Social Democrats consider themselves to be the party of social and technological progress. The political left must therefore address digitisation as a policy issue. There must be no doubt in our minds that our traditional values of freedom, justice and solidarity continue to apply in the digital realm just as they do in our analogue lives. Our values and the influence they have run up against limits, however, if we do not actively intervene. Whether they also encounter limits if we take action is an open question in my view. The shaping of the social market economy, the general conditions governing it and the relations between power and individual freedom are also affected by the changes arising from the digital world.
Let us take a look at the status quo. The Internet as it is at the moment favours companies over individual citizens. Companies know what we read, who we meet and where we happen to be. The transparent citizen is a fact of life – for companies at least. Data capitalism is omnipresent. Not only does it register what we post or tweet. Amazon knows what page we have read three times on Kindle. Spotify knows that we secretly listen to pop songs. Foursquare knows where my favourite café is and who sits next to me. The individual is transformed into a collection of data and links. His digital identity becomes more important than his real-life identity, irrespective of whether it corresponds with reality or not. The individual is no longer a cultural being but a market being.
The German blogger, writer and journalist, Sascha Lobo, has gone so far as to say that
the Internet is finished, but the idea of digital networking is not.
The present construction of the net restricts the opportunities we have to exert a democratic influence. It raises the question of who wields power. We politicians do not determine the rules of the game. Frank Schirrmacher, the late co-publisher of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, summed up the situation as follows:
What we are looking at here is the power asymmetry of the modern era and the question of how it can be democratised without jeopardising the advantages it offers.
There is no reason to give up hope. We can win the Internet back. We can shape it. We can repair it.
Social Democrats have always aspired to shape policy. We stand for education and participation, for progress and improved conditions, for freedom, justice and solidarity. But what do they mean for the online world?
Freedom: Freedom means having a share and being able to participate. Everybody can develop, organise and make direct contact. For years the concept of freedom gave us reason to praise the Internet to the skies, until we woke up with a jolt. For authoritarian regimes and security services learned how to control the technology, blocked online networks and resorted to monitoring. Freedom is also restricted with the help of search filters and privileged data. Neutrality is ruled out. We must regain freedom in the digital realm.
Justice: For us, justice means access to the Internet. Those who are offline are left behind. Those who are online have undreamt-of possibilities. There is the threat here of a new gap opening up between rich and poor, between online and offline, if online services cost a lot of money. If safe communication with friends is only possible when you can pay for it. If good job exchanges demand large sums of money that people on income support perhaps cannot afford. But justice is also a question of fair education and upward progression – online and offline. We need digital education in schools, training and professions. People must understand how computers work. What digitisation means. Young and old alike. That is the way to ensure justice.
Solidarity: Today solidarity often means online political activism. Of course an online petition for better refugee accommodation is a good idea. So is an appeal on Facebook against PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West). The Internet provides tremendously important spaces for debate. But we should use it more as a tool for real-life activism rather than harnessing our resources online only. Solidarity also means community. We cannot afford to lose our sense of genuine public good. The Internet, by contrast, is very much focused on the individual. Ultimately, then, you lose sight of the big picture behind it. The optimisation of the individual by means of apps, but not everyone is in a position to become fitter and healthier, faster and so on. Our social security systems are geared to the public good – in health and in pensions. Mutual solidarity shapes society. That is something we must achieve in the digital world, too.
However, there is one thing we should not lose sight of in the process. Behind the digital identity is a real-life person, an individual who can lose his or her footing. Can we really lead self-determined lives if we are confronted wherever we go with facts and data, opinions and transparency? Today we can largely do what we want to do. And become the people we want to become. That is what the Internet promises us at least. But it is becoming progressively more difficult to find out what that actually means in practice.
Harmonising digital and real-life identity, mapping out personal wishes and targets, creating motivation and satisfaction is getting more and more difficult in the brave new online world. We politicians must create safe spaces in which there is room for opinions but also uncertainties. In which questions can be put. In which users have confidence. If people cannot find their identity, there is no point us talking about who owns the digital share of it.
We, therefore, need a world which gives people sufficient freedom to find themselves. Which creates sufficient justice to make upward social progress possible. Which creates solidarity not just by means of clicks and likes. The vision mapped out in Dave Eggers’ The Circle is certainly not a vision I consider desirable.
I see the solution first and foremost in education and the fostering of diversity. We need properly educated citizens who know there are search engines which do not collect data. Who use messengers that transmit encrypted news. Who use different providers in order to avoid becoming transparent citizens. The more data are spread across different servers the better. We need citizens who say quite clearly: That’s not for me! Who show companies the cold shoulder. People who can decide for themselves who uses their data. The provider with the best protection. We need diversity and not monopolies. That is the starting point for political regulation.
Social democratic policies must ensure good general conditions. That means greatly improved digital education and the systematic extension of media-based teaching. With campaigns and education and with comprehensive data protection regulations which make it possible for data to be properly deleted or passed on. We need improvements in cartel and competition law. And we must promote start-ups that aim to win back the “good Internet”.
These are not so much visions as real steps. But they have a clearly defined objective: citizens’ power. All power emanates from the people – there can be nothing more democratic than that. Behind this lies a notion which entails a development away from transparent citizens to sovereign citizens. Our data belong to us. We must make sure that is the case once again in the future.
For me there can only be progress in this respect. As the German philosopher and journalist, Gerhard Szczesny, once said:
Being educated means not being afraid of yourself.
That is something we, too, should bear in mind in our debates on digitisation. We must make sure that we are not marked by fear of the Internet, but by confidence in it. We have values we stand up for. We have an objective we pursue. All we need now are the best solutions.
This is the transcript of a speech delivered in Berlin in December 2014 at a ‘philosophy meets politics’ event of the Kulturforum der Sozialdemokratie.
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