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The Do’s and Don’ts of Tech Regulation

Linked by Paul Ciano on May 27, 2019

Aral Balkan:

Yesterday, I was interviewed on Al Jazeera news about the Macron-Zuckerberg meeting in which they apparently decided on a framework of “co-regulation.”

Co-regulation is basically saying “hey, Big Corp, come, sit at the table and let’s decide together how to regulate you”. Alongside lobbying, revolving doors, and public-private partnerships, it is part and parcel of institutional corruption.

It is not the job of democratically-elected governments to elevate unelected corporate bodies to their own level to help write the rules of their own regulation. It is the job of such governments, in line with their democratic mandate, to regulate corporations in the public interest to reduce their harms.

Furthermore, we exist within a climate where our democratic governments are so clueless, corrupt, or powerless (or all of the above) that instead of protecting the interests of their citizens, they are sending ambassadors to Silicon Valley corporations.

From now on, I’m going to call this type of regulation Piece of the Pie Regulation because it essentially boils down to either governments or the greater business community wanting a piece of the pie while ignoring the human rights concerns at the heart of surveillance capitalism and the business model of people farming.

The first form of Piece of the Pie Regulation is where governments regulate tech companies because they want access to their data, algorithms, and platforms for their own surveillance, policing, and censorship desires.

We can see this aspect feature in yesterday’s Macron-Zuckerberg deal that sees the government of France gain unspecified insider access to Facebook’s data and platform.

While ideally Big Tech would love to have zero government interference in its affairs (this is a power struggle, after all), it is not fundamentally opposed to this sort of regulation.

The last thing we want are regulations that make corporations like Facebook better censors, better filters of our reality, and the authority on what is and isn’t acceptable and who is and isn’t a terrorist. And the only thing worse than a corporation with that sort of power is a government with access to it when it has a police force and and army attached.

In monetary terms, antitrust regulation has netted surveillance capitalists the largest losses. Especially in Europe, regulators like Margrethe Vestager have levied fines ranging from millions to billions of euros on companies like Google and Facebook.

This is good. Yes, fine them. Yes, tax the shit out of them. Yes, break them up.

But we must not limit our regulatory frame to antitrust and competition law. Because there is also a darker desire by regulators that approach the issue solely from this angle: they want all businesses ­– especially new startups – to have a piece of the tasty data pie held by companies like Google and Facebook.

Instead of calling for companies like Facebook to be broken up – like Elizabeth Warren in the US is doing – Vestager, for example, advocates that “we should get access to data from tech companies to push back and get into the market.” Which market? The surveillance capitalism market, where it is taken for granted that companies created centralised services that collect and monetise your data. No, this market is the problem.

We need regulation that limits the ability of surveillance capitalists to gather data, profile us, and grow. We must tax the shit out of them, break them up, and limit the data they can collect. What we must not do is open up their ill-begotten data to other companies and governments or implement wide-scale government surveillance and censorship alongside the existing corporate one.

We must go beyond Piece of the Pie Regulation and beyond the “terrorists and pedophiles” (fear/security) and “business, business, business” frames to a human rights frame for regulation.

As long as we judge success based on what’s good for a “Digital Single Market”, we face an impossible challenge in getting policymakers to consider human rights, human welfare, and the health of our democracies as success criteria. Just as with the climate crisis, whether or not we can effectively regulate Big Tech depends on whether or not we can move beyond judging success based solely on economic indicators.

Surveillance capitalism cannot be reformed. No amount of regulation will magically transform a factory farm for human beings – which is what Facebook, Google, etc., are – into an animal sanctuary. What effective regulation can do is limit their harms and give ethical alternatives a chance to get off the ground.

Paul Ciano

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