World Wide Web of equal freedom?

How digitalisation can be steeped in the values of a humane society

Photo: iStock.com / xijian

From boundless euphoria to bitter disenchantment. Whoever reviews the digitalisation debate over the last few years will identify a clear trend: We interpreted the Arab Spring as a Facebook revolution, dreaming about the democratising power of a new medium. What we have ended up with is hate speech and social bots that shift the focus of elections from conflicts to algorithms. We had dreams of work outside the confines of offices, freed from the shackles of rigid working times and yet still collaborating with others—while we take care of the children in passing. What we have ended up with is availability 24-7, a new digital precariousness and an ever-intensifying scramble for each and every job contract via Mechanical Turk, a virtual marketplace that connects employers with employees. We had dreams of everyone being able to inform themselves more quickly and inexpensively about everything that affects us. And that everyone can share their view of things with everyone else. What we have ended up with is a Facebook algorithm that uses around 100,000 (!) indicators to choose what we read with frightful precision, individually geared to each and every person and their views—all the while reinforcing them. Without the slightest trace of mutual discussions or debates over issues of collective concern taking place.

What should we do, then? Perhaps seek out the three boldest experts from all the expert commissions on digitalisation out there and send them off in search of the plug to this Internet so that they can finally pull it? Don't we need to protect our democracy against digitalisation? Aren't 20 years of Google and 10 years of iPhone pure and simple enough? By no means! Not only because digitalisation has in the meantime turned into a wide-ranging eco-system in which and with which the vast majority of us live, love and work, but also because digitalisation from the perspective of social democracy is a fabulous instrument with which to multiply participation, nurture freedom, and make work better. The task, however, is to conduct a realistic debate over digitalisation in a realm somewhere between euphoria and disenchantment, to first of all try to forge some mutual agreement over what values should shape digitalisation and then reflect upon what conclusions we can draw with regard to the question of how to cope with this phenomenon of digitalisation.

What would be important in all this is the realisation that we are not helpless in the face of digitalisation, but rather that it is something man-made and that can be shaped by people. We need to humanise the debate over digitalisation. We have to realise that technologies, algorithms and social bots have been conceived and created by humankind. Even with a view to the Internet of Things or the rapid development of artificial intelligence as well, it is not unstoppable technology machines that inexorably shape and determine our (digital) lives. Ultimately it is humans that bear responsibility. It is people who are influenced by values, guided by interests and are tangled up in world-views who shape digitalisation. People have imposed their notions of values on these technologies—at the same time pursuing capitalist principles more than anything else.

When, for instance—as the NGO AlgorithmWatch writes—the search for African American-sounding names much more frequently calls up advertisements by credit agencies providing information on criminals than searches for other names, this pattern is based on value judgments embedded in a rationale chosen and determined by human beings. According to this logic, African Americans are considered to more frequently be criminals, and advertisements by credit agencies generate more profits than advertising for other products. The underlying logic is racist, but from a capitalist perspective makes sense. And all major enterprises are oriented towards a capitalist rationale and logic that moulds the architecture of our digital world, from Amazon to Facebook to Google. This neoliberal penetration of the Internet incidentally stands in stark contradiction to its original idea. Whether this logic, which makes perfect sense to a profit-oriented enterprise, should expropriate something as all-encompassing and that has such a fundamental influence on our lives as digitalisation as a whole is, however, more than questionable.

Not all discrimination carried out by algorithms is illegal, for instance. But it can nevertheless lead to less freedom and less equality and is therefore problematic from an ethical perspective.


From the perspective of the social democracy, other values need to stand at the forefront. At the normative core of social democracy is the notion of equal freedom. For all you techies out there: The normative core is something like the source code of social democracy. Everyone should be equally capable and in a position to lead a self-determined life, free from coercion arbitrarily imposed on them by society or state, and provided with everything needed to live a free life. A free life independent of the colour of one's skin, gender, political orientation, and sexual preference—and also independent of algorithms and their data stocks. And definitely independent of being under suspicion of being a potential criminal if one's name sounds African American. It is important to distinguish between these values and laws and regulations. Value judgments involve something else. Values are not laws and regulations, but rather notions of what is good and hence thoughts and ideas about what is desirable for a society. Not all discrimination carried out by algorithms is illegal, for instance. But it can nevertheless lead to less freedom and less equality and is therefore problematic from an ethical perspective.

At the same time, it needs to be determined who is to explore this ethical dimension and negotiate over it. Is it the ethics commissions of Amazon or Facebook? Is it government agencies, which are at least in some way democratically legitimated? Is it universities and other research institutions? Or is what we need a debate which also involves civil society and, ultimately, everyone affected by digitalisation, best of all on a global scale? This claim would appear to be utopian and sensible all at once. After all, moral concepts and ethical values take on special importance when they are widely shared.

What manner of coping with the phenomenon of digitalisation is to be surmised if we want to steep digitalisation in the values of a free and equal society? Firstly, we have to talk about the technical process-related dimension here. Secondly, the task is to empower people to deal with digitalisation in a mature, critical manner. Thirdly, we have to talk about ownership structures in digitalisation.

Value standards need to be incorporated into the structures of digitalisation above and beyond the exploitative logic of capitalism


Regarding the technical process-related dimension, it must be noted that Internet architecture and every digital product should ultimately reflect these values. In addition to the legitimate claim to privacy by design —the promise of designing software and hardware in such a manner that they protect the private sphere of individuals in the best way possible—we have to add an ethics by design. Value standards need to be incorporated into the structures of digitalisation above and beyond the exploitative logic of capitalism. Otherwise, we shall end up with an inhuman, unfree, and unjust society.

On top of this, it all boils down to people. What matters is the empowerment of individuals to move within the realm of digitalisation in an informed manner, and thus to avoid switching off one's brain when the screen is switched on. We will not be able to prevent fake news or stop hate speech with algorithms, technical standards and automatism. More than ever before it is becoming necessary to promote critical thinking and, in the spirit of Immanuel Kant, to muster up to courage to rely on one's own reason. This also means stepping outside one's own filter zone and being willing to be confronted with views and perspectives other than the ones that algorithms seek out for us. Digital literacy, for instance at schools, will of course require programming skills, but it must not stop there. Instead, children must be encouraged and taught to distinguish between propaganda and information. Classic journalistic skills and standards such as checking sources, etc., need to become integral parts of curriculums.

In times in which our coexistence is so closely intertwined with digitalisation, the public goods model could offer an alternative to private or government ownership of digitalisation holding out considerable opportunities.


Thirdly, in the course of digitalisation greater attention needs to be focused on ownership structures. Both the network infrastructure as well as the services offered on it and data stocks generated with these are overwhelmingly the private property of a few multinational enterprises. This structure makes the digitalisation shaping our entire lives highly vulnerable, as a simple exercise in mental arithmetic shows. As head of Facebook (and hence WhatsApp as well), Mark Zuckerberg has a decisive influence on how we communicate and who has access to what information. If this function were not being performed by Zuckerberg, all in all a committed liberal, but instead, for instance, by Stephen Bannon, our world would look different.

This small example pointedly invites people to reflect on ownership structures in digitalisation. One alternative could be more state-owned and hence democratically controlled ownership, for instance with regard to the network infrastructure itself. In the wake of the disclosures by Edward Snowden, there is considerable doubt, however, whether the state and secret services associated with it would always approach the network infrastructure motivated by a commitment to a free and just world order. For goods that are so important to the common weal, which nobody must be denied access to, a third category above and beyond government and private ownership has been established: public goods. In times in which our coexistence is so closely intertwined with digitalisation, the public goods model could offer an alternative to private or government ownership of digitalisation holding out considerable opportunities. Evgeny Morozov, for instance, has forwarded very promising proposals on how to handle data pools as public goods.

Ideas regarding a value-oriented design of digitalisation illustrate one thing above all: These are only at the beginning. There is a wealth of exciting strategies and models such as, for instance, the Charter on Fundamental Digital Rights of the European Union. What is sorely needed are places where we can debate which values we want to base digitalisation on and discuss how we can steep it in these values while avoiding overly simplistic euphoria or disenchantment.

Digital democracy and democratic digitalisation are two facets in a debate in which no less than the future of our commonwealth is at stake


At #digidemos as well—the congress of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on digitalisation and democracy taking place in Berlin on 20 June 2017—the basic values of social democracy serve as the point of departure. The congress addresses democracy, publicness, and work in a digitalised society, new forms of societal understanding and participation, ideas and opportunities to shape the future. By the same token, digital democracy and democratic digitalisation are two facets in a debate in which no less than the future of our commonwealth is at stake. How can we shape digital democracy and democratic digitalisation for the good of everyone?

New gatekeepers and gatewatchers are altering the digital media society just as are new technological developments. At #digidemos, the focus is also on current topics in the field of media and network policy: How can we strengthen democratic publicness(es) in and in tandem with digitalisation? Ultimately the world of work is a key arena for digital change. It remains a controversial question whether this change is advantageous or disadvantageous to employees. Does the promise of digital progress also apply to the workplace? And how will Work 4.0 be turned into decent work? An orientation towards values, information, access for all, ownership structures—what we need is to turn digitalisation into an instrument with which to bring about more equal freedom—these are evergreens for social democracy. Time and again over the course of time, social democracy has faced up to these questions, and it has been repeatedly successful over the last 150 years in attaining more freedom and equality. The task at hand is to assert this claim in the digital age as well. ###

Christian Krell currently heads the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Nordic Office in Sweden. Translated from German, this text was first published in Frankfurter Hefte/Neue Gesellschaft Heft 6|2017.

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