The Silicon Valley dream of innovation has begun to sour. Algorithms amplifying disinformation, exacerbating the exploitation of workers and entrenching racial bias are among the concerns that have prompted governments to start work on regulation that catches up with the impacts of digital technology. Their efforts have the potential to provide a welcome dose of democratic control over the technologies that are rapidly reshaping people’s lives and our societies more widely.
But civil society organisations face an uphill battle to make sure the new measures are not hollowed out by corporate interests. And philanthropy needs to get behind them.
The European Union is widely regarded as leading attempts to rein in tech giants. Last year it passed landmark regulation on platform accountability and it’s currently negotiating a legal framework for Artificial Intelligence. Tech CEOs who previously wanted to move fast and break things profess to welcome regulation now that the pressure’s on. But the numbers tell a different story.
The tech industry now outspends the energy and finance sectors and is the biggest lobbyist in Brussels, the home of the EU’s decision-makers. It forks out €97 million annually, with Apple, Google, Meta (Facebook) and Microsoft comprising four of the EU’s five highest-spending registered lobbyists. This small change for companies whose value is measured in trillions. But money is only part of it. Three-quarters of the staff advocating for big tech had previously held jobs inside the EU institutions. Now the EU is trying to entice recently laid-off tech workers to come and help them implement the new rules they’ve just written. The revolving door swings fast in Brussels.
Whistleblowers’ revelations of the bare-knuckle lobbying of Uber and of Facebook continue to rack up profits while its own research revealed the platform’s harm to users have led some to compare tech industry tactics to big tobacco. It rings true. Recently, while European decision-makers discussed the new rulebook, one of the very technologies under scrutiny – microtargeted advertising – was being used to direct industry messaging straight to parliamentarians’ social media feeds. Business associations purporting to represent start-ups turn out to be fronts for the tech giants – a practice now normalised in Brussels as ‘astroturfing’ (faking grassroots engagement for big corporate interests). Policy wonks are invited on junkets to try out the latest gadgets in well-designed offices with great catering. It’s everything, everywhere, all at once. And it’s been happening for years.
Civil society is not immune. Fourteen Brussels think tanks for instance have close ties to the tech industry. It’s not surprising when independent financing is scarce. Nonetheless, NGOs have banded together and notched up some significant wins in the public interest. The People vs Big Tech coalition combined policy, advocacy and campaigning and, along with others, helped secure important provisions in the new Digital Services Act such as restrictions on data used for targeted advertising practices. Others are coordinating to secure fundamental rights in the forthcoming AI Act, including fighting for bans on predictive policing and to limit the use of biometric technologies, which have both been found to breach privacy and reinforce discrimination.
These are tangible successes. But it’s not enough. These tactical victories still don’t fundamentally shift the tide so that democratic societies can harness technologies to promote the public interest instead of corporates’ profits. As former European Commission official Georg Riekeles notes, no organisation ‘has the financial and human resources to run research programmes on tech regulation on a par with the massive societal and economic challenges we face and […] that will lead the fundamental debates rather than follow them.’
This is where a concerted effort by philanthropy could make a real difference. We need to invest in the full spectrum of skills needed to build a civil society ecosystem that is an independent and effective counterweight to the tech industry. To borrow from the venture capitalists’ playbook, it’s time to make a lot of bets, in the knowledge that at least some of them will return.
While we need policy experts to continue to shape regulation, we also need technology experts who can dissect the nitty gritty of the technical standards that implement it. We need researchers who can use new powers to shed light on platforms’ algorithms and litigators who can test legislation with a war chest big enough to take big tech to court. And we need storytellers who can reshape the narrative that we’ve allowed the tech industry to own for too long. As we build this ecosystem we must involve organisations expert in areas like climate, migration and poverty to understand the intersections of technology and social justice. Above all, we must listen to the people and communities whose lives are being affected by technology so that it is they who determine what direction it should take.
Many funders have begun this important work both in Europe and elsewhere and there’s growing awareness that these questions are not the preserve of specialised ‘digital’ foundations. Anyone working on human rights, democracy, justice, education, health or a host of other issues will feel the consequences of technological change and recognise the need to act.
Shifting power from big tech back to the public requires significant, sustained and strategic engagement. Civil society needs funding, but it needs the right types of funding: flexible core support is essential to respond to a rapidly changing agenda and retain talent that can be quickly lured away with industry salaries. It also needs infrastructure. Funders can help with shared contacts, pooled research, access to expertise, convening and coordination.
At a recent meeting of civil society organisations, we asked ourselves, how can we take on the big tech elephant, when we feel as small as a mosquito. The answer: a swarm of mosquitos can have a huge impact. Even on an elephant.
Catherine Miller is Director of the European Artificial Intelligence Fund.