Tech Companies Have Become a Threat To Our Democracies - conversation with Jan Van Dijk

2021. február 9. 22:46
Today, it is evident that the tech companies have become a threat for our democracies and bring more polarization in society. They have to be regulated. The European proposals that are the precursors of coming national laws, such as in Hungary have the right approach – Jan A.G.M. VAN DIJK, Professor of University of Twente pointed out in a conversation with Lénárd Sándor, researcher at the National University of Public Service.

Jan A.G.M. VAN DIJK is professor of communication science at the University of Twente, the Netherlands, Department of Communication. His chair is called The Sociology of the Information Society. He is investigating the social aspects of information and communication technology since 1985. He is Chair of the Center for eGovernment Studies. His research specializes in social, cultural and political/policy issues.


We could witness how the Digital Revolution was unfolding in the course of the last century and how it has gradually become an everyday reality from science-fiction. You coined the term “network society”. What, in your view, are the major societal impacts of this phenomenon and how does it shape societies throughout the World?

The current Corona pandemic shows how important the network society has become. Without the Internet the GDP of our economies would not have lost 10 to 20% but 50%! Today most of work and education can continue and not stopped completely, be it largely online, perhaps in ways we might not like after some time. In my 2020 books The Network Society and The Digital Divide I have shown that in this society

inequalities of all kind are increasing: economic, social, cultural and digital.

The pandemic only reinforces these inequalities. Developing countries and poor people in developed countries do not have that much alternatives in online work. Children in poor families do not have sufficient computers, connections or parents to help them for online lessons at home.

The network society is more than the Internet. It is based on both media and social networks organizing all domains of society. So they have an impact on all these domains. We now have a data, information and network economy, politics influenced by digital marketing, websites or social media and a culture with computer gaming, online concerts and videos.

In terms of news and communication the societies moved from a mass media age towards a more individualized and customized information age. What in your view are the benefits and the shortcomings of this kind of shift?

The benefits of this shift is that we as individuals have more choice and freedom in what we want in case we have access to and the skills to use the digital media. In the traditional media we can only consume what is offered. Especially in authoritarian states governments decide what we should read, view or listen in these media. The negative effect of this shift is that

society tends to fragment into ‘echo chambers’ of people only talking to people of the same kind

and opinion and so-called ‘filter bubbles’ in which people only receive information they like because it was customized for them.

As you explained networks and modern networking technologies have both led to major shifts in societies. However, this network society is in practice realized by the Big Tech companies. Thus, the Digital Revolution allows large tech companies to become centers of powers in an information society. The Big Tech is two-faced. On the one hand, they make connectivity possible and widespread but on the other hand, their existences have harmful societal and economic costs from fundamental rights such as the freedom of speech or the right to privacy to market monopolization. How do you see this trade-off and what role should the regulator have in the information age?

In the network society providers tend to become monopolies according to so-called network effects: ‘the winner takes all’. In the former era of neo-liberal economics private companies such as the Big Five American tech companies took the chance to offer public utilities such as the social media today on a commercial basis with a business model of advertising via personal data. The users were happy because the service was free; they only paid with their privacy and a forced consumption of ads.

Today, it is evident that these monopolies have become a threat for our democracies and bring more polarization in society.

They have to be regulated.

The questions is why? The first option suggested, to break them up in smaller companies will not work because in a network economy these companies will go on in sharing data. For instance, Facebook knows a lot about you, even when you are not a member. The second option is to hold back mergers. Though it would have been good that the EU had forbidden the merger of Facebook, Instagram of WhatsApp in 2014 the alternative of giving billions of penalties for Google, Facebook and the like does not work either. These companies are so rich that they simply can continue with their monopolistic activities.

In the last edition of The Network Society (2020) I offered two other options. The first is to create and update laws on the domains of data, content (freedom of expression and intellectual property), media diversity, privacy, labor conditions, consumer rights and tax legislation. The start of this is recently made by the European Commission with the Digital Service Act, The Digital Markets Act and the Data Governance Act.

These precursors of coming national laws, such as in Hungary have the right approach: it is to not control the platforms by direct government supervision but by self-regulation of the platforms themselves under the direction of clear regulations or laws.

These platforms should not decide themselves which hate speech etcetera will be blocked. This is undemocratic. To see whether they will do this according to the laws and regulation they have to be transparent and accountable for every action like filtering and blocking. This is my second option.

Another solution is to stimulate social media with another business model than the current advertisement led model. This might be a subscription model: a fee of, say 5 euro per month for a social medium that is privacy friendly, without advertisement and following the laws and regulation of a country. Today people find it normal to pay about 20 euros for a telephone subscription but do not want to pay for an alternative for Facebook, Instagram and the like.

Social media in fact have to become a public utility

that could also be supported by governments with subsidies and regulations. It would be a good innovation of the European Commission to stimulate a public and not commercial social platform as a competitor for the American and Chinese platforms.

Europe seems to be falling behind the United States and China in terms of digital era innovation such as AI. What strategies, in your view, shall Europe pursue to create an ecosystem that encourages research and innovation, which can then provide both competitive and strategic advantages for the continent?

It should be an ecosystem, indeed. Scientists, designers, governments and businesses have to cooperate. It starts with top academic research on the domain of AI. European governments will more likely to inspire AI designers in creating algorithms for all kinds of software to follow ethical principles and social trustworthy AI than the US and China. The European has a High-Level Expert Group on AI. The EU has a Horizon program that forces academics and businesses to cooperate in innovation. When introducing the expensive Green Deal in 2020 the EC at first wanted to curtail this program. Fortunately this did not happen.

The EU could be the forerunner in green innovations with AI programs

of for instance saving energy in business and household operations.

How do you see the responsibility of academia and governments for the future generations? How can we preserve the traditional societal values in the age of network society without falling behind in terms innovation and technological development?

While talking about ethically acceptable AI innovation I have tried to show that societal values and technological development do not have to be opposed. They can be combined. AI is a decision technology with programs automatically making decisions on our behalf. The decisions have to be transparent and accountable. AI software offering these principles will have an advance on markets and will be better accepted by society. Similarly, networks and digital media create uneven and combined economic development. Uneven development means that the rich countries benefit more about technology than poor countries. Like they do now in the distribution of vaccines for Corona: poor countries will be the last to be vaccinated. Combined development means that rich and poor countries that work together in benefitting from technology. Networks can both support and harm democracy. They offer the voice for the people and they will be used for surveillance by less democratic governments. They can enrich our culture and also stupefy any cultural activity. They can improve the quality of our communication with new opportunities to communicate but they can also impoverish it only staying online all of the time. The combination of online and offline communication, for instance using mobile media in meetings looking to each-other’s eyes instead of looking to the screen all of the time offers the best of both worlds.





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