Dear Madam President of the Commission,
Dear President von der Leyen,
I am writing this open letter because it covers a topic of great interest to the people of Europe.
I am not referring to a global pandemic, but to a challenge that might turn out to be even greater and more serious in its consequences. American and Chinese technology platforms are challenging the sovereignty of the people, and undermining democracy. This is about freedom, the rule of law, and human rights. It is about the idea of a modern Europe.
In 2014, I wrote an open letter to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. In it I described the danger that a platform like Google poses for the individual rights of citizens, for pluralist competition, and for freedom of expression when it remains unchecked by regulations. The letter was both a warning and a confession: "We are afraid of Google:"
At the time, many said I was exaggerating. Unfortunately, quite the opposite is true — I was under exaggerating. In hindsight, I have realized that the risks I warned about manifested much faster and are far more serious than I could ever have imagined. And it is no longer just Google. What we now face is a situation where huge supranational corporations may come to stand above governments or the democratic order. Another question we must ask, is whether machines are there to serve humans, or will humans end up serving the machines and their far too powerful operators?
This trend has been visible for a long time. But this pandemic and the consequences of fighting it have accelerated the trend and reinforced it. And that, perhaps, is precisely where our opportunity lies.
In January 2020, the market capitalization of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Tesla was $3.9 trillion. In January 2021 – that is, one year after the global outbreak of COVID-19 – the market value of these six companies has climbed to $7.1 trillion. That's an increase in value of 82%, or $3.2 trillion US dollars.
During that same period, 255 million jobs were lost worldwide. In Europe, unemployment increased from 7.5% to 8.3%, and the emergence of gig work is the only thing preventing this number from being much higher. In Germany, a survey by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry states that 175,000 companies feel that they face the threat of bankruptcy as a result of the pandemic.
All that is keeping these businesses from facing financial ruin are massive state loans and aid programs. But for how much longer?
Millions of self-employed people and freelancers will have to give up their business because they are no longer able to survive the impacts of lockdown. Pluralism in competition is being eroded because the people profiting from the crisis are the big tech companies. The competitive advantage of tech platforms is increasing with every passing day. To some extent, deservedly so, because they are simply very good and innovative companies.
But to some extent, this is undeserved, because some of these companies have dubious business practices. One might say, that's just the way things are. But is this good for sovereignty? Is it good for the citizens?
Google and Facebook alone generated advertising revenues in the past year of around $230 billion. That is 46% of the global advertising market. Forecasts estimate that their market share will grow to more than 60% by 2024. The absolute dominance of tech platforms also means the disappearance of diversity in journalistic, artistic and commercial products and services.
Why should someone make the effort to carry out time-consuming research when, in the end, only a few platforms make money from the information thus gained? Again, one might say, that's the way things are. But one might also ask, why are they like that?
Put simply, the reason is that the business model of ad-based platforms is to spy on their customers like a secret service. In the case of the tech platforms, this is done by algorithms, which are the product of programming by humans. Algorithms sound neutral. But they're not. They are the result of human intention. Coders have given the algorithms a personality, perhaps even the personality of a consumer, or even a politically ideological persona.
Algorithms analyze our behavior and tell us what we should want. Or as Eric Schmidt put it years ago: "We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about."
Using this mechanism of so-called "behavioral targeting", platforms like Amazon, Facebook and Google, analyze what we do, what we want, and decide what we should want. And then they send us suggestions based on that data. Knowing that we are thinking of buying a new car, they reinforce and channel our wishes and send us suggestions. In fact, the manufacturers of the suggested products pay the platforms to do this.
You too, Ms. Von der Leyen, are no doubt familiar with the following scenario. You have been talking to someone about something you want to buy, and only a short time after, your email inbox is full of offers for similar products.
However, the algorithms — and therefore the platforms behind them — don't only know our consumption habits. They can determine whether a woman is pregnant before she even knows it herself. They know what emails we read, what images we look at, and what products we buy. Behavioral patterns that the algorithms, which are made up of data, add up and analyze more reliably than any husband or lover ever could.
"Surveillance capitalism" is what Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff calls it in her book of the same name, which has already become a seminal work of our times. We, the citizens, reveal our most intimate information — to maximize the advertising sales revenue of the tech platforms. The more transparent the citizens, the richer the platforms.
We mus not continue down this path. The alternative, our way out, President von der Leyen, is unbelievably simple.
Data must once again belong to those to whom it has always belonged. To the citizens.
The Chinese model is simple: data belongs to the state. State capitalist corporations collect the data, monitor their citizens and hand over the results to the Communist Party, which rewards citizens who are loyal to the regime.
In the US, where data belongs to capitalist corporations, things are much better. Companies like Facebook, Amazon or Apple compile, collect, and save data and use it to optimize their business models. They monitor and analyze our behavior so that we consume more. For the economic benefit of the platforms. That is considerably less harmful than what happens in China. However, it is still not the way things should be. It turns citizens into the marionettes of capitalist monopolies.
You might say it is up to the citizens to change this. After all, nobody is forcing them to be manipulated. They freely consent to the platforms' terms and conditions. That is okay in theory. But how many users actually read the endless terms and conditions when they want a product or service fast? How many of them are really informed about the indirect and long-term consequences of their actions? And what real alternatives do consumers have in strongly monopolized markets?
In short: I believe the citizens must become more self-critical and more assertive. But to do that, they need the help of politicians. The support of the legislators.
Europe has a historical opportunity to do what Europe has always done at its best: assert the authority of popular sovereignty. And to achieve that, Europe — and hopefully all countries that belong to the western community of values — must ensure that data does not belong to the state or to corporations. It must be returned to the individual. And I am certain that the US will follow Europe in this case. It is one of the few times that Europe has the chance to become the leader in the digital age.
What this means in concrete terms is that platforms should be prohibited in the EU from storing private data and from using that data for commercial gain. This must become law.
And it must go further than the General Data Protection Regulation and other existing laws in one decisive point: every attempt to water down data protection in the name of supposed voluntary consent must be ruled out. Permission to use data should not even be possible in the first place. Sensitive and personal data does not belong in the hands of platforms that rule the market (so-called gatekeepers) or in the hands of states.
President von der Leyen, if you and your colleagues prohibit the commercial use of private data, you will change the world. You will make the world a better place. Otherwise, we will be delivering ourselves into the hands of a new order. An order in which human rights, self-determination and freedom within the framework of the law will be meaningless. We will be surrendering ourselves to a surveillance capitalism that will turn everything that Europe stands for on its head.
If you think I'm exaggerating, here are two recent instances that prove my point.
First, Facebook and Twitter decided to block the account of Donald Trump. One might intuitively feel that was the right thing to do since the president was endangering democracy from above. But is it right for a capitalist corporation to decide what politicians are allowed to say and to whom? For a company (and in particular this one which, with 3 billion users, has a clear market leadership position) to place itself above the law and above democratic institutions?
Second, in Australia, the government decided that Google should pass on an appropriate share of the income it has earned from journalistic contents to publishers. If Google does not reach an agreement with these publishers, then the decision will be made by an independent arbitrator.
As a result, Google has threatened to block all Google search functions in Australia. This would put Australia at a massive disadvantage. People would have greatly restricted access to knowledge, and companies would have greatly reduced access to their customers. There are no two ways about it: that is blackmail. The Australian government has not let itself be intimidated so far. Prime Minister Morrison was clear about that: "Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia." The government makes the decisions in Australia — not Google. Who decides in Europe?
President von der Leyen, your deputy Thierry Breton recently said: "Europe is the first continent in the world to initiate a comprehensive reform of our digital space. They are both based on one simple yet powerful premise: What is illegal offline should also be illegal online." There is nothing to add to that.
Do you want to stop people being spied on? Do you want to stop them being monitored to find out what they consume? And do you want to make sure they are not tracked to find out what political party they vote for?
Then prohibit in virtual life what you have already prohibited for decades in real life. And make stronger in Europe what it is that makes Europe strong: the power of the people.
The platforms will tell you that you are destroying their business model by doing that. That is not true. It will only get a little weaker. Like the publishing houses and like every blogger (the publishing houses of the future), the platforms will still be able to monetize their reach. Or like every trader or wholesaler, the platforms can still sell their products and services. But billions will flow back into the hands of thousands of publishing houses, artists and retailers. To companies who ensure customer loyalty thanks to the quality of their products, and not by monitoring their behavior.
Platforms with this much market power have mutated to become essential facilities. They are de facto monopolies. With no alternative for the consumer. Such companies must be subject to different rules and regulations, otherwise competitiveness will suffer, as will the market economy. The fact that platforms can do business differently has been proved by Netflix (for the sake of transparency, please know that I have a seat on the board of directors). Netflix has no advertising and does not analyze private data. All it monitors is the viewers' behavior in relation to its own films and series.
What we need is a European Constitution.
President von der Leyen, this simple measure gives you the chance, perhaps for the first time ever in the era of the digital economy in the EU, to not swim against the current of progress or to repair something after the fact. You can proactively shape the digital future. No matter whether copyright reform, data protection amendment or the ePrivacy Regulation – the EU has nearly always come too late, taken too much time, and the tech companies have been clever at avoiding or circumnavigating the regulations. It is like the race between the hare and the tortoise. The tortoise always gets there. By being cleverer and therefore faster.
By implementing such a measure – a kind of European Constitution – the EU will be ahead of the times and at the same time too far ahead for others to catch up. It will not be swimming against the current, but with the current in the service of its citizens.
I appeal to you most sincerely: prevent the surveillance of our citizens by making it illegal to store all personal, private and sensitive data. Curtail the excessive power of the monopolist platforms from the USA and China.
Encourage and empower the citizens of Europe to lead a self-determined life. And by doing so, enable a competition of ideas, opinions and concepts in a Europe of diversity. Pluralism in lifestyles, in opinions and ideas has always made Europe strong. Surveillance, collectivism and external control have almost destroyed us.
Total transparency always has a totalitarian ending.
The Europe of today is the opposite.
President von der Leyen: grasp this opportunity for Europe. Here the subjects do not serve the powerful. Here the state serves the people.