The Fluid Society

Digital System Risk

Ethics in the digital age. The digital age that we are entering requires a different approach to ethics than we were used to in the classical world. Now that literally anyone can scold anyone, falsely accuse anyone, spread fake news, produce deep fakes, and no one can do anything about it, a new world is looming. The call is right to start controlling this chaotic and increasingly dangerous form of communication in one way or another. Systematic fake news and lies influence society in an irresponsible way. This excess of the digital society becomes a social risk and requires control from a social framework.

Tech giants are reluctant. The tech giants have so far taken a very restrained attitude in stopping message traffic. In other words: through their technologies they have contributed to the many expression possibilities on social media to distribute unobstructed messages regardless of the content. The tech giants have encouraged that people, via likes and retweets, spread messages to the maximum, true or false. Help is also being given to technologies to enable “deep fake”, where by video manipulation of people false messages are generated. Little to nothing is done by tech giants to keep out untrue or manipulated messages away. And with data privacy it is sad: time after time, data lays on the street or unsolicited use is made of personal information.

Are tech giants guilty? It is evident that next to all the good that the social media entail for the billions of satisfied users, there also will be excesses. We live in a digital world that must be controlled differently than the classical world. And that is both a task for governments and for the tech giants themselves. The question is therefore whether the tech giants alone should be blamed for all the negative aspects of social media. The tech giants take the position that they are merely providers of services and cannot check everything on content. In short: the attitude that Telecom companies also take, since they are not responsible for telephone conversations between criminals or other misuse of the telephone. The difference is of course that social media cannot be compared with telecom services in terms of impact. But then again: how should the tech giants check the hundreds of millions of messages for content and if that is possible: on what should they check? There are no generally accepted rules or criteria for digital message traffic.

NRC article. The NRC states in an opinion article of 3 August (BigTech: lack of ethical awareness has become systemic risk) that government intervention is necessary. All kinds of algorithms are flung into the world without realizing the consequences. The tech giants are accused of doing everything just to generate more sales. The comparison is made with the amoral behavior of the banks, which also lost the compass altogether, due to the great complexity of the systems. The tech giants would imagine themselves untouchable, not open to criticism and hide behind, again, the complexity of being able to do something structural about it.

Which government must intervene? First of all, the question is of course, when we talk about government intervention, which government are we talking about? Do national governments each have to take their own (different) measures ? The NRC reports on numerous national actions from all sorts of countries to curb the power of the tech giants. Is it appropriate if around 180 countries all take different measures? It is all too easy to forget that we live in a digital world, where national policies are of little importance to tackle global issues of this magnitude.

National approach is meaningless and counterproductive. Government intervention is certainly needed to reach an agreement with the major tech companies on ethical behaviour, what is and is not allowed with personal data, how to deal with fake news or “deep fakes” or how tax should be paid. But that will have to be done jointly and globally. A country-by-country approach is meaningless and even counterproductive. France’s approach to take fiscal measures for operating tech giants in France, for example, rightly encounters resistance from both the European Commission and the US. It is bitterly necessary for a generally recognized form of a “digital constitutional state” to be introduced, but on a global scale. Also because we cannot separate the approach of the tech companies from the approach to cyber crime. After all, cyber crime is also being served on a large scale by the facilities that tech companies offer and can only be tackled globally. You could think of a new mandate for the International Criminal Court. It is just a pity that the superpowers in particular, such as the US and China, will not support such approach.

Are tech companies utility companies? But apart from the question of “which government” the tech companies must tackle, there is another problem. That is the issue for which we can hold the tech companies responsible. What kind of companies are they? Should we ultimately see the tech companies as a new form of utility companies: digitilities? They look like more or less like that indeed. After all, who can still miss the services of the tech companies on both a personal and business level? And are they utilities on a global scale? Apparently yes. Maybe we should treat them like banks. Heavily regulated by the government with Central Banks as regulator, but listed on the stock exchange. Which government structure should supervise these new digital utility companies, who should set the rules that apply worldwide? That will not happen on a national scale in any case.

Ethics has got out of hand. The third issue that subsequently arises is that of ethics. The NRC rightly states that ethics has gotten quite out of hand with the tech companies. That is not completely incomprehensible with such a massive, fast and unclear introduction of new technologies, which billions of people and organizations around the world now use. Should they be blamed that they do not immediately see the consequences for society with every new technology? Who could have known that “deep fake” technology was developing so quickly, so cheaply that it now suddenly becomes a threat? Who could have known that data privacy would get so huge out of hand? Who could have foreseen that cyber crime would grow so exuberantly so quickly?

European Commission leads the way. Certainly the tech giants could do much more about all kinds of problems. But neither the determining how we should treat them socially, nor establishing the ethical rules of conduct about what socially can and cannot be done is ultimately a task for the tech companies. Despite warnings from many experts, governments had done nothing for years. And as far as there are rules, every country does it differently. The European Commission is one of the few larger governments in the world that is very active in this area. Among other things, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation in the Netherlands AVG) is way ahead of national governments and non-European countries. Instead of embracing this type of action, we heard many protests from various countries during the introduction. But there is also a sudden realization that the European Commission may be at the forefront of its thinking.

Government intervention: but how and by whom? If the NRC advocates government intervention, that is a good thing, but it must be told how and by whom. And also: how do we arrive at good regulations, internationally and how do we determine in which areas there can and should not be taken? The hodgepodge of national initiatives that have been taken so far deserves absolutely no beauty prize. It is important that initiatives such as those of the European Commission to curb tech companies are encouraged. The European Commission strongly advocates a joint approach. For the time being, the European Commission is bitterly alone. Neither the Member States nor major other powers such as the US or China are accountable for a more common, international approach.

Only an international approach works. Nevertheless, governments will have to understand that only a common approach can limit the digital system risk. The new fluid society functions completely differently, has a different revenue model, but is by definition “global” in all its effects. This also requires a different way of governing from the side of the authorities. But international collaboration: that is not what politicians like Trump, Johnson, Xi, Putin and other autocrats have in mind. It will therefore unfortunately take many years and a lot of misery before governments understand that national sovereignty thinking in a number of areas, such as for the digital society, is an obstacle and does not offer adequate solutions for digital system risks at a global scale.

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