Republica founder "It's up to us if we accept monopolies"

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Markus Beckedahl

The founder of the Republica calls for greater control of the major Internet companies by the antitrust authorities.


(Photo: AP)

Markus Beckedahl, born in 1976, is one of the founders of the Republica. Since 2002 he has been editor-in-chief of the blog Netzpolitik.org, which he founded. He was known in 2015, when the Attorney General on the suspicion of treason against him and his colleagues André Meister determined.

At that time, the journalists reported on plans of the protection of the Constitution to want to monitor social media more closely. In their contributions they had also quoted from a classified as confidential report of the protection of the Constitution. The case caused indignation nationwide. Attorney General Harald Range had to resign in the episode. The blog of Markus Beckedahl, which is funded mainly by donations, gained attention.

Mr Beckedahl, the motto of the Republica this year is "too long, did not read". What does that mean?
We want to discuss what it means for a media world, when people only consume headlines and scriptwriting texts. If you share articles without reading them. If they get an overview of the world in this way – which can only be a partial overview, because the title is usually very shortened.

Is not that the essence of the internet and social media? The shortening to a hashtag?
The dominant infrastructures like Facebook, Twitter and Co. are predestined to flush people's headlines into the timelines. But we also see a counter-movement in the internet – the yearning for the longread. There is obviously a need for depth and more complex stories, not just in the form of articles, but also as a podcast or TV series.

There was a time, it was said, soon no one will make more than four minutes of video at one go. And now people sit there and watch "Game of Thrones" for three days.

Political decision-making involves more than Netflix.
We have to promote digital and media literacy. That costs money, and we have to take that into our hands. Many of the effects we experience and feel on the internet are related to a lack of digital education. That you click on it everywhere, just share everything, without testing it, and without being aware of the responsibility that you carry there.

And of course we need a modern public service broadcasting – also on the Net. A radio that is not artificially tied to the medium of television or radio, but its task of making public journalism, may also comply on the Internet.

The contents are one, the channel that is consumed, the other. The large platforms determine how and what we communicate about. In politics, much is discussed about smashing. What will that bring?
Of course, we need ways to break market-dominant platforms like Facebook or Google. Facebook dominates the social network with Whatsapp and Instagram. Prior to the acquisition of Whatsapp, the company promised not to aggregate users' data. That's exactly what happened five years later.

In my opinion, that would be a good reason to annul the acquisition by the EU Commission. Google has similar monopoly-like structures with the Android operating system, Google search and Youtube. Here we need better antitrust and competition rules – and appropriate enforcement options. But that can only be one measure of many.

The others would be?
We also need better traceability and democratic control of what algorithmic decision making systems offer us on these platforms. It can not be that we as societies are completely dependent on individual companies who, by delivering their newsfeeds, are able to manipulate our perception of reality without having democratic systems to prevent and nip in the bud suffocate.

And then it would have been nice if there had been early debate about it, so that we get decentralized, open social networks and do not have to be dependent on individual providers who provide a social infrastructure that has become the main communication infrastructure for much of our society Network is.

With StudiVZ there was a kind of German Facebook, but it could not prevail.
StudiVZ was a cheap copy of Facebook. After making it big, the creators no longer invested in growth and innovation. That's why they could not oppose the market entry of Facebook.

I would wish that there were open-source, decentralized social networks, from my point of view also intended by public law. This means that we get infrastructures that are as open as possible, that are decentralized, that are not controlled by a single company and that are also comprehensible at the same time.

Who should build that? The State?
One could also promote the development of such networks with EU funding programs. Public law does not mean state. We could also go and say that we are taking part of the budgetary levy to promote public interest-oriented network innovation, which could include networks, but also other public interest-based content.

It is hard to imagine that a state-sponsored initiative could be as attractive as the product of a private, multi-billion dollar company.
If we do not try, we will not find out. You can also promote different projects in parallel to see which creates the biggest innovations. The sad thing is that you could have foreseen the development of the big platforms ten years ago.

But most politicians were still busy setting up their fan page on Facebook and optimizing their campaign there. If you had started to promote alternative social networks then we would have alternatives today or be more confident that we can have one soon.

Has the digital literacy of politicians increased?
Ten years ago, we made fun of politicians who only knew the Internet from television and had their e-mails printed by their secretaries. The cases have fallen sharply. But we face the problem that large parts of the key politicians in Germany are over 50 and not so digitally competent that they would be able to shape the future. Unfortunately, one often gets the impression that they are not listening properly to their younger employees, who understand more about it. That's a pity for Germany.

There are more political leaders than ever before at the Republica this year. The Federal President opens the event, four Federal Ministers hold lectures or sit on a panel.
We are pleased that there is such a great interest in conducting social debates on digitization. We have always organized the Republica so that it is a place where such debates are conducted. We are curious to see if the politicians are taking the stage to place their messages, or if they are actually willing to listen and engage in dialogue with our community.

In the past, one sometimes had the impression that the state was your greatest enemy. Has the image of the enemy now shifted in favor of the big tech companies?
I would not speak of an enemy. In fact, the state has put in place numerous surveillance measures over the past twenty years. And there is no end. Every single measure robs us of a piece of our freedom. The total bill now looks like we already have too much supervision. In this respect, there is a great deal of mistrust of parts of the state that have always seen digitization as an opportunity to monitor even more.

The corporations also monitor us. Without democratic legitimacy.
Of course, one of the great dangers of society is that we depend on individual companies that can unilaterally change the conditions and rules at any time, how we communicate with each other, and what constitutes publicity. We can not accept that, but should hold these companies accountable and find ways that our social rules are more important than Facebook's terms and conditions.

Are you yourself on Facebook?
Sure, I'm a public person, that's why I can not get around Facebook. I'm also on Instagram, but use that to watch, not to communicate private matters. I do not use Whatsapp, that's why I've been around so far. Instead, I rely on encrypted services like Threema or Signal – depending on who uses what.

Why have these services not enforced despite the many privacy scandals to Facebook and Co.?
It's a matter of convenience. The big ones quickly dominated the market, also due to disregard of data protection rules. Then you stay there because the others are there too.

Is the interoperability often demanded by politicians a solution, ie the requirement that the user must be able to communicate with users of other services from any messenger service?
The Internet has grown big with open standards. I would wish that even messenger systems would be interoperable. But not if it means that standards are softened, such as encryption. There are fears that the state will define interfaces that will be used for surveillance and then we will no longer be able to exchange privately.

We need debates about what interoperability might look like. Sometimes I get the impression that politicians want that so they do not have five different messengers on their display. They only want to use Whatsapp.

Because it saves time and is comfortable.
It's a big challenge to deal with this convenience. We are lazy, we are reluctant to replace the proven with the new. This benefits market-dominant infrastructures, which, once rolled up, can dominate it for quite a long time if they do not make big mistakes.

Or they make big mistakes like Facebook. Despite nearly weekly privacy scandals, people do not go away, because: where are the alternatives if they've all been bought? It is also up to us as consumers whether we accept monopolies.

. (tagsToTranslate) Republica (t) Facebook (t) Social Media (t) Media (t) WhatsApp (t) Tech companies (t) Digitalisation (t) Surveillance (t) Internet (t) Interview (t) Internet portal (t) Google (t) Instagram (t) YouTube (t) StudiVZ (t) Twitter (t) Markus Beckedahl

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