The writer is author of ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ and professor emeritus at Harvard Business School
On April 23, lawmakers in Brussels approved the Digital Services Act, a major piece of legislation aimed at curbing the power of Big Tech. The DSA is not just more procedural drudgery on the EU’s conveyor belt of words. It is a bold reckoning with history — the first comprehensive declaration of a digital future founded on the legitimate authority of democratic rights and the rule of law, and a signal that the principles of a self-governing demos might survive the digital century.
From the dawn of the world wide web in the mid-1990s, liberal democracies failed to construct a coherent political vision of a digital century. This left a void where democracy should have been, one quickly filled by a system of “surveillance capitalism” built on the industrial-scale extraction of human-generated data.
The void was deepest in the US. The first authoritative policy framework for “Global Electronic Commerce”, introduced by President Bill Clinton and vice-president Al Gore in 1997, announced that “existing laws and regulations that may hinder electronic commerce should be reviewed and revised or eliminated.” The framework ceded authority over “privacy, content ratings, and consumer protection” to unspecified self-regulating “private fora”.
We have stumbled into a future that we did not and would not choose, in which the increasingly entrenched order of surveillance capitalism produces deepening democratic disorder. And there have been few laws to stop any of it — until now.
Only the legitimate authority and legislative powers of liberal democracy can alter this trajectory. The DSA is in the vanguard here. Critical to the success of this fightback is the recognition that this legislation is not the end but the beginning of a multi-stage democratic resurgence. What has been achieved and what must follow?
Among the highlights of the DSA are standards that hold tech companies responsible for social harms produced by their services and stipulate assessments by independent auditors and researchers. There are new transparency requirements that force open the black box of data extraction and algorithmic engineering, including access for outside researchers. Loopholes on illegal content have also been eliminated.
These breakthroughs signal an even deeper sea change.
The DSA dismantles the narrative of tech inevitability and invincibility. Everyone can see now that the story of the past two decades was always one about power not technological determinism. And crucially the act asserts that information integrity is essential to our networked communication domain. No society can survive when these spaces are governed by an economic regime in which corrupt information has proved good for business.
With the DSA, the EU has declared that digital spaces belong to society and are mission-critical to a healthy democracy. The digital must live in democracy’s house, not as an adversary, but as a productive family member. Only in this way will knowledge, the true fruit of the digital age, finally be returned to the people to meet the challenges we face as families, communities and inhabitants of an ailing planet.
We must not celebrate prematurely, however. A great deal of work remains to be done. Much of what occurs in our information spaces today is profoundly illegitimate, but because it is unprecedented, it is not yet illegal. Lawmakers in the 20th century faced a similar dilemma that required new charters of rights, as well as the laws to protect those rights and institutions to oversee the rule of law independent of market pressures or political cycles. The digital century demands the same breadth of invention.
The next chapters of the democratic resurgence against Big Tech will be tough. Though surveillance capitalism is still relatively young, it quickly developed reliable means of domination. But the corporations do not hold all the cards.
Polling shows that people have lost faith in the tech giants and want lawmakers to act. And while democracy may be old and slow, it enjoys advantages that are difficult to rival. These include the ability to inspire hope in citizens and fear in adversaries. It teaches us that whatever has been made by people can also be unmade through democratic action. Only democracy retains the legitimate authority and power to make and enforce the rule of law, based on cherished values, ideas and principles.