EDRi’s Paper and the Two Faces of the Internet Debate

the many tech solutions to controlling the pandemic, and the privacy of the contact tracing apps

The conversation about the internet has two completely different understandings of technology and society clashing.

On the one hand is the now nostalgic idea that the internet is a de-centralised technology that if left alone will deliver great things like freedom to the oppressed, economic growth, jobs and a voice to each of us. Democratisation is a key word. The threat is all the bad people who want to control the internet for their own purposes: dictators, lawyers, platforms, entertainment industry, Luddites to name a few. This type of thinking is sometimes labelled “internet exceptionalism”.

On the other hand, we have the view that the internet is part of society and works in concert with the rest of the world, adding to it and taking away from it, amplifying some things, playing down others, disrupting some economies, reinforcing existing hierarchies in others. This thinking is where democracy comes from institutions rather than the absence of them. We can call this idea “internet secularism”.

“We are just a technology company”

Now, the confusion is that these two tend to be mixed up. When Silicon Valley companies are confronted with criticism for anything from abuse of dominant position to providing the tools for genocide propaganda, they will often say something like “first of all, we are a technology company”. As in “we only make the tool and that’s great and we can’t really control what it’s used for”. That fits the Internet exceptionalism-concept. Except Big Tech is not making hammers or anything like that, instead they provide sophisticated services with complex algorithms controlling user behavior and maximizing profits. Which smells much more like internet secularism (stock price first, freedom to the oppressed later).

This can also go the other way, for example when governments internet secularism to established companies, demanding they comply with consumer law or age ratings or something else, thereby conveniently ignoring the creativity of less serious actors who simply move illegal operations to some less strict jurisdiction.

EDRi’s Position Paper on Digital Services Act

One place where these two views are butting heads at the moment is in EU legislation (to be fair, the head-butting has been going on for a decade or so with no sign of slowing down). The most recent addition is the internet activist group EDRi’s position paper on the upcoming Digital Services Act.

EDRi is an organization that wants to “defend rights and freedoms in the digital environment”. It plants itself firmly in the exceptionalism camp (surprise!). The paper is not without merits though, it fiercely criticizes the dominant platforms on lack of transparency, privacy short-comings and “broken” business models. It makes suggestions on how transparency and legal certainty can be improved. It has concrete proposals of how these can be executed. All from a departure point that looks more nostalgic than anything, like here:

The internet was originally built as a decentralised network with maximum resilience against shutdown and censorship. /…/ The social and economic benefits of this architecture were considerable: low costs of innovation, flexible ways to adapt and reuse existing technology for new services, and the freedom of choice for every participant in the network.

That paragraph reads like a definition of internet exceptionalism. Everything was great until the bad guys started messing with it. The problem with this departure point is that it leads to the conclusion that regulation is a threat and the way to deal with problems is to empower users. This is what EDRi’s paper says about opening up social media platforms:

This would allow users to freely choose which social media community they would like to be part of – for example depending on their content moderation preferences and privacy needs – while still being able to connect with and talk to all of their social media friends and contacts.

Sounds great, but not all users have profound knowledge of these things. Maybe that used to be different back in say… the early 90s, when all users where “power users”. With Billions of internet users (if that is even a relevant term anymore), the knowledge will inevitably vary. Another blind spot in that thinking: are “content moderation preferences and privacy needs” really a question only for the users of a service? What about those outside the service whose data or content may be distributed on it? What if the individual user accepts a trade-off of personal data to free content, but the combined effect has a negative impact on society (health data could be one example)? How about if users want a space to spread racist hate speech, building up a momentum for genocide? Is that really only up to those users?

Internet exceptionalism is the red thread in EDRi’s paper and this limited perspective regrettably makes it less useful. Its merit is that it points to the problems of the centralized platform economy and the dangers of expanding its intermediary privileges. To find the answers, we must look elsewhere.