MUNICH — We are making the world a better place: That has been a central promise that helped Silicon Valley's Internet giants seduce the public, on their way to gaining unprecedented power over our lives. That vow remains at the heart of the message of Mark Zuckerberg and his company Facebook. The goal, as Zuckerberg has always said, is to create a large community, a global platform for sharing that would eventually bring us all closer together.
This heal-the-world rhetoric can be found everywhere on Facebook, right down to its data policy — which is supposed to make users aware of what information they're handing over to the company and of what the side effects can be. Instead, this digital information notice begins with a sentence that says a lot about the way Facebook sees itself: "We give you the power to share as part of our mission to make the world more open and connected." In other words, give us as much personal data as possible, and you and humanity will be better off!
You have to look at this way of thinking, this attitude — I'm just doing something good — to understand why Zuckerberg kept silent for more than three days before he finally said he was sorry, however half-hearted his apology was, for what has turned into the biggest data scandal in Facebook's young but potent history. During those three days, the company's share price plunged while outraged politicians summoned Zuckerberg, investors threatened to sue and a "Delete Facebook" campaign spread. The public began to consider stepping off the social platform, aware that their own data could end up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica, the UK company that harvested the profiles of 50 million Facebook users — and which ultimately also helped Donald Trump win the U.S. presidential election.
Europe would do well to oppose American-style digital capitalism.
This data scandal may be even bigger than just Facebook, marking a turning point in our relationship with Internet companies. This all took place in a week when it's become clearer than ever before that Silicon Valley's central promise of salvation can no longer be believed. The unbridled digital capitalism of American influence has made the world a worse place, in some respects. It is a place where data, in many cases, is no longer secure, where laws — for example those regulating the taxi industry or apartment rentals— are stretched, or simply ignored. We now see that we are living in a place where Russian trolls and companies like Cambridge Analytica can manipulate elections using Facebook, where millions of digital laborers perform their services without any sort of social security, where cheaper and cheaper labor has become the rule for driving and delivery services. Meanwhile, the same Internet companies use all kinds of tricks to minimize their tax burden, and make space for the flooding of the European market with cheap goods from Asia, unbeknown to fiscal authorities.
Europe would therefore do well to oppose American-style digital capitalism with its own European-style digital market economy, in which the social commitment of property would be key. Ownership comes with obligations: This sentence should not only apply to employees, society and the government, but also to the regulation of data. Those who own a particularly large amount of data also have a particularly large obligation to handle it carefully. And those who earn a particularly large amount of money with that data mustn't move it to tax havens.
The Zuckerbergs of this world are naturally reluctant to agree to regulation. The Facebook founder, for instance, used his apology interview to counter-attack and criticize Germany's Network Enforcement Act introduced in January and which was designed to restrict hate speech online. Naturally, the tax for Internet companies proposed this week by the European Commission isn't to the liking of Google, Amazon and Facebook either. But even if we can discuss the details, Europeans should be clear: Only when real rules apply to these new corporate giants can the world have a chance of becoming a better place for all.