awareness campaigns, strengthened systems of redress to protect digital rights and extensive engagement to sketch out a common vision for tech’s role in society are all vital parts of this.

Mark Zuckerberg’s flippant refusal to be questioned by the DCMS Committee reflects the power imbalance between global tech companies and states, and all these changes, however well-intentioned, will have little impact without international collaboration. The OECD’s proposal for a unified international digital tax is a good example of possible cross-border action.

With digital technology companies hardwired into every aspect of our economy and daily life, Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision for the internet as a decentralized utopia is out of our collective reach. But by empowering regulators and the public to make the tech giants account­able for their actions, technologies will work for, not against, democratic values.