BerlinSo much state has never been to a Republica. Before the spectators are allowed to enter the hall with the main stage for the first event, officers of the Federal Criminal Police Office check their bags and the computers. And because most of them have several technical devices with them at the same time, there is a crush like in front of an Apple store when a new iPhone is being delivered.
Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has come to hold the opening speech. Later, four federal ministers will join the competition commissioner of the EU and the prime minister of Rhineland-Palatinate. This is a novelty at the conference, which began 13 years ago as a loose meeting of a few bloggers and Internet activists and has become one of the largest digital conferences in Europe today.
Hardly a DAX group, which has no stand on the huge terrain. The main sponsor this year is the car manufacturer Porsche. It has come to the realization that the Internet is not a windowless room where a few nerds meet to play, but the digital reflection of our society.
The realization comes late. The rules and values of this society have long been determined by a few market-dominating companies. Tech corporations like Google and Facebook are also represented at the conference. And so much is talked about regulation at this Republica. It deals with the question of how society can regain sovereignty over data and discourses.
In the past, bloggers discussed the threat of state surveillance here. Today, the supreme representative of the state is enthusiastically applauded. And that, although Frank-Walter Steinmeier rather deliberately enters the debate. He is reminiscent of Theodor Fontane, who was born 200 years ago and wrote in his novel "Der Stechlin" about the introduction of the telegram: "To be brief is usually also to be rude."
The telegram did not ruin Prussia, jokes Steinmeier, but that the culture of debate on the Internet, that phenomena such as Hate Speech and Fake News, if not threatening democracy, if so at least, then at least challenge, in the hall all agree.
The biggest applause, however, gets the Federal President, as he addressed the major US platforms: "Who makes the big business here in Europe, which must also follow our rules!" Steinmeier calls. "Those who create a platform for political discourse with a platform are responsible for democracy.
Maximizing advertising revenue does not maximize debate quality. "Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Co need to be accountable for democracy:" We need clear, organic labels for information – especially when it comes to political advertising, "Steinmeier says. The hall cheers.
Platforms are cooperative
It seems that the platforms have become a common enemy, the common denominator everyone can agree on. Not only in Europe. At the "South by Southwest" in Austin, Texas, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager was greeted warmly, as was US Senator Elisabeth Warren, who called for a break-up of the big tech companies.
The platforms themselves are aware of the danger that threatens them – and are very cooperative in public. "We need a more active role of governments and regulators," said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg only a few weeks ago publicly.
At the Republica, his group is represented by Marie-Theres Weber. She sits in a discussion round about the new media state treaty. Public broadcasting fears that it will lose its role as a supplier of serious information on political platform-building – and calls for greater regulation. For example, they should disclose their algorithms and make it transparent why they played which messages where.
"We're already working on that," Weber hurries to say. Together with scientists, Facebook is currently developing tools to help users understand why they see certain content or promotional offers. We also agree with the transparency demanded by Federal President Steinmeier for political advertising, "says Weber.
The internal unbundling
To protect democratic elections, Facebook has already imposed itself a set of rules. "Honestly, we would have preferred it if the legislature had regulated that," Weber claims. Of course, her group has no interest in disclosing any trade secrets and individual algorithms. The "fundamental principles, however: yes, we will keep that in mind."
Data may even be the most important market power factor for the large platforms. Andreas Mundt, President Bundeskartellamt
A few hours later Andreas Mundt will be on the same stage. The head of the Federal Cartel Office has met Weber's group less cooperative. The Authority has imposed far-reaching restrictions on the processing of users' data. Facebook filed a complaint with the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court.
"Data is an important, perhaps even the most important market power factor for the large platforms," says Mundt. Various ways are conceivable to limit this market power factor. "We have set clear guidelines for Facebook: The unlimited collection and merging of user data from various sources will in future only be possible if the users have given their consent. This is a kind of internal unbundling that we are doing here. This approach could also be considered beyond Facebook. "
Data is also the approach of Margrethe Vestager. The EU Commissioner does not want to smash the big tech companies – but to get them to share the data they collect about their users with other vendors.
Dennis Kaben, representative of Google on the Republica, strongly contradicts this: "The most important thing is not the data itself – raw data has no inherent value," says Kaben. "As long as companies do not have the right tools and the right know-how to gain useful insights from the data, the data itself is useless. Young companies like Instagram or Twitter grew up because they had exciting business models, not because they had a lot of data right from the start.
But the Google Group, which has been repeatedly condemned by the EU Commission to fines, tries to counter the critical mood in public with conciliatory measures. The company announced a few days ago that users should be able to have their data automatically deleted within three months. In addition, Google wants to explain on the Republica, what it does against abusive disinformation on digital platforms.
The corporations seem to have understood that it could be the same with the debate about regulation as it does with digitization: Once it starts, it will not go away.
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