Instead of making a big legislative package every time trying to tame big tech, the EU could create a minimum viable law, use prototyping and pretotyping, test and only role out what works.
By Astrid Haug
Earlier this week, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appeared at a three-hour hearing in the European Parliament. Here she unfolded her criticism of Facebook’s harmful practices and lack of action in a number of areas. But she also warned the EU against making too elastic and naïve a law that allows tech giants to find loopholes.
The devil is in the detail, Haugen said in Parliament. This is particularly true for the handing over of algorithm data. Here, it should not be possible for tech companies like Facebook to simply come up with an incomplete picture of how their algorithms work.
“Facebook has shown that they will lie about data”, as she put it.
That’s why MEPs should consider whether legislation can be based on an expectation of transparency from tech giants at all, or whether they should rather ask external actors to assess algorithms through experiments, as both journalists and researchers already do today, without specific access to Facebook’s algorithm.
In a trial, there is also no expectation that the accused himself will put all the evidence of his wrongdoing on the table. It is vulnerable to base such an important regulation on openness from the tech giants.
Frances Haugen’s testimony is a welcome boost for EU politicians who want to tighten up the upcoming Digital Services Act (DSA). But it is thought-provoking that it takes a whistleblower like Haugen for politicians to really understand the extent of the influence tech giants have on our democracies, mental health and privacy rights. She brings up new details, but experts have been warning for years about many of her critical points.
Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, tweeted after the hearing:
“Europe is serious about regulating what looks like the Wild West. Speed is of the essence”.
EU can Learn from Tech Giants
Speed is not what many associate with EU regulation. The EU is expected to adopt the DSA in 2022, with implementation from 2024 at the earliest. Therefore, there is a high risk that the law will be outdated before it is even implemented. Facebook’s name change to Meta and shift in focus towards a virtual universe is just one example of how it can be difficult for legislators to capture tech giants in legalese.
Another problem with large, slow-moving legislative packages is that we don’t really know, if they will work as intended once they are rolled out. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s motto at the start was ‘move fast and break things’. Right now, the EU is pretty much running on ‘move slow and don’t fix things’. Here, the EU can actually learn something from the tech giants. New ways of making laws are needed. The problems in the tech sector make this abundantly clear.
Instead of making a big legislative package trying to cover as many shades of the big tech problem as possible, we can use some of the methods that the tech industry has developed. This could be to create a minimum viable product, i.e. the least possible product that can be put on the market. Prototyping and pretotyping are used, i.e. developing test products before launching a huge project without knowing the outcome.
Then you can build on what actually works. The EU is a fantastic test market here. They could make three or four different versions of a small law, which different countries test, then evaluate, compare and adapt before rolling out a single law across the EU.
That’s the way tech giants work when launching new features. Some features are rolled out globally, while others never survive the testing phase. More experimental, agile and proactive regulation is needed, if we are to have any hope of regulating the digital economy.
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)
Photo: Amélie Mourichon, Unsplash.com
First published in the Danish daily Politiken
Astrid Haug is an expert in digitalization and social media.