Vittorio Bertola from Open-Xchange looks at freedom and corporate social responsibility in the context of digitalization, and how Europe needs to respond to the global transformation.
If you ask someone that cares about online privacy what 2018 will be remembered for, I am pretty sure that they will say: the GDPR, the law that gave us back some privacy and pushed the global “surveillance capitalism” business back a little.
While this is true, I think that something else has happened – something that will be more important in the long term. In 2018, it became clear that the whole discourse about privacy and data protection has become largely outmoded, since the technologies to track what we do, analyze who we are, predict what we want, and influence what we do next have become so powerful and ubiquitous that our very freedom as human beings is endangered.
Freedom is not just about being able to go somewhere or to say something. True freedom depends on opportunities; depends on access to a good job, to proper healthcare, to adequate welfare, to valuable education, to balanced information.
In all these fields, the Internet content industry – a business federation of innumerable actors sharing information among themselves to increase their revenues – is now able to profile us even without needing to know our name and our actual personal information.
That is, even without needing our GDPR-sanctioned consent. They can infer our profile from the cross-matching of non-personal information and, at most, of personal information that we provided to a completely different party in a completely different setting without really understanding the implications, consenting to over-broad permissions buried somewhere in a very long, unintelligible legal document.
Moreover, depending on such profiles, businesses and even public service providers grant or deny us the opportunities that create our freedom, through the use of “intelligent” algorithms that we, the humans, shape and understand in principle, but that we are not clued-in enough to really understand in action, so that they, in a non-null number of cases, give counter-intuitive or plainly wrong results.
I am not among those that believe that this will necessarily lead mankind to a complete disaster, but I do believe that we need to define what is a desirable outcome and what is not, and enforce that distinction in practice. Not all that is technically possible should be done, and not all that can be fully automated should be automated; and here is where ethics, and the wise judgment of the management of any of our companies, come into play.
For example, leaving life-changing decisions to purely automated calculations that are only statistically true, and that only reflect the status quo that was used to instruct them, is not a desirable outcome. Also, not being able to have any anonymity of any kind in online activities – or requiring you to go through dozens of well-hidden Web switches and forms every day to reduce your information footprint – is also not a desirable outcome.
We need a commitment to ensure that our technology only gives us socially desirable outcomes, even in the face of an incredible growth in complexity – and even in the face of the fact that not every player will share this vision and this commitment.
Unfortunately, we also live in a world where power relationships have changed a lot. Self-regulation, often prompted by public or governmental pressure, used to be a viable solution to enforce some rules while preventing slow and clueless bureaucratic management by the State; yet in the online rights space it has increasingly become an ineffective fig leaf, or even a cover-up for uncommendable practices. GDPR showed that the only way to change a reality that is collectively undesirable, but suits some business interests that actively defend it, is to couple hard rules and hefty fines; for example, a 20-year-long fruitless struggle with ICANN – the self-regulatory non-regulator – for some privacy in domain name registrations was suddenly won only because of the appearance of GDPR.
However, even the road to regulation is not an easy one. We live in a world in which the overall market value of GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) is higher than the GDP of any European country except Germany – but only because the American stock market crashed in the last months of 2018, otherwise even Germany would not be big enough to match them.
So, after watching fifty years of reports and movies on how the government of some weak and poor country in the developing world was being subjugated by the interests of a big multinational corporation, her politicians turned into puppets and her wealth plundered and brought to foreign banks, we now are undergoing the horrible revelation that “the weak and poor country” could soon be us.
We see our citizens and our companies buying services from corporations that pay almost no taxes to our national budget, while the price of a home in San Francisco has almost doubled in the last six years. We get algorithmically excluded from vital social interactions and communications for no clear reason, and we do not know how to get redress. We get higher prices for insurance and health services exactly when we are weak and need them more, exactly because we are weak and need them more. We see the danger of our information, our public opinion, and our elections being manipulated through online advertising and social networks. We are increasingly beset with fewer opportunities, more fear, more people afraid of the future and looking for scapegoats, as apparently no one is able to reverse this trend.
The ingenuity and effort that led American and Chinese companies to dominate the online sphere should be applauded, but we do not like the world that many of these companies are building for us; it is time to think about the future. Europe needs unity and common action to gain sufficient scale, and needs to be less afraid of designing and enforcing rules that protect everyone’s rights and opportunities, before they are taken away by the joint action of technical development, private business interests, and a lack of vision for the long-term future. Europe needs to have a clearer idea of the society that it wants to build through technological development, and act immediately, with determination, to make it possible.
And while we wait for enough politicians to demonstrate in action the “social responsibility” that they continuously ask for from the private sector, we, the industry, have to make sure to use all our energies not just for our very important 2019 annual revenues, but also to build the world in which we would like to live, and lead the rest of society in that direction.
Wouldn’t this be the best business objective that we can give ourselves for this year?
Vittorio Bertola is Research & Innovation Engineer at Open-Xchange, a global leader in services and free software for the Internet's email and DNS infrastructure, where he takes care of research and innovation activities, leading projects to invent and develop new products; he is also responsible for the company's policy activities. Previously, he worked as a freelance consultant, as a website developer and as partner, founder or CTO in several Internet start-ups in Italy. He is also a digital rights activist, dealing with Internet policy at the national and international level for the last twenty years.