A bit more democracy?
Day by day we help consolidate monopolies by using products of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon. Deemed the most valuable corporations in the world, the five tech companies have earned the name “tech giants”. And growth continues unabated – for the more of us that use their services, the more useful they become for everyone. As search algorithms become increasingly selective and sophisticated, it’s hard to imagine doing without them. Which means that the tech companies’ market dominance is self-reinforcing.
As we’ve learnt from other monopolies, in the long run they create higher costs and limit customer choice. The tech giants too are an economic threat, but they also pose a real danger to our democracy: they control key information processes on which the decisions in our society are based. Collecting, verifying, storing, retrieving, comparing, weighting or disregarding information – all these are monitored by the tech giants. So while their services are advertised as promoting democracy, in fact they’re endangering it.
In the interests of democracy, we must now break these monopolies. One way is to split up vast companies – but for the tech giants this doesn’t seem to make much sense. Probably all that would happen is that new tech companies would spring up – and there’d be little benefit for democracy. The Economist has argued that there’s only one way to tame the tech giants, and that’s via the currency in which users actually buy services: personal data. The rights of people to own their personal data and what they exchange could be defined, so as to keep the tech giants in check. But who should draw up and enforce such legislation? Tech giants act globally and rapidly, making supranational rules difficult to implement.
But monitoring can also work the other way round – by democratising the companies themselves. When users access the services of tech companies, they generate valuable data – data that makes it possible to constantly improve and expand products and services. So why shouldn’t those who contribute be given a say? I propose letting users participate in all decisions of the tech giants that are crucial to them. At my chair, we’re developing new decision-making procedures for experimentation; in my view, the tech companies are an ideal testing ground.
But we need to clarify two questions beforehand: First, in which decisions should the users have a say? For a start, those that affect their rights to personal information. Here users could determine what may and what may not happen with their data. In addition, they should have a say in the specifications of search and learning algorithms, and on censorship rules. But I’d like to focus on the second question: how can users be involved in decision-making? There are two possible ways to address this.
One way is to simply let the users vote on the issues that concern them. The Co-voting procedure we’ve developed is suitable here. A randomly-selected subset of users, known as the “Assessment Group”, votes in a first round and the result is published. The shareholders or their representatives then vote, and the two results – weighted according to a predefined key – are added together to yield the final decision.
Giving users a voice on important decisions would help change their attitude towards the tech giants, and might even foster a willingness to accept the consequences of difficult or costly decisions. It could also help to protect data ownership rights and preserve the right to free speech.
The simplest way to implement this procedure would be to grant one vote to each member of the Assessment Group. A more sophisticated voting rights system, whereby votes are allocated to users according to their intensity of usage, is also conceivable.
The second solution can be envisaged as a “user council", which acts as representative body for the pool of users. The user council could, for example, include algorithm experts who are especially competent in evaluating the planned development of products and services. For particularly important decisions, however, the user council could always draw on the user pool, and user representatives could become Members of the Board of Directors.
The democratisation of the tech giants that we’re proposing would not diminish their monopoly. But it would balance the relationship between these giants and the users, by giving users more say within the monopoly. This, ultimately, might be more efficient in keeping the tech giants in check than bridling them with regulations that lag behind technological innovation.
The article also appears in abridged form in the NZZ am Sonntag.