By Misha Tseitlin
One of the key turning points in ancient history was the Phoenician invention of currency: a trading empire made up of colonies dotting the Mediterranean Coast, they were the first that managed to commercialise the trade of goods and services. Civilisations long after continue to use this model, valuing everything from silver to copper to aluminium as a currency to facilitation international flows. Today, we are faced with a phenomenon as novel as the invention of initial currency—the commercialisation of data and its transformation into a new form of “currency.”
Social media networks have transformed the way we interact with the world around us. However, their unique decentralised and international model poses challenges to regulation, a growing necessity given the dangers of uncontrolled monopoly, something Americans have discovered over the past year. While the domestic conversation is still trying to move past what Facebook is, I contend that to allow this technology to continue developing, we need to treat data as a human right, imposing an international court system to regulate only the data portion of these internet companies.
Now at this point, I’m sure everyone from small government conservatives to staunch internationalists has concerns. However, it is imperative that such a system be international for a variety of reasons. Why should a Briton have a “right to be forgotten” while Americans struggle to even secure access to net neutrality? The degree of freedoms individuals should have should not depend on their location, especially given the international nature of these platforms: a Facebook user in Bulgaria interacts with the platform as similarly as one in Australia, and so inequities ought to be addressed on an international scale.
The clear question is one of sovereignty—why can’t countries decide what’s best for their citizens? After all, up to now platforms like Facebook have been able to comply with regulations while internally choosing when to refuse compliance with particularly onerous demands from countries like Russia and Turkey. Such thinking, however, is dismissive of the change such developments bring to our economy. Technology and the spread of data is uniquely dispersed. The engineer designing the platform, customer support personnel processing complaints, server for data storage, and end user might be distributed over multiple countries. Which regulations should the platform comply with? An international solution allows for diffuse access to information without introducing mountains of legal hurdles.
More importantly, an international solution would protect both the business model of such companies by avoiding a precedent for unilateral enforcement. Google cannot be expected to comply with different legal standards in various nations and still maintaining profits that enable it to continue functioning. That’s why industry leaders like Mark Zuckerberg have already called for a solution. Ultimately, business struggles in a world of uncertainty—the status quo with vaguely defined statues on state-technology interaction, cyberwarfare, and informational acquisition makes operating difficult for these corporations.
The main alternative to solve these same problems is a national court system. Though a unilateral court in the US might do wonders for Americans, there are two main problems. First, countries can justify a unilateral imposition of demands on these platforms and use them to monitor their citizens, much like Russia already does with VK and Odnoklasniki. Second, individual country actions might determine the shape of a global platform. After all, why would Facebook have 190 different versions of its platform, when it could change its practices across the board after a particularly salient court case.
Both of these have already manifested—the former with the shutdown of Google Dragonfly after a 5-month ordeal surrounding the company’s acquiescence to Chinese Communist Party demands for access to data and control over the platform. However, had it not been for unusual government pressure in the US, the project would have gone through; certainly, this doesn’t exclude the opportunity for similar future projects by Google and others. On the other hand, European regulators have emerged as the primary protectors of privacy, establishing the General Data Protection Regulation, going after first Google and later Amazon for antitrust violations while heavily scrutinising deals like Apple’s Shazam acquisition, and even sorting through tax evasion like Apple’s dealings in Ireland. Nonetheless, such a system that requires deference to some national (or supranational depending on your views on the EU) political system that has its own imperfect incentives is obviously flawed. We’re happy when Europe keeps tech companies accountable, but when its copyright protections, specifically the publicised Articles 11 and 13 that are accused of “banning memes”, seem overzealous, there are few options because of previous international ambivalence and especially the US FTC’s recent laissez-faire attitude. And should Europe ever go the route of the US and loosen the reigns, all current protections would disappear along with the checks they provide.
In comparison to other options then, such an international legal solution is particularly salient. It presents a significant improvement over the current system where an uneducated legislature toothlessly investigates a monopolistic platform that controls the entirety of their user’s experience, from security to content. Additionally, it avoids domestic political pressures: an independent judiciary would first move slowly, as international organisations tend to do, but would have the independence to make decisions irrespective of shifting political tides, as properly-constructed judiciaries do.
Ultimately, something needs to change. Tech companies right now function as monopolies exempt from regulation—their effects are simply too diffuse. The industry has become self-regulating, meaning large profit-driven companies with shareholder obligations are responsible for safeguarding our data. Some like Denmark have taken action, launching “tech ambassadorships,” recognising that individual companies are more important than some small countries. However, these actions are too few and too insufficient to make the necessary impact. Silicon Valley got to where it is by thinking big. It’s time for D.C. and the Hague to catch up.