Political consequences of the Google debate
The Internet is a young technology. People who are now in their mid-forties or older did not write e-mails when they were teenagers, nor did they use Facebook to chat with friends. In the meantime, young people in their twenties have been born into the digital age. In the past two decades, the world has undergone not only far-reaching political changes, but major economic changes as well.
Powerful global enterprises have emerged in record time: Amazon was founded in 1996, Facebook in 2004, YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006. Nowadays, if we are involved in a discussion and don’t have the exact data readily available, we no longer have to run to the library and comb through reference works, we simply type in a keyword on our Smartphone and find what we want to know in Wikipedia, the free Internet encyclopaedia founded in 2001 and compiled on a collaborative basis, now containing 30 million articles in 280 languages. The trailblazer of this development was Google, which placed its search engine online on the day of the German general elections in 1998.
Demystifying the Internet
The power of the digital revolution lies in the fact that no-one is actually “forced” to join in. On the contrary, everybody “wants” to become part of it and joins of their own free will. Meanwhile, business processes without the use of this technology are unimaginable. In private circles, it has become the epitome of modernity and an essential part of modern everyday life. The digital world is now the world where most people live. Only hermits could follow the advice given by Hans Magnus Enzensberger in this very newspaper, namely to throw away mobile phones and slip, more or less voluntarily, into a state of blissful ignorance. No, the vast majority of people want to live in a place where the future has already started.
So we are not dealing with an external enemy threatening to colonise the world we live in. It is the emotions and identities of modern mankind that are at issue here. The revolution triggered by the personal computer, ancestor of all Smartphones, has resulted in mankind feeling that it has been technologically enriched rather than dispossessed. Consequently, we are not talking about a new Luddite movement here.
All the same, Evgeny Morozov is right in his merciless contribution “Digital Thinking? Wishful Thinking!”: We have to unshroud the mysteries of “the Internet”. For however seductively sleek, colourful and simple the user interface of digital change may seem, the programmes, reactions and dependencies behind the shining facade of the world wide web are unfathomable and impervious to the average user. The demand to introduce programming languages as a compulsory part of the school curricula is far from being absurd. In this digital age, a knowledge of programming languages undoubtedly determines our personal autonomy more than a knowledge of ancient languages.
The private lives of our miniature machines
We could start by demystifying the jargon surrounding the services offered on the world wide web. A “cloud”, for instance, is not something high up in the advertising sky, but as Evgeny Morozov rightly explains, a bunker in Utah. In reality, we entrust our personal data to monstrous, energy-guzzling data processing factories. “Smart” is another one of these magic words. Not only minicomputers, telephones and watches, but also fire alarms and car electronics, claiming to be “intelligent” or “smart”, ensure that we leave electronic traces of our movements and actions, our preferences and our habits which can be read, stored, linked and commercialised by others.
For a long time now it has been obvious that the many smartphones, now considered to be an essential attribute of everyday life, are permanently “observing” our movements, documenting our behaviour (and not only our communication behaviour), evaluating these and sending them to gigantic computer centres. The seemingly harmless miniature machines in the inside pocket of our jackets and coats have developed a life of their own. The term “search machine”, as used to describe Google, is a misconception, because it is not an instrument that we operate passively, like a tool in the “real”, analogue world. It’s an instrument that becomes active all of its own accord, and in a way which is imperceptible for us.
Every time we “search” for something on Google, Google searches us and captures information about ourselves which can not only be sold for targeted personalised advertising, but is, essentially, also available to our bank, our health insurance company, our car or life insurance company, or – if the need arises – to the secret service. There’s no such thing as a free lunch – we pay for these services with our personal data – and, unless we are careful, at the end of the day with our personal and social freedom as well.
Taming data capitalism
The same principle applies to “smart driving”, “smart home”, “smart” clothing, indeed to this entire infiltration of our everyday lives. Consumer products have lost their innocence. Every time we touch one of these products or devices we activate a digital echo, create feedback to the data storage facilities that are beyond our control and are gradually making us totally readable. “I read and am read. I buy and become a product,” Frank Schirrmacher writes in his call on social democratic circles not to ignore this radical social revolution.
It is the core task of liberalism and social democracy to tame and restrain data capitalism gone wild, without robbing it of its innovative power and its individual and social advantages, and to retain the dignity and freedom of humanity while creating equal opportunities for all to share and participate in social processes.
The current series on the digitisation of society and the economy which the F.A.Z. launched last summer as a reaction to the Edward Snowden affair has made a tremendous contribution to throwing light on what can be expected in this uncharted territory, technically, economically, in the consumer society and our everyday lives, but above all in our demand for freedom and democracy, for it is precisely this demand which a new super power of data corporations and secret services is challenging – especially if they cooperate with each other.
The contributions made in this series are a milestone in the political feature genre and have for the first time in many years re-established a contemporary political cohort which discusses the most existential of all political questions: How do we wish to coexist in the future? The debate revolves, so to speak, around the most important “Observations” on “the Spiritual Situation of the Age” – as expressed by the title of the famous collection of social criticism essays published by Jürgen Habermas at the end of the 1970’s.
Who should protect the law?
Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, has quite rightly called on politicians to take up the fight: Either we defend our freedom and change our policies, or we become digitally hypnotised subjects of a digital rulership. The astonishing effect of this appeal can be seen in contributions to this newspaper by Juli Zeh, Evgeny Morozov, Shoshana Zuboff, by Internet avantgardists such as Sascha Lobo and Jaron Lanier. Even the prominent publisher, Mathias Döpfner, has admitted with unprecedented frankness that he is afraid of Google.
So what do we do now? Citizens’ increasing impatience is becoming apparent in questions to European politicians: What are you, the people we have elected, doing to protect the freedom of Europe’s citizens and assert the fundamental rights of the analogue world in this digital age? If you don’t succeed, who will? Who decides what rules we are to abide by? Who should protect the law? This important decision needs to be anchored in the European political agenda, and that is exactly what Martin Schulz has done. It must be included in political discussions about Europe’s future and its tasks, for this problem can no longer be solved purely on a national basis. There are a lot of reasons for voting in the European Parliamentary elections on 25th May, but this is undoubtedly one of the most important.
Only the European Union has the power required to change the political course and rewrite the rules. The European Parliament and the Commission can take a lead in democracy’s battle to assert its rights. Europe can use the sheer size of its market to defy what Mathias Döpfner calls brutal “information capitalism” and whose structure is dominated by a handful of American Internet corporations which, in the form of global trusts, might soon control not only the economic activities of the 21st century.
European politics faced with a challenge
Europe symbolises just the opposite of the totalitarian idea of turning every detail of human behaviour, human emotion and human thought into an object of capitalistic marketing strategies. The dignity of a human being includes, above all, his or her right of self-determination, also and especially in respect of personal data. Europe’s idea of a market economy is not “cut-throat competition” in which the unlimited market power of one dominant party is able to prescribe the terms and conditions for everyone else wishing to participate in the markets.
This poses a challenge to European politics and the task at hand is clearly defined: Any company wishing to enter the European market and make money here has to abide by our “house rules” and submit to our democratically legitimised regulations. Led by a clear political will, the European Commission can establish a new order for the digital data economy, creating data security and data autonomy for the whole of Europe and the people living here and, in this way, restore equality and fairness of competition.
Not only Germany, but all other partners wishing to resist the dictates of Internet monopolists have a strong interest in a Europe that acts collectively. This is the only way to avoid the individual member states being pitched against each other – with ever new loopholes, undercutting of taxation and data security rules. European solidarity is a major power factor in this respect.
Political tasks to be tackled in Europe
The surprise ruling of the European Court of Justice on the Google issue has suddenly shown us how strong this power can be. For the first time ever, the Internet giant is obliged to delete sensitive data. But much more so – the court has re-established the sovereignty of law by ruling that Google can no longer simply bypass European standards by claiming that it stores and processes its data outside of the EU. This judgment has given the citizens of Europe the opportunity to defend themselves against seemingly intangible exploitation of their personal information. This should encourage us all and spur politicians into action.
It is now our task, as politicians, to translate this fruitful social debate into hands-on political action. We are faced with four basic tasks in our battle for freedom in the digital age.
Recovering the power of control
Firstly: We must ensure that Europe’s citizens secure their power to control how digital technology is used and to regain this power where it has already been lost. The precept of democracy that everyone must be free to decide his own fate, the fundamental standard of any liberal constitution, must also apply in the digital age, where everyone should be able to decide for himself how much personal information he wishes to put into circulation. Wherever this freedom needs to be restricted, for example to uphold registration obligations or aid criminal prosecution, this must only be possible by virtue of law and in keeping with the constitution.
We are resolute in our principle: individual ownership and personal power of disposal of one’s own data. This applies especially to the private sector and to commercial exploitation of our identity, and must also apply to the “digital personnel file”, i. e. to everything the employer wants to know about his employees. Prerequisite for and a first step towards recovering digital autonomy is transparency – a feature that has been largely lost nowadays – on who collects, stores and resells what data of what citizens according to what pattern and for what purpose. Among other things, we also need publicly regulated certification, a “data protection traffic light” for apps, software and social media. The rule must be: no capturing or processing of data and no profiling unless the owner has given his specific authorisation.
It should also be possible to revoke the disclosure of personal data. The ECJ has made it quite clear: the reversability of decisions is an essential guarantee for freedom. “Erasure” must become a fundamental right of the digital age. To do this, statutory regulations obliging commercial data exploiters to not only “hide” private information, but to completely erase it from all storage media are needed.
The European General Data Protection Regulation is a keen sword in this battle: consent of the person concerned, portability of data, the right to erasure are all included in the draft regulation. The European Parliament has approved the regulation, the ball is now in the Council’s court. In order to allow Germany to retain its higher standards in certain areas, such as in data protection for employees and in the public sector, each member state must be given the right to retain its own, higher standards. However, this issue should not become an excuse for more delay and should not be allowed to provide a gateway for lobbyists wishing to keep bothersome requirements at arm’s length.
In favour of a new economic policy
Secondly: Economic policies are currently facing the vital challenge of “updating” the social market system to meet the requirements of the digital age. Fundamental elements of this system are at stake: the doctrines of freedom of contract and free competition threaten to become an illusion where the disparity between the economic objects takes on absurd dimensions, when monopolists with new kind of feudal arrogance try to evade the rule of law and refuse to provide important information. The classical concept of ownership starts to crumble when free offers destroy markets firmly based on the payment of goods or when unlawful copying and unauthorised access to content expropriate the copyright holder. Regulatory processes are therefore needed when unregulated markets and self-indulgent market actors threaten to cause considerable damage yet a second time in the wake of the financial market crisis.
These regulations are not a hindrance, they might even prove to be a breakthrough for new economic creativity. In the era of “information capitalism”, in which data become the new golden standard, data security will become a locational factor. I am certain that we in Germany and Europe have the scientific inventiveness and the political and economic innovative strength to make self-determination, security and decent jobs our trademarks in the age of the digital economy. Here we must give special support to SMEs, assisting them with their digitisation processes. We are striving for IT security legislation that obliges both companies and the state alike to implement enhanced protective measures. This could trigger off new investments and expand the market for Internet security.
Finally: The Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Federal Cartel Office are examining whether a company such as Google is not abusing its dominant market position by systematically driving out its competitors and dominating an “essential facility”. We must give serious thought to the possibility of “unbundling” the Internet market, in a similar way to the electricity and gas networks. But this should be the ultima ratio. And so, to start with, we are thinking about regulating Internet platforms by means of regulatory tools similar to anti-trust legislation. The crucial issue here is how to enforce non-discrimination of alternative providers who find innovative ways of challenging the “top dogs”.
Prevention of taxation dumping
Thirdly: We need to put up a stop sign for taxation dumping. Minimum taxation throughout Europe is an issue for competition watchdogs in the digital age. It is clearly unacceptable when Internet traders radically avoid taxation by deliberately transferring their revenue to tax havens and countries offering rock-bottom tax rates, while ordinary local retailers who keep to the rules go to the dogs. Apple has exploited methods such as these to reduce its tax paid on earnings abroad to one percent, Google to three percent and Amazon to five percent. Europe must tackle such practices more firmly and realise that this is an act of solidarity. In the digital economy, we have to ensure that the site where added value is generated again corresponds to the site of taxation.
The transfer of profits must be restricted: the practice of globally operating companies paying licences to letterbox companies in tax havens so that they can concentrate their earnings in countries where no or very little tax has to be paid must be curbed. This practice has been deliberately applied for quite some time: patents are held by a bogus company and companies located elsewhere pay fees for these patents until their profits have been reduced to nil. We must strive to enforce that licence payments are only acknowledged as tax-reducing operating expenses if there is an appropriate level of taxation in the target country.
Alternative forms for organising work
Fourthly: We have to formulate a new set of rules for work if we are to prevent “click workers” from becoming day labourers void of all rights in the digital world. We see how employees are exposed to unprecedented surveillance stress when their PC monitor, a camera or even sensors carried on their bodies constantly monitor and report their productivity. We see how work is losing its fixed base, how the boundary between work and leisure is becoming blurred, how long-lasting contractual relationships to a single employer are becoming a thing of the past and how permanent jobs are being replaced by “projects” advertised or even auctioned on the web so that the fastest and cheapest tenderer gets the contract, i. e. all do the work but only the winner gets paid. The technical possibilities of destroying decent work can be extended indefinitely. The critical question is whether we want to allow this to happen and whether we want to live in this kind of world. We need to encourage further debate on this issue hand in hand with the trade unions.
Looking back on Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit, we can draw new confidence that the digital age which started in humble circumstances but with a grand idea will remain open for innovative ideas that can positively change people’s work and lives. To achieve this aim, we need entrepreneurs with the same qualities as could once be found in utopia-driven California, namely a keen sense of the human desire to be liberated from undignified dependence. It is up to European politics to re-formulate the democratically legitimised regulatory and market conditions of the digital age and to establish relevant regulations, even if this involves a struggle, with the force of a crystal-clear analysis along with the interventionary power of a vast economic region.
The future of democracy is at stake
The innocent, “fun” phase of the Internet is over. We see things more clearly now. The perils of the digital revolution loom, on the one hand, in authoritarian or even totalitarian tendencies which are inherent to the opportunities offered by this technology and, on the other hand, in the threat posed by new monopoly powers undermining laws and regulations. It is the future of democracy in the digital age, and nothing less, that is at stake here, and with it, the freedom, emancipation, participation and self-determination of 500 million people in Europe. Once again it is the job of committed democrats to reconcile technical and economic progress with political and social progress. If the source of the danger of digital totalitarianism lies in the loss of human autonomy, then our political answer must start right there. The fight for democracy in the digital age is a fight for human self-determination.
Sigmar Gabriel is Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy and is Chairman of the German Social Democratic Party, SPD.