Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. We interviewed Natali Helberger to hear her perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.
Natali Helberger is a professor of Information Law at the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Faculty of Law. She researches how the role of information users is changing under the influence of information technology, and the regulation of converging information and communications markets. Focus points of her research are the interface between technology and information law, user rights and the changing role of the user in information law and policy. Natali has conducted research for the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, and national governments and is a regular speaker at national and international conferences. Among others, she is member of an Expert Committee of the Council of Europe on AI and Human Rights, and one of the leaders of the Dutch VSNU Citizenship & Democracy research agenda.
The Internet Society: You recently wrote a chapter for Damian Tambini and Martin Moore’s book Digital Dominance: The Power of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple (2018, Oxford University Press), focusing specifically on the impact of consolidation on media diversity. Can you tell us more?
Natali Helberger: Damian and Martin asked me to look into the implications of the rise of digital online platforms for media diversity. Media diversity is the idea that in a democratic society there should be a variety of viewpoints and ideas from different speakers, presented to us via the media. One key trend that we see is people access news content and media content more and more not only via traditional media but also or even exclusively via new information intermediaries, such as social media platforms, apps, AI assistants, and search engines (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism 2016, 2017; Pew Research Center 2016).
These information intermediaries have stepped in to fill a critical gap in the news delivery chain: consolidating attention and helping users to make a selection of the news that they find relevant. The result is a structural transformation in which news is turning into a customizable product that can be carefully targeted and adjusted to individual recipients and the demands of advertisers. The presence of such data-driven, heavily targeted platforms does not necessarily need to be a challenge to a diverse information environment, as long as they are open to diverse voices, and there are alternative sources of information. But what to make of a situation in which there remain only a few dominant global sources of information? And in the light of such a dominant player and a heavily targeted news environment, what are the prospects of still encountering diverse media content if we do not succeed in preserving a flourishing media environment also outside platforms?
This year we’re focusing our annual Global Internet Report on consolidation in the Internet economy. We’re specifically investigating consolidation trends in the access, services, and application layers of the Internet respectively, as well as consolidation trends acting vertically across layers (e.g., companies gaining dominance in more than one of the Internet’s layers).
What do you think of this trend?
One consolidation trend that I am observing with some concern is the consolidation of the many different functions that the we use the Internet for in a few, powerful platforms: whether it is access to media content and news, social interaction, political information and interaction with our democratic representatives, buying and selling services, interacting with government services, with teachers and educational institutions, doing research – all these activities are facilitated by a few players who provide us with a super convenient service architecture to do so. And because their services are so good and convenient to use, we increasingly rely on them and make them, step-by-step, the backbone of our digital life. We should be concerned about the dependencies that this creates, not only in the economic but also in the political sense. Public institutions, such as universities, political parties, governments, public services, and media in particular should have a role to play in countering this trend, and facilitating alternative venues and infrastructures of public life on the internet.
How has technology’s role in societies changed in the time since you’ve been studying technology’s impact on the media? Have you perceived a backlash against the tech industry?
I think that for some countries we are very close to completing our transition from an analogue to a data society. In the Netherlands, for example, the postal services have begun removing post boxes because few people write letters anymore, and in the communication modes between citizens and public services, digital has become the default. Having said so, I think it is important to acknowledge that the extent to which technology has already changed societies differs from country to country, and even for regions. We must be very careful that these differences do not result in new divides and inequalities when it comes to access to services and knowledge.
Regarding the backlash against the tech industry it is important to distinguish between the tech and the industry part in “tech industry.” It is up to society how tech can be used to advance human welfare, society, and fundamental rights, but also to decide in which situations we do not want technology to make important decisions about humans. Think of the use of AI in deciding who should get access to vital services such as health care, schooling, or justice. The tech industry can be an important partner in doing so. There can also be situations in which the interests of society and industry are not aligned or even opposed. And it is here where societies and governments must push back, and should not shy away protecting public interests and human rights against industry interests.
What are your other fears for the future of the Internet?
I am concerned about the shifts in not only economic but also political power that the Internet and our transition to a data society have caused. This is a shift that our current legal system is poorly prepared for. (Some) platforms are an instructive example of this. As important venues for people to inform themselves, form their political opinions, and interact with peers as well as their democratic representatives, these platforms are no longer only economic actors. They are also active actors in political processes, like elections or decisions about new laws. And because of the influence about the way people receive information and form opinions, data power can easily turn into political power. Commercial laws, like competition law and consumer law, are not prepared to deal with the political power that data can give. It is high time that we think of how to contain the political power of platforms, for example by revisiting our rules about political advertising, concentration of communication power, but also division of political power.
What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?
That the Internet continues to be a place where we can explore, connect, explore, and play – and do so without the need to be constantly alert about our privacy, whether we are being watched, manipulated or how our behavour can be used to advance someone’s else goal.
I am tremendously grateful that I am living and researching in this age of almost unlimited access to information and communication, and I hope that my work, and that of my colleagues at the Institute for Information Law in Amsterdam can help to make the Internet remain this place.