How digital era changed the notion of public space evokes lively debate at Berlin symposium

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Participants were asked about the current online systems being heavily governed by algorithms for large social media platforms and what they thought of accountability in that context. The question of algorithms was raised several times. It was noted that that keynote speaker Dr Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria had raised it the day before.

Goran Buldioski, director of the Berlin Office of the Open Society Foundation, noted that technology companies had largely had a free rein to decide on many aspects of the functioning of digital public space and tech governance for the last two decades.

They did that without specific accountability towards democratically elected leaders. Concerns surrounding the threats that digital power poses to the digital public sphere and the functioning of liberal democracies have grown over the pandemic.

Power of Facebook and Google

“Platforms like Facebook and Google wield as much – or more – power than many nation-states over our public life. But they face no genuine accountability,” said Buldioski. “They are society’s new operating system, profit from amplifying sensationalist content, undermine elections by opaque microtargeting of hateful messages, and eviscerate legitimate sources of news essential to a well-informed citizenry.”

He noted, “We need deliberate global action to build and regulate platform power, including those carrying the highest risk of harm, is therefore paramount for establishing a platform governance framework in line with core democratic principles. The real race that matters is the race to govern technology, including social medial platforms, from a human-centric perspective before it’s too late.”

Buldioski said the world needs innovative approaches. In some cases, like in the European Union, that might mean new laws like the one being negotiated now under the name of the Digital Markets Act to bring powerful platforms back under democratic control. This would help create competitiveness in key digital markets and pave the way for a digital infrastructure that will be more rights-respecting and empowering for individuals and communities.