PARIS — Without freedom, there is no human dignity. And yet, men have a dangerous propensity to choose bondage, either for comfort, or due to laziness or fear. Tyrants know this, and have used it time and again to impose themselves. Today, it's the large technology companies we should be watching out for lest they accumulate too much power and threaten our democratic society.
That, at least, is the thesis developed by Jean-Hervé Lorenzi, professor of economics at Paris-Dauphine University and president of the Cercle des Économistes (Circle of Economists), who co-wrote a new book called L'Avenir de notre liberté ("The Future of our Freedom"). The work's subtitle is particularly topical and seductive: "Should we dismantle Google ... and some others?"
It's urgent that political bodies reassert their authority.
The book — written in collaboration with Mickaël Berrebi, a financier and member of the Institute of Actuaries — reminds us that GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) and their Chinese equivalents (Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, etc.) control our personal data, have incomparable financial strength, and tend to grow quickly by creating monopolies. Their leaders have become the new prophets, decrypting the world of tomorrow, which further strengthens their influence.
Scientific breakthroughs could prove to be particularly perilous, the authors argue. It's urgent, therefore, that political bodies reassert their authority. Researchers already have the ability to practice genetic modifications. How, Lorenzi and Berrebi ask, can we no be worried about that? What can be used to improve health could also lead to eugenics or become a weapon of mass destruction, a failing gene that can contaminate a population in a few generations.
And what about artificial intelligence? Will it come to dominate mankind? Intrusion into private life, widespread surveillance, the establishment of a society divided between a few elected officials — a kind of "augmented men" thanks to genetics and integrated microchips — and a host of losers ... This bleak picture, the authors argue, is what awaits us if we allow ourselves to passively submit.
Individuals should have "the right to be forgotten".
Critics can certainly take issue with the book's alarmist bias. But it has the merit of proposing solutions. It's not enough, say the authors, that the GAFA companies be obliged, finally, to pay more taxes; they should be dismantled. Google's web search function, for example, could split from other domains (Gmail, Google Maps, Android, YouTube, cloud). Facebook's social network could be separated from its advertising arm. The measures may seem radical, Lorenzi and Berrebi argue, but they're neither unfeasible nor unprecedented. The U.S. government has broken up monopolies on several occasions. Think Standard Oil and AT&T.
The authors also call for an implementation of stricter state privacy and data protection rules. Among other things, they argue, individuals should have "the right to be forgotten" — to have all personal details removed from online search engines. Lorenzi and Berrebi also consider it essential to establish compulsory ethical rules concerning genetics, and advocate for the development of international cooperation. A task nearly as immense as the internet itself.
See more from Tech / Science here