Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

Google 'open' to regulation and will disclose political ads

European officials and Macron's campaign strategist voice concerns on tech's role in democracy

Strategist for Emmanuel Macron's presidential campaign Guillaume Liegey and Google public policy chief Jon Steinberg discuss democracy and technology. Credit: Suzanne Plunkett/Chatham House
Strategist for Emmanuel Macron's presidential campaign Guillaume Liegey and Google public policy chief Jon Steinberg discuss democracy and technology. Credit: Suzanne Plunkett/Chatham House

Google has promised to provide “disclosure” on who funds political adverts ahead of May’s European parliament elections across member states to prevent misinformation.

The tech firm’s public policy chief Jon Steinberg said he was ramping up efforts to tackle fake news and provide more clarity on political messages posted online, but blamed people, rather than technology itself, for the so-called corruption of democracy that European lawmakers have railed against.

Google is also “open” to regulation for technology and social media companies.

Mr Steinberg admitted there are “valid criticisms that merit debate” on whether or not technology is destroying democracy.

“The idea of the Arab Spring democratising the Middle East [via social media] wasn’t true then, nor is it true today that all social media is corrupting democratic processes,” said the Google executive, speaking with European politicians at Chatham House in London.

“When it comes to disinformation, we are talking about legal context. It’s a serious challenge to regulate the access to content which is legal. We should be nervous about asking regulators to play a role in the ministry of truth.”

European officials and politicians urged for tighter regulation over tech giants and openly voiced frustrations with Google.

Member of European Parliament (MEP) Julia Reda of Germany said regulation was necessary to preserve the internet as an open space, but criticised the European Union for its stance.

“Regulation from the EU is setting global standards rather than shield, but the problem is quality of legislation. Academic evidence is not being listened to in Brussels”.

She criticised Brussels for being captured by “commercial” interests, such as telecoms and media companies vying for influence in the continent.

“Accountability [on tech use] is not happening in the EU at the moment”.

Francesca Bria, Barcelona’s state chief technology, said power wielded by Silicon Valley giants such as Google and Facebook, alongside China’s internet giants, amounted to “digital colonisation” and that they could leave Europe behind.

“Europe is the only place that is putting forward a people centric, and rights based attitude” she said, criticising what she deemed as Silicon Valley’s laissez faire approach to technology.

She urged for “real participation” in politics and said Barcelona was working on a digital platform wholly owned by citizens themselves for civic and politic participation.

Ms Bria added that Barcelona’s blueprint could in future be expanded out to a “pan European” digital platform providing a means for political participation more transparent than what is currently offered by Facebook or Google-owned platforms.

The man behind Emmanuel Macron’s ‘En Marche!’ online campaign in 2017 said ideas that technology could liberate people turned out to be “fake promises”.

“There has been a lot of fake promises on the power of technology,” said Guillaume Liegey, campaign strategist for ‘En Marche!’.

“Technology is not a magic stick. The beautiful promise of technology not true”.

Mr Liegey revealed French President Emmanuel Macron, elected in 2017, had wanted to use data to find out about the views of the “silent majority”, including those who would vote for populist candidates, before knocking on people’s doors to win their votes.

“Face to face conversations remains the best way to change people’s minds, which is what Macron and Barack Obama [in 2008] have done.”

He said Mr Macron was “lucky” to have won the election with opportunities for the centre-ground opening beyond his control.

The French tech strategist said the current yellow vest movement in France protesting Mr Macron’s policies was the voice of a majority and a symptom of politicians not listening after elections had been won.

“We need to listen to people after election night,” he said.

Updated: February 8, 2019 02:36 PM