Governments should regulate Facebook

There was a superspreader event in November, says Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the beginning of his speech in Bellevue Palace. This day is not about the pandemic at all, at least none in the medical sense. With regard to the United States, Steinmeier speaks of the "malicious fairy tale of the stolen election" that culminated in the attack by an armed mob on the Capitol - and he leaves no doubt as to who he blames for this lie to spread so well : Facebook, Twitter and the other so-called social media.

The "Forum Bellevue", a series of discussions by the Federal President, this Monday will be about "Democracy and the digital public - A transatlantic challenge". Steinmeier warns in clear words against leaving the design of digital spaces to social media. He calls on politicians to regulate the platforms more closely. This is also an opportunity to renew the transatlantic relationship.

At the center of Steinmeier's criticism is the advertising-financed business model of social media: They do everything to keep consumers' attention for as long as possible. But they didn’t care what content was used, whether something was true or false. "Apparently nothing binds people so much to their devices as excitement and indignation, fear and anger," says Steinmeier. The values ​​on which every democracy is built, such as respect, truth and a sense of responsibility, would not count.

Steinmeier sees this as a serious threat to democracy, not least because its enemies skillfully exploited these weak points. The allegations that Steinmeier makes to large tech companies such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Co. are not new. But the clarity with which he names them is remarkable.

"Rules are needed to preserve freedom and democracy"

For a long time, the large platform operators would have resisted responsibility for the public space that they created with their infrastructure. They would have played down problems and assumed no liability for the content on their platforms, but earned billions in the process. "In order to preserve freedom and democracy, rules are needed," said Steinmeier.

In the struggle for the rules that should apply to platform operators, the Federal President relies on a European-American alliance. "We have to counter the model of the digital dictatorship with a democratic alternative," he says, referring to Russia and China's network policy. For the USA and Europe, on the other hand, he sees the possibility of creating a common "technosphere" that could set global standards. That would be a re-establishment of the transatlantic partnership, said Steinmeier.

But one of the guests with whom the Federal President discussed after his speech expressed doubts as to whether the USA is ready for such a step at the moment. The storm on the Capitol also changed the American perception of social media, says the director of the American think tank Luminate, Ben Scott. But that does not mean that the new government can solve the problem quickly.

The US government has been badly damaged by the past four years and Congress is deeply divided. The regulation of digital companies is not necessarily high on the agenda. Scott sees the leading role in the EU: Europe has the expertise, the political will, the institutions and a sufficiently large market to be able to enforce a corresponding set of rules. He is convinced, says Scott, that the digital corporations will comply, like other industries before.

EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager trusts Europe to play a pioneering role

The Danish EU Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager, who has also been Executive Vice-President and Commissioner for Digital since 2019, believes Europe can play a pioneering role. The data protection legislation has set standards that others are now following. Vestager demands more transparency and accountability from the platforms and the enforcement of consumer rights, as they also exist in the offline world. The larger the platform, the stronger the regulation, says Vestager.

The German sociologist Armin Nassehi points out how difficult this could look in practice. Many problematic actions on the platforms, such as spreading lies, took place in gray areas - who should decide what is legal and what is not? This is not only a technological question, but also a philosophical one: society must be clear about what the public space of the future should look like.