"Democracy and the Digital Public Sphere - A Transatlantic Challenge"

1 March 2021

How can the digital structural transformation be shaped so that it strengthens the democratic public sphere? What do we have to do to ensure that democracy does not become collateral damage of the business models of digital communication platforms? Will shaping and regulating the digital structural transformation give us a chance to reset the transatlantic partnership?

These and other questions were the subject of Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s discussion at the eleventh “Forum Bellevue on the Future of Democracy” with Margrethe Vestager (Executive Vice-President of the European Commission as well as Commissioner for Competition), Armin Nassehi (Professor of Sociology at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich) and the American Ben Scott (Executive Director of the think tank Luminate). In view of the current pandemic in Germany, the discussion took place once more in the Great Hall of Schloss Bellevue without an audience.

In his speech, the Federal President stated that as far as democracy was concerned, “the digital revolution is at once a blessing and a curse, an opportunity and a risk”. This was evident, on the one hand, from the storming of the Capitol in Washington on 6 January 2021, which had been triggered by lies, hatred and hate speech and, on the other, from the online communication which enabled demonstrations for democracy in Russia and Belarus. In particular, the social media platforms had come to set the pace and help shape the nature of our democratic public sphere. It was therefore time that politicians and the institutions of the rule of law engaged with them and their societal impact more closely.

Today, social media had direct access to people and their advertising-based business model was aimed with ice-cold precision at creating as much profit as possible with targeted advertising. Little consideration was given in the process to the values that our democracies were built on. At the same time, a purely profit-maximising algorithm did not differentiate between true and false statements, but was solely aimed at keeping individuals glued to their screens. “The business in attention thus becomes a danger to democracy”, stated the Federal President. To this day, however, the major platform operators had resisted assuming responsibility for the public sphere.

“Regulation has long been declared the enemy. But the opposite is true. To preserve freedom and democracy, we must have rules.” And Steinmeier went on to say, “At the heart of all of these debates ... is nothing less than the democratisation of the digital world.” The Federal President opened the discussion with his guests by asking whether and how such a joint agenda could help strengthen the public sphere on the internet.

EU Vice-President Margrethe Vestager agreed with Federal President Steinmeier. She stated that, at the very latest, the attack on the Capitol in Washington was the wake-up call which brought home to us the importance of gaining the upper hand over the digital platforms in order to ensure that democracy was not further jeopardised. It was important now to seek uniform European regulations. She went on to say that the European Commission was already well-equipped with the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act. Together with the United States, Europe could lead the way as an alliance of liberal democracies in the digital transformation.

When asked by the Federal President whether the critical debate on big tech in the United States had gained momentum since the events in January, Ben Scott, Executive Director of the think tank Luminate made it clear that although there had been a change in the attitude towards the digital companies after 6 January, it could not be assumed that swift, far-reaching steps would be taken. He added that the Americans now relied on the expertise and political will of the Europeans, and in particular on Germany, where the discussion was already far advanced.

For Armin Nassehi, Professor of Sociology at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, the key question was what exactly should be regulated. He said that social media was mainly about everyday communication, for which there were no regulatory standards at present. The business model of the platform providers had only developed very slowly. “Those who manufacture trousers or glasses know exactly what they’re manufacturing”, said Nassehi, “namely trousers and glasses. Means of communicating are being offered here. However, it’s not means of communication that’s being sold but data, patterns, advertising opportunities and, by the way, a means of steering this communication.” He added that as it was difficult to establish who was responsible due to the complex value-added chain, it was necessary to regulate the entire system.

The Federal President wanted to know from the Commission Vice-President what, in her view, had to be regulated when it came to the digital companies. Margrethe Vestager said that in general, this was about applying the rules of the offline world to the online world. She added that it was no longer possible to separate the two. The Digital Services Act focused on more security for users, more transparency of the platforms and better means of enforcement vis-à-vis the providers. The Digital Markets Act was aimed specifically at the gatekeepers and ensured that all activity on these platforms was fair.

Ben Scott said that the real challenge was dealing with the content in the grey area, the harmful content. The current legal situation in the United States meant that it was not possible to make platform providers responsible for deleting harmful content. At the same time, however, it was the laws governing the platforms which made possible the exponential dissemination of content which posed a risk to democracy. He went on to say that following the events surrounding 6 January, there was increasingly more debate on whether not only those posting harmful content but also the digital companies should be held to account – even if there was no clear strategy in US politics on this so far.

The Federal President gave one example of a grey area, pointing out that advertising for combat equipment appeared on the platforms round about 6 January. Such advertising was in itself legal in the United States, but it entered a grey area when seen in conjunction with the calls for the demonstration. Scott replied that this link was probably simply due to an algorithm. He went on to say that it was therefore all the more important to follow this up and to oblige the digital companies to provide information on such issues. After all, the automobile industry had to provide information on exhaust emissions, just as the pharmaceutical industry was obliged to state the side effects of drugs.

The Federal President closed the discussion by expressing his hope that jointly shaping the digital public sphere would be a key area of transatlantic cooperation in the future.