Bernabè: “On digital it is time for rules, with the algorithm there is no transparency”

Risks for democracy and for individuals who come from an unscrupulous and completely deregulated use of digital services that have multiplied on the net, to the detriment of the promise that the web would guarantee a more open and democratic society: now we need to intervene, before it’s too late. In extreme synthesis, starting from the beginning of the internet era, “Prophets, oligarchs and spies. Democracy and society in the era of digital capitalism” (Feltrinelli) by Franco Bernabè, today president of Acciaierie d’Italia, a past as manager of large subsidiaries such as Eni and giants such as Telecom Italia, and Massimo Gaggi, columnist for ‘Corriere della sera’ in the United States.

The volume is measured, telling the genesis, with the new world resulting from the network, today de facto property of Big Tech, and the dangers of these enormous concentrations of economic power. “Ten years ago – Franco Bernabè explains in an interview with Adnkronos – I wrote ‘Supervised freedom’ on the advantages and risks inherent in the network, but at the time there was no awareness of these issues: the advantages of technology with products like this attractive and engaging made sure that no one was interested in the possible manipulations. Today, however, this sensitivity exists and there is space to intervene. Our goal – he continues – is to say: it is not the technology that causes problems, it is the fact that the technology was developed without any kind of control and regulation”.

“This is why the title of the book speaks of prophets: they are those who had seen in the potential of technology an instrument for the dissemination of information, freedom and democracy and who now must be ‘revenged’ because they have been betrayed” explains Bernabè referring to “various Postel, Barlow to those engineers of the 60s, those ‘flower children’ who allowed the digital world to develop”. Because it must be remembered that the developments of this industry “are the result of a great deal of self-employment and enthusiasm lavished by tens of thousands of engineers who have dedicated their passion and time to creating what Al Gore had called ‘the information superhighway'” in the 1990s 90. “Now – observes the manager – they have become the prerogative of four characters who have control of companies that are as big in capitalization as the GDP of France and Spain and who have enormous political power” recalls the president of the steel giant. The reference is primarily to the large technological corporations, from Apple to Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet-Google, Meta-Facebook.

The risks for democracy of this enormous concentration of power which is not counterbalanced by precise rules are there for all to see, with the presumed reliability of the algorithm making the debate almost obsolete, Bernabè underlines. “Newspapers, TV, agencies imposed the comparison of ideas, while platforms with algorithms convey only the orientation that is pleasing to the one who receives it, it is a one-way message. There is a strong lack of transparency On television – he explains – one has to put his face to it, on the web, on platforms, instead there is a single message and also ‘pushed’ in an absolutely non-transparent way. And this is an enormous risk for democracy. You don’t know from who get those kinds of messages and you can’t compare them” he points out.

The time has come to intervene. “A much more incisive level of regulation must be created than exists today and this must be done above all by the United States because that is where the problem mostly originates. Which is finally starting to be topical – observes Bernabè – while up to recently there was no sensitivity, and for this reason it is worth opening the debate in a strong way on these issues”. Not to mention that at the moment the web giants are in a phase of decline on the stock exchange and of lower profitability which (perhaps for a little while) makes them lose the aura of invulnerability they once had. Massimo Gaggi, co-author with Franco Bernabè of ‘Prophets, oligarchs and spies’ (Feltrinelli) quotes to Adnkronos the phrase of the ‘repentant’ of Google and Facebook Justin Rosenstein (one of the inventors of the ‘like’ button), who says as of these themes “we need to talk about it now because we may be the last generation to remember what life was like before” the digital revolution.

“All sectors of the economy and of life – he explains – are regulated: energy, the car, food. The only sector that has no rules is the digital one, which has profoundly changed both the attitude of the man and society, as well as politics: the distorted use of social networks, foreign interference, the unscrupulous use of social media has produced devastating effects almost everywhere, from the American elections to Brexit in the United Kingdom to countries less because they are culturally more distant”. To cite one of them the Bolsonaro phenomenon in Brazil which, says Gaggi, “is almost entirely produced by Youtube; today he lost the elections but a large part of the Brazilian parliament is made up of people who used the same tools as him. He yes it is imposed using the network and spreading conspiracy theories, finding correspondence with parents of students to whom he told stories of bullying that are not true: in this way he gained a hold on parts of the electorate”.

For Gaggi “everything derives from the choices made in the United States at the birth of these technologies in the 1990s with the Clinton administration: when Al Gore who was the man who truly understood what was emerging in what he called ‘information superhighway’ he fought to leave them free because he understood their potential and that they could be a formidable driving force for growth. Since in that period there was the overwhelming power of the telecommunications giants, he demanded, rightly so, to leave these digital companies without constraints. total irresponsibility for the contents posted on the net, when we in the newspapers are, on the contrary, responsible for what is published”.

The technology companies were also allowed “total freedom from taxes for many years. Then they very quickly became giants and at that point – explains the author – so powerful and imbued with Californian libertarian culture that it became increasingly difficult to impose a minimum of regulation” . Big tech “proposed self-regulation with Mark Zuckerberg who was the greatest theoretician but in the end they were concerned almost only with blocking the nude which is something very serious in the USA. But the algorithms do not understand the language of double meanings, the sarcasm and irony and therefore bullying messages were passed on, until they created armies of people who were concerned with blocking patently false theses or hate messages”.

“But even currently – continues Gaggi – in many countries such systems have not been introduced because it costs so much and then because the more you filter the contents the more you reduce traffic and therefore advertising is reduced. So the echo of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 has passed companies have invested less and less” on the front of self-regulation up to the recent stock market losses of big techs which could lead to further cuts. Vice versa “the dangers are growing again and there is no political authority that gives directives and in the USA it is not possible to introduce it due to the opposing views between Democrats and Republicans”. A solution “is difficult because we are talking about planetary mechanisms, but minimum requirements must be found that can be accepted by all countries and in the most democratic areas such as the USA and Europe, homogeneous regulations should be achieved” is the hope of the author. Who admits that this “is much easier in Europe where there are no large digital groups, very powerful lobbies that block politics”.