In the years before the 2008 crash, Vince Cable built a reputation for seeing further ahead than most in politics and economics. Vince’s essay in the new Social Liberal Forum book “Four Go in Search of Big Ideas” enhances this record.
Writing before recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica, he identified: “the heart of the worries growing deeper about the data giants: that by filtering the information we receive they can influence not just the goods and services we consume but how we vote and, indeed, what we think”.
Vince sets out the threat to democracy: “Even if the owners of the platforms are benign and well-intentioned, the systems they have created and now monopolise may threaten democracy as we know it”. “Their systems can be used for surveillance by building up a profile of targeted individuals. Elections in many countries often revolve around which candidate has the largest, engaged, Facebook following while the US President’s Twitter following has become a means of short-circuiting the checks and balances built into media coverage”.
Vince’s concludes that “the Internet is being constructed around a handful of companies of immense and growing power, notably Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Netflix, along with their Chinese equivalents, Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu”. “We are dealing with a particular case of regulated natural monopoly. If there are historical parallels it is with nineteenth-century railway companies which dominated the economy and society of the regions they opened up”.
So, what is to be done? Vince’s key principle is: “the giant platform companies cannot continue to be allowed to dominate markets and many aspects of our lives as they currently do”.
He insists on “transparency. The algorithms used by the data companies and logs of the data fed into them should be available for inspection by regulators acting for democratically elected government.
“The companies will have an explicit legal responsibility for policing their platforms, be it for hate speech, pornography or terrorist activity and for reporting on their policing activity.
“Users to have a clear understanding of how their personal data will be used, and to protect their privacy (including ‘the right to be forgotten’).
“These interventions, combined with robust action by competition authorities to prevent the abuse of size, represent the first necessary steps to regulate the new data-based economy in the wider public interest than that of the handful of giant platform companies. It is better that this regulatory activity be taken at European or global than national level to prevent a fragmentation of the Internet and it is better that it allows for continued private sector innovation than stifles it”.
This short summary can’t do full justice to the detail of Vince’s analysis and his proposals. You’ll have to buy the book!
A version of this blogpost originally appeared on LibDemVoice.org.uk