As we’ve learnt from other monopolies, in the long run they create higher costs and limit customer choice. The tech giants too are an economic threat, but they also pose a real danger to our democracy: they control key information processes on which the decisions in our society are based. Collecting, verifying, storing, retrieving, comparing, weighting or disregarding information – all these are monitored by the tech giants. So while their services are advertised as promoting democracy, in fact they’re endangering it.
In the interests of democracy, we must now break these monopolies. One way is to split up vast companies – but for the tech giants this doesn’t seem to make much sense. Probably all that would happen is that new tech companies would spring up – and there’d be little benefit for democracy. The Economist has argued that there’s only one way to tame the tech giants, and that’s via the currency in which users actually buy services: personal data. The rights of people to own their personal data and what they exchange could be defined, so as to keep the tech giants in check. But who should draw up and enforce such legislation? Tech giants act globally and rapidly, making supranational rules difficult to implement.
But monitoring can also work the other way round – by democratising the companies themselves. When users access the services of tech companies, they generate valuable data – data that makes it possible to constantly improve and expand products and services. So why shouldn’t those who contribute be given a say? I propose letting users participate in all decisions of the tech giants that are crucial to them. At my chair, we’re developing new decision-making procedures for experimentation; in my view, the tech companies are an ideal testing ground.
But we need to clarify two questions beforehand: First, in which decisions should the users have a say? For a start, those that affect their rights to personal information. Here users could determine what may and what may not happen with their data. In addition, they should have a say in the specifications of search and learning algorithms, and on censorship rules. But I’d like to focus on the second question: how can users be involved in decision-making? There are two possible ways to address this.
One way is to simply let the users vote on the issues that concern them. The Co-voting procedure we’ve developed is suitable here. A randomly-selected subset of users, known as the “Assessment Group”, votes in a first round and the result is published. The shareholders or their representatives then vote, and the two results – weighted according to a predefined key – are added together to yield the final decision.