Break the power of Big Tech

1 February 2018

Break the power of Big Tech

A self-drive car is at risk of being involved in an accident. The car now has two options: either it can crash into the conventional vehicle in front of it, which might injure the driver, or it swerves on to the pavement, where bystanders are then endangered. The chance of the driver of the conventional vehicle being injured is then greatly reduced, but the consequences for the pedestrians if the self-drive car chooses the second option will be greater. The car will of course do only what it has been programmed to do. But who makes this sort of decision when new technologies are being programmed?

- By Mahir Alkaya

On Wednesday the Parliament in The Hague discussed the power of the big IT corporations. Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Uber and Airbnb each has established, within its sphere, a monopoly on our data. These firms can now, virtually without any controls on them, determine the 'choices' which new technologies will make. If it's left to these companies whatever is technologically achievable today and makes money will be available tomorrow. But the question of how, for example, of how a self-drive car should act if threatened by an accident is not simply a technological or economic, but also pre-eminently a moral question.

Facebook has indicated that in the United States they are considering this problem – within the four walls of their head office. If we don't think in advance about how the bright minds in Silicon Valley will respond to this kind of ethical and moral dilemma, then these amoral tech giants will do so for us.

Last week Britain announced the setting up of a commission to examine these issues. The British are prepared to consider how complex algorithms, new robots and other futuristic novelties could contribute to society rather than simply lining the pockets of US corporations.

As things stand the Netherlands is lagging behind all the facts. Every time that a tech firm comes out with something new, the government is most concerned with combating lawbreaking. Uberpop was banned because it led to mass evasion of the laws governing taxis, while Airbnb's activities have been restricted in a number of towns, since they were leading to the emergence of illegal hotels. The government needs to assess these sorts of developments and move to stop them from causing problems.

Almost a year ago the Dutch Rathenau Instituut, whose mission is to “stimulate...public and political opinion forming on social aspects of science and technology” published a report on precisely this question and their conclusion did not fail to hit the target. The Dutch government, supervisory authorities, business nd society in general is not sufficiently well prepared to deal with these issues of digitalisation. Or, to quote them directly: “At stake are important public values and human rights such as privacy, equal treatment, autonomy and human dignity”.

It won't be long before self-drive cars are a normal sight on Dutch roads. So in the Netherlands too we need an independent commission to study the moral dilemmas which new technologies could bring with them. A commission with a moral compass could offer a counterweight to the one-sided focus on profits. The answers to moral questions must not be determined by a few CEOs in Silicon Valley, but by society as a whole.

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