Democracy and Power in a Brave New World

Speaker Margrethe Vestager close up

writer icon Emma Lindgren     Mauro Bottaro, EC   |   Tech Ethics     🕐 22. Mar. 2019

Margrethe Vestager’s keynote speech in Lund on Monday, aptly titled Democracy and Power in a Brave New World: Economy, Technology and Human Rights, held very little back.

Her opening statements touched on Sweden and its history through the lens of Ruth Bader Ginsberg's experiences studying in the Scandinavian country in the early 1960s.

Vestager noted that during Ginsburg’s time in Harvard, she was one of the 8 women out of a total 500 attending students. In Sweden at the same time, every 1 in 4 students were women. Indicating a clear difference between the countries for women especially, in “being able to make choices”. A point she suggests helped inspire Ginsburg to accomplish her, notably groundbreaking, legal achievements.

Internet and freedom
Vestager presented both positive and negative elements of the internet as a whole. Emphasising that it not only features a platform that promotes “not just the voices of the powerful,” but it also provides new alternatives for people who otherwise would feel isolated in their circumstances or communities. This is illustrated, in part, by the voices of the MeToo movement having such a powerful impact due to them being spread by, and having come about in, this digital age.

“In ancient Athens, democracy meant that all citizens could come together and participate in a single debate. And today – for the first time in the modern age – the Internet again makes it possible to do that, in a single virtual space we all share” she says.

In Vestager's view, the internet has given us “much more control”, however she also draws on an analogy of 'wasps swarming a picnic' when highlighting the inherent dangers of disinformation or fake news, such as “outright lies about vaccination”.

While information sourced from Wikipedia may turn out to be factually correct most of the time, one must never overlook how aspects of power, whether be it of gender or other factors, play a part in generating knowledge and information bias, a point which Vestager finds also applies to how data is processed by AI.

“Results are only as reliable as the data that goes into it”, she states. And while the logical processing of a computer may be regarded as incorruptible, at the end of the day “it’s not any better than what we feed it with.”

Europe and beyond
Here the speech took a slight turn to address other areas of Vestager’s work, more specifically, a need for sufficient taxation, the keeping of a democratic mindset concerning regulations for companies, the importance of rule of law, and a need for consistently updated European copyright laws. It is important to make sure our digital human rights are being enforced and exercised, she emphasises.

Moreover, Vestager maintains that we need to find a way so as to not tip 'the financial incentive-scales' towards companies providing online platforms, such as YouTube. Instead the proceeds should go to the users that are providing content. Further, the money that goes to tech and digital companies needs to be taxed sufficiently, a point she cannot stress enough.

After the fact
After the keynote concluded, the event opened up for questions, where a New York Times reporter commented that the EU 'law on the right to anonymity' is not being adhered to in Sweden due to its open access public records system.

The argument being that through the click of a button the system provides anyone with such intimate details as address, age and property value.

Vestager maintained that whilst access to private information in Sweden is albeit a tricky situation, she does not find it unique to the country alone. In Europe “we are still in the process of making this space secure,” a process which is very difficult, she added. The existing frameworks were not designed with privacy in mind to the extent that ‘everything’ has now been made accessible in the digital age, Vestager then concluded.

Since her keynote speech on Monday, Vestager, in her role as European Commissioner for Competition, has been busy putting her words onto action: just this Wednesday she fined Google €1.49 billion "for abusive practices in online advertising”.

Vestager's view that “we need to look again at the rules and regulations that govern our lives, to make sure they strike the right balance between the needs of the different parts of our society,” in combination with her repeated actions against a growing number of large tech companies, go a long way in illustrating her ability to help strike this balance just right.

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