On March 12, 2019, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the “World Wide Web”, Tim Berners-Lee’s ground-breaking invention.
In just thirty years, this flagship application of the Internet has forever changed our lives, our habits, our way of thinking and seeing the world. Yet, this anniversary leaves a bittersweet taste in our mouth: the initial decentralized and open version of the Web, which was meant to allow users to connect with each other, has gradually evolved to a very different version, centralized in the hands of giants who capture our data and impose their standards.
We have poured our work, our hearts and a lot of our lives out on the internet. For better or for worse. Beyond business uses for Big Tech, our data has become an incredible resource for malicious actors, who use this windfall to hack, steal and threaten. Citizens, small and large companies, governments: online predators spare no one. This initial mine of information and knowledge has provided fertile ground for dangerous abuse: hate speech, cyber-bullying, manipulation of information or apology for terrorism – all of them amplified, relayed and disseminated across borders.
Laissez-faire or control: between Scylla and Charybdis
Faced with these excesses, some countries have decided to regain control over the Web and the Internet in general: by filtering information and communications, controlling the flow of data, using digital instruments for the sake of sovereignty and security. The outcome of this approach is widespread censorship and surveillance. A major threat to our values and our vision of society, this project of “cyber-sovereignty” is also the antithesis of the initial purpose of the Web, which was built in a spirit of openness and emancipation. Imposing cyber-borders and permanent supervision would be fatal to the Web.
To avoid such an outcome, many democracies have favored laissez-faire and minimal intervention, preserving the virtuous circle of profit and innovation. Negative externalities remain, with self-regulation as the only barrier. But laissez-faire is no longer the best option to foster innovation: data is monopolized by giants that have become systemic, users’ freedom of choice is limited by vertical integration and lack of interoperability. Ineffective competition threatens our economies’ ability to innovate.
In addition, laissez-faire means being vulnerable to those who have chosen a more interventionist or hostile stance. This question is particularly acute today for infrastructures: should we continue to remain agnostic, open and to choose a solution only based on its economic competitiveness? Or should we affirm the need to preserve our technological sovereignty and our security?
Paving a third way
To avoid these pitfalls, France, Europe and all democratic countries must take control of their digital future. This age of digital maturity involves both smart digital regulation and enhanced technological sovereignty.
Holding large actors accountable is a legitimate and necessary first step: “with great power comes great responsibility”.
Platforms that relay and amplify the audience of dangerous content must assume a stronger role in information and prevention. The same goes for e-commerce, when consumers’ health and safety is undermined by dangerous or counterfeit products, made available to them with one click. We should apply the same focus on systemic players in the field of competition: vertical integration should not hinder users’ choice of goods, services or content.
But for our action to be effective and leave room for innovation, we must design a “smart regulation”. Of course, our goal is not to impose on all digital actors an indiscriminate and disproportionate normative burden.
Rather, “smart regulation” relies on transparency, auditability and accountability of the largest players, in the framework of a close dialogue with public authorities. With this is mind, France has launched a six-month experiment with Facebook on the subject of hate content, the results of which will contribute to current and upcoming legislative work on this topic.
In the meantime, in order to maintain our influence and promote this vision, we will need to strengthen our technological sovereignty. In Europe, this sovereignty is already undermined by the prevalence of American and Asian actors. As our economies and societies become increasingly connected, the question becomes more urgent.
Investments in the most strategic disruptive technologies, construction of an innovative normative framework for the sharing of data of general interest: we have leverage to encourage the emergence of reliable and effective solutions. But we will not be able to avoid protective measures when the security of our infrastructure is likely to be endangered.
To build this sustainable digital future together, I invite my G7 counterparts to join me in Paris on May 16th. On the agenda, three priorities: the fight against online hate, a human-centric artificial intelligence, and ensuring trust in our digital economy, with the specific topics of 5G and data sharing.
Our goal? To take responsibility. Gone are the days when we could afford to wait and see.
Our leverage? If we join our wills and forces, our values can prevail.
We all have the responsibility to design a World Wide Web of Trust. It is still within our reach, but the time has come to act.
Mounir Mahjoubi is the French Secretary of State for Digital Affairs.