The online world increasingly is the world.
It’s where we share with our friends and collaborate with colleagues. It’s the lens through which we see relatives, strangers and distant events. And it’s a marketplace of ideas and products.
But while it increasingly shapes our lives, how can we start to shape it?
The current answer is a disorganised tussle, raged worldwide between governments and tech giants—with battle lines drawn on censorship, free speech, privacy and revenue. But this is a trap, set to create lots of heat but little light.
If the question is who should decide: government or platforms, then the answer is neither. A better answer is to shift the power to users. In this, we should be guided by four principles.
First, freedom of experience. We should maximise the power of users to shape their own experiences on social media platforms. Toggles that alter filters, feel and content should not be buried in complex menus, or locked down by algorithms.
Second, the right to move your data. Users should be able to export and own their data, meaning they can easily join other platforms. Imagine if changing your mobile phone provider meant you had to wipe your phone.
Thirdly, the right of appeal. Users need to have channels through which they can understand and challenge decisions. We are already seeing the emergence of de facto private law, such as when users wish to contest why a given image was taken down, or their profile or avatar removed. This “law” needs to be codified and linked to an ombudsman system with a degree of independence from the platforms themselves. The most difficult cases, that concern new phenomena or matters of principle, should be escalated to a judicial body.
We need to allow users to shape the architecture of the digital world—to be part of its governance
Finally, perhaps most importantly, the right of representation. We need to allow users to shape the architecture of the digital world—to be part of its governance. Trials have shown that users are perfectly able to understand, and make coherent recommendations on, the rules of the digital world. Why should this part of the public sphere escape appropriate democratic governance?
It is time for regulators and governments to give up trying to micro-manage the key players. We must meet the challenge of platforms with our own platform of democratic governance—with rights, processes and user representation properly codified.