Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has warned against the breakup of the Internet and the further drifting apart of the world regions on technological issues. “Neither isolation nor small states, striving for dominance and omnipotence fantasies should determine our common path into the digital future”, emphasized the Federal President on Monday at the opening conference of the international research project he initiated on the “ethics of digitization” in Berlin.
“The world conflict between the USA and China that has escalated in these months must concern us all,” said Steinmeier, referring to the “dispute over digital technologies and their foreign policy significance” and in particular the disputes over Huawei and TikTok. But politicians steer “into a dead end” when they copy their answer to digitization “from a manual of statecraft of the 19th century”: “A new everyone against everyone, we must not be satisfied with that.”
Against a renationalized network
Efforts to renationalize the Internet for the purpose of state control and economic benefits and to split it up into a splin Internet, the Federal President rejected. He has In 2018 during his travels to the USA and China but determined how far the two poles are currently apart.
Inventors and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley see themselves as “pioneers of the liberal, globalized data economy, whose products are used by billions of people, whose innovative strength changes our lives and who strive for economic profit with daily growing mountains of data”.
In Guangzhou and Beijing, on the other hand, “a state capitalism with enormous digital ambitions, with its own Internet, an almost isolated, state-controlled system” prevails, Steinmeier did not miss. Despite all the rapid innovation, this must “always serve the central urge to control and monitor pressure of the party apparatus”. In the EU, the debate about the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) raged and at the same time made it clear that “even within Western societies, the ideas of right and wrong in digital politics often differ widely”.
In view of these different characteristics, a laissez-faire in network regulation is out of the question for Steinmeier. It is naive to believe that “national rules and principles for social networks, for mass data analysis, for autonomous systems through to weapons of war or for the technical basis of the Internet would somehow create a meaningful whole”. It is important to prevent “the law of the jungle from coming into effect in the digital future”. Politics and civil society should therefore “take care of a functioning international order”.
Ethical standards for digitization
“The international understanding of ethical standards for digitization is becoming more and more important if we want a consistent, open, free and creative Internet in the future”, Steinmeier emphasized. Otherwise the technological development threatens to become a dystopia without trust and interfaces. Just as the international community of states set normative minimum standards across all borders via the human rights charter after World War II and pushed back the right of the strong, the initiative now has to be taken for a dialogue on comparable common ethical guidelines for the Internet.
Steinmeier clarified that Europe would bring its own ideas into this discourse. For him there is “first and foremost an ethic of freedom”. Technology should serve people and lead to more self-determination. Virtual reality should not become the only reality, “should not replace our public spaces and human encounters”. Digital technology should overcome oppression and alleviate poverty and, if possible, protect the environment and conserve resources.
“New freedoms need new rules,” the ex-foreign minister also made clear. As part of the project, the technologists and social scientists involved should provide impetus for the international, balance-oriented debate. This will “not remain an academic finger exercise” because the expert advice is needed. Many citizens are concerned about which decisions the algorithm will make and what will happen to their job when it goes digital. Last year, the Federal President had already campaigned for a deeper political debate on the Internet at the re: publica.
Abstract ethics vs. concrete implementation
The new academic initiative under Steinmeier’s patronage heads the Global Network of Internet and Society Research Centers, a network of over 100 international research institutes, in cooperation with Stiftung Mercator. On the level of “abstract ethical questions”, science is already relatively advanced, stated Wolfgang Schulz, spokesman for the European section of the network. Such approaches would have to be better integrated into IT and digital companies.
According to the research director at the “Alexander von Humboldt” Institute for the Internet and Society, algorithms often reinforce stereotypes and offer less well-paid jobs, for example, sometimes only to women. “We are largely blank here,” he admitted. “We don’t have any good implementable solutions against it yet.”
There are already many policy documents in the field of artificial intelligence, added Amar Ashar, from the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University. In 2018, for example, Google laid down principles such as fairness. However, their implementation is difficult, especially when it comes to tricky things, so that tech companies like Microsoft or Facebook are even demanding more state regulation themselves.
Can an autonomous car with occupants on board drive over a tree instead of other road users? Can a refrigerator order milk but deny access to ice cream? With questions like these, Matthias Kettemann, Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research, clarified the research spectrum. Algorithms, platforms and search engines exert power, but should not stray from the protection of fundamental rights. Especially for “hidden structures” (dark patterns) a “new set of instruments for the protection of freedom” is necessary.
Copyright researcher Sunimal Mendis said that minimum standards such as copyright inclusiveness could unite the international community. But societies functioned in different ways. Forcing you to do something could therefore also be harmful. A “universal ethics” of digitization will be difficult to develop.