Until recently, citizens appeared destined to live in one of two worlds:
The first is one of monopoly capitalism, where citizens are regarded as customers whose sole purpose is to generate data that can be converted into money. This is the world shaped by big American tech. It conveys the illusion of freedom because it's shaped by the private sector, and the package of surveillance and manipulation is wrapped attractively in huge amounts of customer convenience.
The other is one of state surveillance, where citizens are valued only if they serve a state sanctioned purpose. This is the Chinese version of the digital world and it doesn’t need pretensions of freedom. The Chinese government is clear about its goals when it monitors citizen behavior, ranks them by their compliance with the state’s agenda, and distributes privileges accordingly.
The problem with both of these worlds is that basic human rights are violated -- rights that should not be relinquished by ticking a box.
The root of the problem in both these worlds is monopoly. In world number one, conglomerates such as Facebook dominate search, social media, communication and shopping (Amazon is a powerful search engine). In world number two, the monopoly is state power, uncontested by political competition.
While monopolies and freedom don’t go well together, encouraging monopolies is one of digital technology’s basic functions.
Based on data gobbling algorithms, tech works towards converging and accumulating power, super efficiency and structures that are too big to fail. In contrast, freedom, like nature, allows for variety, independence, redundancy, inefficiency and choice.
This is where Europe comes in. The capacity to negotiate among an abundance of diverse interests, find compromises and push forward effective regulation would be an asset in a digital world that has promised freedom but has increasingly delivered control.
There is no better known way to promote freedom than through democracy.
Regulation, derived from public interest, is at democracy’s core because the interests of the weak can only be protected with rules that restrict the freedom of the powerful.
Silicon Valley used to be admired and envied. Many have wished to follow in its footsteps. But now is the time for more self-confidence on this side of the Atlantic. It is essential that Europe leads a third way between the American and the Chinese varieties of a digital world that currently doesn’t serve its inhabitants but only its proprietors.