Facebook, Google, Amazon and other internet behemoths are involved in a form of technological innovation that is acting as a “wrecking ball”, the president of the European parliament declared in Brussels this week.
“The aim is not just to play with the way society is organised, but instead to demolish the existing order and build something new in its place,” said Martin Schulz. “The internet lost its innocence long ago.”
Digitisation brings undoubted benefits, but if we want to prevent becoming “remote-controlled ‘data cows’ who live in a world ruled over by a handful of multinational companies,” he said, “we cannot leave debating ‘internet issues’ to the nerds. It is a debate in which all must have their say.”
Schulz’s challenge is profound. What is at stake is pluralism, autonomy and choice. It’s about democracy in the face of “intelligence and businesses’ insatiable appetite for information about every single aspect of our lives”. It’s about ensuring that “not just the happy few benefit from the digital revolution”, and that “those who want to stay off-grid are also protected”.
Culture and ethics beyond law
But Schulz’s challenge also risks being lost. He was preaching to the choir: anannual festival of data protection and privacy experts; people steeped in the increasingly discomfiting reality of trying to control data online – bits in a tornado. How could his message resonate more widely?
European politicians want the new General Data Protection Regulation – the most-debated piece of EU legislation ever – to be part of the solution, along with the remainder of Europe’s pioneering fundamental rights framework. But law is not, and cannot be, the whole. Mostly, it’s about culture and ethics.
One European institution wants to seize this broader challenge. The European data protection supervisor, or EDPS, is the EU’s smallest entity but also one of itsmost ambitious, and immediately followed Schulz’s address by announcing a new ethics advisory group.