Even as the state in a number of countries around the world remains in thrall to the seemingly boundless potential of technology, a somewhat different kind of movement has just started to create its first ripples on the technological and legal landscape in other parts of the world. While certainly not Luddites, those who form this vanguard are more inclined to question the untrammelled growth of technology as the creeping invasion, almost by stealth, of a handful of giant corporations (call them Big Tech if you like) and their profit motive into some of humanity’s most personal spaces.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but while there is no sense in succumbing to the Luddite view of the world, that recoils at every expansion of the use of technology as one would at the sight of a marauding army, the past few years have thrown up a number of episodes to demonstrate why it may indeed be a good thing to start questioning the tech giants. Nevermind that some of them have pledged to ‘do no evil’.
My mention of the most famous (or now infamous) line ever to appear in a company’s mission statement draws a scoff from Dan Shefet, described by US outlet NPR as “the Paris lawyer who gives Google nightmares”. Now if that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice, nothing ever will. The reason they said that is because since 2013, Shefet has waged an astonishingly effective campaign in Europe, to thwart the torrent of fake news and damaging personal attacks that have come to dominate discourse on the web, to the detriment, in subtle and varied ways, of our lived experience.
In 2014, he won what may have been the most powerful single case of all against Google: the right to get search results about oneself removed, thus establishing the “right to be forgotten” on the internet. It addressed an issue very specific to the internet, where previously a smear, no matter how defamatory or ill-founded with malicious intent, could live forever and taint an individual’s reputation. Not anymore of course. At least not in Europe.
This past week, he was in Dhaka to attend a symposium organised by the Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Dhaka Courier’s parent company, on fake news and its subversion of democratic systems, where he delivered a thoughtful and engaging keynote. In the post-2016 world, what started out as a personal matter for Shefet has grown into an issue of global import, befuddling authorities grappling with how to control it, and individuals unsure of who to even trust anymore. The day after the event, I had the opportunity to sit down with him one-on-one, and delve deeper into what informed the work that has catapulted him to global renown.
“I think the main challenge that you face as an emerging economy is that you want to welcome in technology and apply it for its good purposes, but you need to also preserve not only your sovereignty, but also your culture, your language and your traditions. What we’ve seen is that one of the main reasons behind some of the social unrest and regional instability that we see around the world today is that things move too fast,” Shefet says, at which I cannot help but invoke another famous Silicon Valley company’s mission statement: “Move fast and break things.”Again it draws the scorn of the 63-year-old Shefet, whose boundless energy is enough to fill a room. He is far from imposing, but speaks with passion and is good-humoured. About the only sign I see that he may cause nightmares to anybody, let alone Google, is the slightly mischievous glint in his eyes. By his own admission though, he has no love for the “saviours of humanity” spawned in Silicon Valley.
And so he takes enormous pleasure in talking about a landmark ruling last January, in which France’s data protection watchdog fined Google 50 million euros ($57 million) for breaching European Union online privacy rules, the biggest such penalty levied against a U.S. tech giant.
The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the biggest shake-up of data privacy laws in more than two decades, came into force last May (‘May 25th’, Shefet pinpoints). It allows users to better control their personal data and gives regulators the power to impose fines of up to 4 percent of global revenue for violations. Shefet clearly loves it, repeating the word ‘global’ not once, not twice, but thrice - to emphasise the significantly larger pot from which the fine will be derived.
“Look, these companies have been so clever, I have to say, in how wherever there has been some criticism of their practices, they have quickly turned the conversation around to some concept like freedom, so that ultimately people are protesting on their behalf,” he says almost incredulously, before putting a clever spin on Churchill: “Never before has so much information been controlled by so few.”
“Breaking things may do irreparable harm in social settings that are not used to that same set of American values, or actually Silicon Valley values, or lack of values! In fact they’re corporate interests. Essentially you are left with 3 different choices when it comes to regulation, that I divide geographically: you have the US, that is 100% free speech, brooking almost no regulation. Almost dogmatically so. On the other side you have the Chinese, which is more-or-less the complete opposite, in that it is state-controlled. Then you have the European model, which is kind of in-between: it aims to strike a balance. That is in one with our values. Our history is such, at least after the Renaissance, that we aim to find the more nuanced way of doing things.
“Those are the three choices, and I obviously advocate the European model going forward, but you have the advantage as a late-comer of choosing from our experience and what we learn from it,” Shefet offers, after I explain how his battles revolve around certain concepts (privacy for one) that have yet to mature in the Bangladeshi context. The work he has done out of his Parisian legal practise, Cabinet Shefet, and more recently as founder of the Association for Accountability and Internet Democracy, or AAID, which works to introduce “a general principle of accountability on the internet,” will serve as warnings.
We live in interesting times. It would seem more than a few countries have in the last decade or so witnessed some iteration of a state-sponsored scheme to go ‘Digital’. Bangladesh, and India certainly have. Indeed in both cases, they are still ongoing. And yet at the same time there are those who are starting to push back, “finally waking up to the fact that they are being manipulated”, in Shefet’s words. That may come across as scathing, but he clearly is onto something when he talks about the importance of recognising that the rapid pace of change in the field means no-one can be sure where it’s going. He even uses it to absolve ‘Big Tech’ of some of what it is accused of.
“Look, we have to be fair. I think Facebook realizes some of its duties and obligations as a platform much better today than they did back in 2016 when the whole thing over Cambridge Analytica broke,” is how he shoots down my attempt to bash Zuckerberg and co around a bit. Clearly he is not the villainous figure portrayed in some sections of the US media, as some kind of “free speech killer” with a chip on his shoulder.
That being said, even in his final analysis, Shefet fails to see hope for the future of the Internet. By then he has left Dhaka, but I leave a question on his Whatsapp: beyond the big corporations that act like today’s “robber barons”, how did he envision our future relationship with the Internet, arguably the most consequential invention of the last 30 years? Could the inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who has come out and acknowledged the degradation of the internet in relation to its original vision, and pledged to try and save it, even coming up with a program of actions, really do so?
Shefet’s almost instant response is reproduced below in full:
“I was already approached by TBL’s (Tim Berners-Lee) WebFoundation and you can probably find a reference to AAID and myself on their website. I was one of the first to come out with a statement in support of his Solid Program which is an attempt to get back to the philosophy of the early, decentralised Net. Despite my strong support for this initiative, I’m afraid the battle for the surface web is lost to the Titans. Unfortunately.”