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Guest lecturer explores American tech giants’ control over European public sectors

2018-05-02

Data storage and the misuse of our personal information have never been so much in the forefront of political debate. Social media platforms are coming under increasing scrutiny by legislators, but just how far entrenched are such platforms into our lives, and how much of the public sector do they control?

Professor Jose van Dijck

To discuss how tech companies are blurring the division between the public and the private sector, Malmö University is hosting a guest lecture by a world-leading scholar in the field. Professor José van Dijck, who is a prominent academic in the area of digital media based at the University of Utrecht, is set to present her lecture, Reflections on Responsible Digital Societies.

In her lecture, she will discuss how the five major tech giants — Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon — have created an American-centric ecosystem of platforms which Western Europe has become fully dependent on. 

How 'public' are our public sectors?

“My concern is that these platforms have become gateways to not only our industrial sectors, but also our public and private service sectors. We are facing a situation where all of our digital infrastructures have become privatised and there is no longer a public space within that infrastructure.”

Focussing on two public sectors, namely education and health, she demonstrates the extent to which these tech giants have penetrated our society. 

“In education, for example, what we are seeing is an increasing number of platforms are entering the sector by providing not only software and hardware, but also administrative and tracking systems which are very much dominated by those five companies. 

“The gateways to all of our systems are going to be defined by services which are no longer public. For example, a Facebook login increasingly gives you access to many public services.” 

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The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, van Dijck explains, is just one of the many accesses that has come out into the open, exposing the fact that we are giving away our data and that data is not well protected. 

“Privacy is not really a prime concern for big tech companies. We have yielded power over our own information to them without really knowing what they are doing with that information.”

Global or American?

“These companies do not particular present themselves as American companies, but rather as global companies. What I will be arguing is that Europe needs to be more vigilant on how we allow such tech giants to define our online infrastructures. 

“I think European governments really need to develop a comprehensive policy that puts public values first. We should demand that particular public values, such as privacy, security, transparency and accountability are articulated before platforms can be allowed to operate the European public sphere.

“There are several ways to do that, but regulation is very complex. There is a big debate right now as to whether we should regulate the basic infrastructure of platforms as utilities the way we have regulated railways and roads. The problem is that platforms are so intricately interconnected that you can hardly untangle them, particularly if you want to distinguish between infrastructural and sectoral platforms. 

“There is a shift in public mood in Europe and a growing awareness that empowerment of public institutions and civil society organizations is needed to counterbalance the unprecedented power of the big five tech companies. If we don’t design a comprehensive strategy to tackle this problem over the next few years, Europeans face losing grip on how they organise their own democratic societies.”

Text: Adrian Grist

Last updated by Adrian Grist