At Arlanda, those in power meet to regulate the tech giants
This is a cultural article which is part of Then24’s opinion journalism.
I wander along with the concrete barriers around the conference facility in Arlandastad. Inside the shell shelter, the representative of the Ministry of Culture comes nervously running; it has been a huge cat-scratch to get access to How EU tech regulation affects democratic discourse
and media policy – the first ever major EU conference on how, in the light of new laws, the Union should now regulate the tech giants.
Someone or a few apparently think the situation is super sensitive, and sure enough – a couple of the tech lobbyists look scared out of their wits when they see me. Journalists are not really welcome; they blame lack of space and other nonsense. It’s unfortunate.
In Sweden, digital democracy issues are discussed far too little considering the power and actual control a few companies have over our lives. Election campaigns are manipulated, our children are harmed, and misinformation creates radicalization with deadly consequences.
The responsible commissioner Thierry Breton in his introductory speech calls the new laws “a matter of survival for our democracy”. The computer engineer and former French finance minister roars: “No more ‘too big to care’!” He addresses the visiting representatives of Big Tech. They don’t look happy; Breton’s background as a senior executive in telecoms and technology companies and his apparently protectionist agenda is bad news for US and Chinese companies that own the attention and data of EU citizens.
Not enough that the tech companies get completely new rules of the game for their 450 million European users – the US authorities and politicians have shown themselves eager to regulate the companies there as well, using EU laws as a template.
Republican pollsters worry about censorship of Donald Trump, but applaud as state orders Facebook to take down posts advocating women’s abortion rights
The legislation is really a complex puzzle, but the most current law is called Digital Services Act. It means that major social platforms and search engines must be much more transparent. They must explain in a comprehensible way how they manually and with the help of AI moderate away or boost content. But researchers who want to study the effect of social media on individuals and society must also have access to data, and companies must share revealing data with EU authorities. Furthermore, they are not allowed to use misleading designs in their apps and the protection of minorities and minors online is strengthened.
The representatives from Google, Meta, Tiktok, Spotify and the others hover by the coffee machines. They spend billions trying to influence the decision makers. But now – when the politicians have made up their minds – it is at the coffee machines that they have the chance to access the officials who will make the laws a reality. The tech companies’ main argument can be summed up in one talking point: EU legislation threatens freedom of expression!
From the stage and at the coffee machines put Katie Harbath, an influential lobbyist from Washington, published the text. She has recently switched positions at Facebook for opinion work for the International Republican Institute. She worries that the tech companies will be too heavily regulated, She exclaims: “What is the right role of the state in relation to freedom of expression online?”. There are several of us who look at each other resignedly; we have heard this politicized view before. Republican pollsters worry about censorship of Donald Trumpbut applauds when the state orders Facebook to take down posts advocating women’s abortion rights.
But the issue is the core of the poodle within the EU. In the legal puzzle there is another law, called Media Freedom Act (MFA). It is not yet clubbed by the EU, and it contains even more bitter pills for the tech companies. The EU feels, perhaps especially in light of the Russian information war, that there is too little truthful information in the flows of people. Therefore, the MFA must force the major social and search platforms to give credible news organizations a special position. They must program their systems to highlight this, and at the same time effectively stop what the EU thinks is disinformation.
Is it really the EU and not the member states themselves that should draw limits for freedom of speech and the media?
At the conference, the general secretary of Reporters Without Borders propagates Christophe Deloire for the law, he thinks it is crucial to the future of journalism. The tech companies snort at the idea, so the conference coffee is flying. They don’t earn ad money if users leave their services. So their stated threat is to completely sonic block the news content. So did Facebook in 2021 when the Australian government forced them to pay for the newspapers’ news. They, and others, may do it again.
At another coffee machine I tell Deloire what the tech companies on the other side of the room expressly think of his ideas, and now it’s his turn to put the fox venom down his throat.
The war in Ukraine has, if anything, highlighted the need for war reporting that is not at the mercy of rumors on Twitter, Telegram and clever Russian propaganda. But the tech companies believe that they are already dealing with the worst, and in any case do not want to be the one to decide what is true and what is not. Also: They say they don’t affect society as much as it is claimed – they just “reflect” it. The research, Thierry Breton and Deloire, speaks against them.
A few Hungarian, Czech and Swedish officials are standing by a third coffee machine. They are the foot soldiers who will ensure that the laws get the positive net for democracy that Thierry Breton expects. I ask: do you agree on which newspapers are “credible” and do not spread misinformation? And: Isn’t there some truth in that Twitter CEO Elon Musk says when he sees centuries-old media houses (sometimes owned by Italian politicians) “oligopoly on information”? Is it really the EU and not the member states themselves that should draw limits for freedom of speech and the media?
They have none good answers to the questions; no one in the room has it. Breton and many others highlight the need for a digital skills revolution within the EU; you can’t regulate what you don’t understand. The same of course applies to Sweden; now laws must become reality here as well. And the conference is a perfect kick-off for the necessary power shift that is at hand.
A historic opportunity exists for broad debate with more than just the old ordinary, diplomatic voices. Because it is about choosing a path that affects our health, our freedom and safety, for us but perhaps above all for our children. Such conversations cannot stay in well-guarded hangars in a field next to Arlanda.