Facebook's Nick Clegg: The idea that Europe should ban companies from collecting users' personal data is a serious miscalculation

  • Facebook’s Nick Clegg responds to the open letters from Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
  • Döpfner’s and von der Leyen’s concern about shutting down President Trump’s accounts are fair, but until governments have clear laws, tech companies have to act based on their own rules.
  • Döpfner’s call to ban the ability of companies to collect user data and serve them personalized services is misguided.
  • Nick Clegg is Vice President Global Affairs at Facebook. From 2007 to 2015 he was party leader of the Liberal Democrats and from 2010 to 2015 also Deputy Prime Minister of Great Britain.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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How the internet is governed is one of the big debates of our time. Policymakers in Europe and around the world are grappling with understandable concerns about the size and power of tech companies and the rules that should govern everything from individual privacy to the content that is shared online.  

This week, the media proprietor Mathias Döpfner and European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, exchanged open letters about many of these issues. They discussed two core assertions: first, that it is high time that “big tech” should be regulated; and that there should be sweeping prohibitions on the use of data.

Read more: Mathias Döpfner’s open letter: It’s time for Europe to take private data from the hands of powerful tech monopolies and give it back to the people

President von der Leyen argued strongly that public discourse online should be framed by democratically accountable rules. There is legitimate concern about private companies dictating what can and can’t be said online, including by political leaders – a debate thrown into sharp relief by the recent decisions by Facebook and Twitter to suspend former US President Trump from their services.

In his letter, Mr Döpfner argued the use of personal data to provide personalized services is in and of itself a bad thing, and declared that in the EU “platforms should be forbidden from storing private…data and using it for commercial purposes. This must be put into law.”

Read more: President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen: Here’s what the EU is doing to limit the power of tech giants

As a proud European, a former Deputy Prime Minister in the UK, an ex MEP in the European Parliament, and a former official in the European Commission, and someone who now works for one of the companies at the heart of these debates – Facebook – I passionately agree with the first of these arguments, and profoundly disagree with the latter.

Private companies should, indeed, not be making so many big decisions about what content is acceptable on their own. Of course it would be better if these were made according to democratically accountable frameworks. Facebook has argued for some time for new rules in a range of areas, including privacy, election integrity, harmful content and data portability. 

Europe has shown global leadership on digital regulation. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was the first anywhere to really grapple with what it means to be a citizen in the age of data-driven services. The EU has an opportunity to be similarly pioneering on online content rules through its proposed Digital Services Act.

In the meantime, in the absence of democratically agreed rules, the tech companies need to make real decisions in real time. The absence of sensible legislation cannot be an excuse for inaction when it comes to hateful speech which can incite violence.

By contrast, the idea that the use of personal data to provide personalized services is in and of itself a bad thing — that somehow Silicon Valley geeks are controlling the minds of Europeans, telling them how to vote and what to think — is profoundly wrong. The caricature of shadowy figures in Star Trek uniforms manipulating our neural pathways in dark digital control rooms may make for great television, as in the Netflix film “The Social Dilemma,” but it doesn’t make the caricature any more true. It is high time we have a debate based on facts, not cardboard cut-out caricatures.

It is often asserted that social media is the chief cause of rising polarization — that people are unwittingly trapped in online echo chambers where they’re exposed only to people and content that reinforce their ideological worldview. But the academic evidence simply doesn’t bear this out.

Research from Stanford University last year looked in depth at trends in nine countries over 40 years, and found that in some countries polarization was on the rise before social media even existed, and in others it’s been decreasing while social media use increased.

Data published in 2019 from the EU itself suggests that whether you get your news from social media or elsewhere, levels of ideological polarization are similar.

Research from both Pew in 2019 and the Reuters Institute in 2017 shows that you’re likely to encounter a more diverse set of opinions and ideas using social media than if you only engaged with other types of media.

This is not as surprising as it sounds: most people logically share a wider mix of ideological views from their family and friends on social media than the narrow digest of content they receive from partisan publications or cable TV outlets.

While algorithms play an important role in ordering what you see on social media, the biggest signals that determine the prominence of content on Facebook are simply the friends and family you choose. The caricature that users are passive victims of algorithmic choices made for them is simply false – it is the interaction between user choices and algorithmic systems that creates the personalized fingerprint in every user’s unique social media feed.

President von der Leyen’s response to Mr Döpfner, in which she stated that Europeans “are enthusiastic about the wonders of modern technology” suggests she is all too aware of the damage that turning Europe’s back on the data economy would have.

It is not just Big Tech that would be damaged by the end of the use of personal data to provide goods and services. European airlines, supermarkets, the car industry, agriculture, financial and legal services – just about any industry you can name – use personal data to provide personalized services. And for good reason: without some knowledge of what people want and like it is impossible to tailor online services to their needs.

According to the German Association for the Digital Economy, the German automotive industry will generate 50% of its revenue from data-driven services by 2050.

Imagine what the COVID-19 pandemic would have been like without being able to connect with family and friends through Facebook, shop online through Zalando, order food on Lieferando, listening to music and podcasts on Spotify, use Apple Pay instead of cash, message your friends on WhatsApp, or watch Netflix during long lockdown evenings? All of these services – to one degree or the other – use personal data for commercial purposes. 

Data-driven services underpin Europe’s economy. Even before COVID, more than 25 million European companies used Facebook’s products and tools – the vast majority for free – helping them generate hundreds of billions of euros in sales.

For many small businesses, personalized advertising — which uses data safely and in a privacy-protected way — has been a lifeline during the pandemic. Big brands can afford expensive mass marketing campaigns, but an independent shop can’t. 64% of German small and medium-sized businesses agree that promoting a business on television, radio, or print is too expensive for them. That is why they find personalized ads so useful: they connect businesses and people in ways that simply aren’t possible otherwise. 

None of this is to deny that there are real concerns to be addressed about the way data is stored, shared and monetized. The digital world has changed dramatically over the last two decades or more, and it urgently needs new rules, rules which will require ongoing changes from companies like Facebook.

But I hope Europe will not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Reform yes; “forbidding” the sensible use of data no. I’d love to see the next Google or Alibaba emerge in Europe. But it won’t happen if Europe turns against the innovative and creative use of data. This is as important to the future of German car manufacturers, Dutch supermarkets, French airlines, and millions of small businesses as it is to big tech companies.

This story was originally featured in WELT.

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