The European Union’s Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has said in an interview with Berlingske that we are only just starting to understand the effect of the social media giants’ products and how they might create a form of addiction in their users. This makes it necessary to boost control in the way of regulation and the new data protection rules now underway in the EU.
“It’s like by the standards of today, tobacco would also not have been allowed. Perhaps not alcohol either, for that matter. Here we have some products that, in the same way, have not been checked. So we know with chemical products, we know with toys, and we know with a lot of different things that today there are proper checks on foods, there are quality checks and there are regulations that physical products have to live up to,” the Danish commissioner says.
Online ventures, on the other hand, have been allowed to grow “with completely different business models and ways of operating” than what we have been used to. There is now “a giant, ringing alarm clock still bouncing up and down to make us aware that we have missed something completely”. When users are also part of the product, the EU is simply lacking in the necessary game rules, Ms Vestager says.
“We are not there yet. We are only just starting to be there. We are only just starting to understand how these products are designed to create a form of addiction in us, for example. Because they are designed to give us a ‘kick’ of satisfaction and reward, we stay longer, and that makes us available for the advertising that is the whole business idea behind it all.”
Vestager versus the tech giants
In Denmark there is currently an added focus on Ms Vestager as a person, as she turns 50 next week. But on the international scene, the Danish competition commissioner has long been an absolutely central player. Experts, investors, market analysts, politicians and governments across the globe all have their eyes fixed on her next move after handing out spectacular fines to clamp down on the business models of social media giants and other multinational corporations.
This week the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy article on “The Woman Who Is Reining In America’s Technology Giants”, presenting Ms Vestager as “the de facto global regulator” for companies such as Google and Apple. The newspaper relates how authorities in the U.S. state of Missouri are preparing to follow in the footsteps of the European Union and Ms Vestager in their approach to Google, while countries such as Brazil, Indian and Russia have also been inspired to act. The awareness of potential issues has been further sharpened by reports of false news and the Facebook scandal involving the potential use of personal data from more than 80 million users for political persuasion. It is no longer merely a case of massive sums of money but of our democratic foundation as well.
The message, wherever you look in the international media, is that at least Margrethe Vestager is doing something about it…
“Yes”, the EU commissioner chuckles.
Is that hope well-aimed?
“Yes, we can do something because we take an interest in what all this mass of data is being used for. Of course it’s a matter of trial and error, because it’s tricky. The market keeps developing and the giants now are not the same as the giants of ten years ago. But we are actually in a very rare situation of having regulation about to come into force. It’s often said that it’s the consumers who have to act.
But the consumers are rarely able to do that on their own, because we are small and the world is big. So you need to have a systemic response, by which I mean regulation.”
Ms Vestager is referring to the EU’s new data rights which, from May, will include the option to “take your data and go somewhere else” and “the right to be forgotten”.
“I think a great deal of teenagers-to- be will appreciate that for the baby pictures their parents put online. Just to see it from a bit of a fun side. But there might also be private pictures of nights out on the town that
may make it difficult to get a job.”
Or when they turn 50 and they are now a commissioner? Might there also be pictures out there of nights on the town?
“Yes, there probably will be in 30 years’ time,” Ms Vestager says.
She is a Twitter user herself but says she has never used Facebook, originally because she felt at the time that it was wrong to “look over the shoulders” of her children online. She also has a strong antipathy to accepting all sorts of conditions to be able to use social media.
“I just don’t tick that box and go somewhere else. I just get so, argh!.. I just can’t accept it. If you read just the first paragraph of Facebook’s terms of conditions, you will find it unreasonable.”
Margrethe Vestager stresses that the new rules require providers of a service to only ask for the information needed to deliver their service.
“That means they probably need to know who you are, where you live, how you pay, but they don’t need to know your mother’s maiden name.”
An inherent threat
Over the last few months especially, many others have warned against the inherent threat in social media’s relentless quest for new users and their time. Former employees at Google and Facebook have launched a campaign against technological “manipulation” and a “crisis of attention”. At the annual gathering of politicians and business executives at Davos, the tech billionaire Marc Beniof told CNBC that Facebook should be regulated along the lines of a tobacco company. At the same gathering, top investor George Soros warned in a speech that social media companies “deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide”.
But Ms Vestager is hopeful in the sense that she herself, the EU Commission and the EU countries have now all acknowledged the problem and are doing something about it.
“I say that something has started. If you are an impatient soul, which I probably tend to be, you might think it is going a bit slowly. But it is happening, and it is going in the right direction. But it all rests on what we accept as citizens. If we do not use our rights, which will now be better and stronger and easier to understand, then nothing will happen, because there has to be always an exchange between this new regulation which will set a new framework, and then us as citizens saying: Great, I will use that.”