Disruption and democracy: Shetler

James Riley
Editorial Director

Serious action is needed now to curb the power of the global tech giants and Australia should be leading the way with a series of reforms, according to former Digital Transformation Office chief Paul Shetler.

Mr Shetler, who is also the co-founder of AccelerateHQ, delivered the keynote speech at the Disruptions of the Digital: Privacy, Civics, Democracy conference at the University of Melbourne on Friday.

The wide-ranging presentation focused on the global decline in trust in governments and institutions, the impact of digital platforms on this and what needs to be done to curb the dominance of these tech giants and restore trust in democracy.

Paul Shetler: The power of tech platforms is undermining national governments

Mr Shetler called on governments around the world to take action to address these issues, including by breaking up the tech giants, nationalising some services, and enshrining the use of digital platforms as a civil right.

Speaking to InnovationAus.com, Mr Shetler said the rise of platforms like Facebook, Google and Amazon had transformed the world, and governments have so far been unable to address this.

“Our society and civilisation is based on the idea that you are an independent person with property, and that you can take part in the public square and say what you believe in, but all of that is being seriously eroded,” Mr Shetler told InnovationAus.com.

The rise of the gig economy, the encroachment of as-a-service platforms governed by opaque terms of service on traditional forms of property ownership, the lack of trust in governments and corporations and the implementation of smart cities has handed power to big tech companies and taken it away from governments, Mr Shetler said.

“No government in history has had the kinds of powers as tech platforms to govern and police behaviour, yet we still talk about government as the thing we have to be afraid of. Our ideologies that we have don’t really reflect reality. Pre-digital ideologies are obfuscating reality,” he said.

“All this – de-platforming, use of dark patterns and data to manipulate behaviour, fragmentation of social narrative – is happening and no-one has anything to say about it. We’ve reached a point where none of the existing ideologies make a lot of sense, but people are casting around and looking for answers.

“We’ve started to see what some of [the answers] may be over the past few years. The idea of the state and government should be rethought. If we think of a state as a set of institutions that governs society, then Google needs to be right up there.”

Mr Shetler called for a wide range of major reforms to address these issues, including making access to digital platforms a civil right, the nationalisation of large companies such as Amazon, breaking up Google, and banning cross-website tracking.

These are all issues that the Australian government can take a lead on, he said.

“Australia has a chance to lead on this. Scott Morrison has been going to G20s and other international gatherings and pushing things and I think he should probably do more of that, and preferably around these topics. We can’t continue to twiddle around the edges of these issues,” Mr Shetler said.

“I was initially somewhat skeptical of things Scott Morrison was doing around Facebook, but I applaud his willingness to try to take a lead and hope he does so in these areas.”

The federal government could lead the way in banning cross-site tracking of internet users, such as when an individual goes onto a website looking for a certain item and then starts seeing advertisements on Facebook for that thing.

“You do not want citizens feeling like every single thing they look at is being used to control their future behaviour. We need comprehensive legislation for that to be stopped. It undermines people’s faith that they’re living in a free society,” Mr Shetler said.

The Australian government should also stop its use of global cloud providers and instead turn to local offerings to ensure it maintains control of the personal data of citizens, he said.

“I used to be a big proponent of Amazon cloud and the like because of the cost advantages. But I can’t imagine the US government going onto a cloud provider that was from Australia or Russia,” he said.

“I think Australian governments should be looking more at Australian cloud providers because they need to have control over their data. Governments should have much more control than they do. They’re governed by laws and corporations aren’t subject to the same democratic control.”

Being able to access digital platforms should be a civil right, Mr Shetler said.

“The idea that people can be de-platformed and ruined financially for going outside the corporate census is terrifying, and it can drive extreme ideologies,” he said.

“It should be a civil right to have access to these platforms: if someone tries to knock you off you can get an injunction, and then the company has to prove that you’ve done something that is illegal to get you off it,” he said.

He also said that large tech firms such as Amazon, which are functioning as public utilities, should be nationalised.

“We can’t have an economy where the largest companies don’t pay people enough to live and then expect that people will be happy with democracy. We can’t have this kind of situation where the next generation thinks it’s going to be worse than it was before,” Mr Shetler said.

“Nationalise it and treat it like a utility, that’s all it really is. Amazon does not innovate. Its business model is very carefully to not innovate, it’s to wait and see what others do and then do it at scale. It’s a predatory company but not an innovator, that’s the ideal case for nationalisation.”

Tech titan Google should also have its advertising and search businesses split up, he said.

The ACCC’s recently released report into digital platforms touched on many similar issues, but didn’t go nearly as far as to suggest breaking up the tech companies or the other proposals. Mr Shetler said the competition watchdog’s inquiry was a “good start”.

“Society is changing very quickly, politics is changing very quickly and people think we have a lot more time than we do. Australia should definitely try to start taking the lead on cross-site tracking, and Google’s search and advertising businesses,” he said.

“Making platform access a civil right is also something the Australian government could and should do.”

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