New EU law needed to protect universities from big tech

Rector Magnificus of the University of Amsterdam, Professor Karen Maex, has called on European Commissioners to propose a ‘Digital University Act’ to secure universities’ status as independent education and research institutions and vital building blocks for the organisation of knowledge and to defend them against pressures from big tech companies.

In her Dies Natalis (annual) speech, “Protect independent and public knowledge”, delivered on 8 January, she called on European Commissioners Mariya Gabriel and Margrethe Vestager not to leave the future of knowledge in the hands of unaccountable corporate businessmen making decisions behind closed doors.

Maex’ point of departure is the work of the European Commission and notably Commissioner Vestager to approve new legislation with the Digital Services Act in order to stem the influence of the tech giants over peoples’ choices in trade and elections, among other things, by using their huge information repositories stored in their databases.

Affecting the future of democracy

Referring to the ongoing work with the Digital Services Act in November 2020, Maex quoted Vestager stating that decisions (taken by the tech giants) have a wide-ranging impact upon our societies: “So we can’t just leave decisions which affect the future of our democracy to be made in secrecy of a few corporate boardrooms.

“That’s why one of the main goals of the Digital Services Act that we’ll put forward in December will be to protect our democracy, by making sure that platforms are transparent about the way these algorithms work – and make those platforms more accountable for the decisions they make,” Vestager said.

Commissioner Vestager used the “traffic light” as a metaphor for introducing the Digital Services Act. She stated that traffic lights were invented in response to a major technological disruption – the invention of cars – and that the Digital Services Act should be viewed in a similar light: “We have such an increase in the online traffic that we need to make rules that put order in the chaos, rules that make the online world safe, reliable and secure for all users of the digital roads.”

Maex said that “what applies to the future of democracy applies equally to the future of universities and of independent education and research as vital building blocks for the organisation of knowledge. We cannot simply leave [decisions on] the future of knowledge to the closed corporate boardrooms.”

Via a sweeping look at the production of knowledge and the role of monasteries and libraries, back to the burning of the library of Alexandria in the year 48 BC through to the establishment of universities in the 12th and 13th centuries and the introduction of printed books in 1455, Maex described how universities and libraries around 1980 began to be affected by new digital technological developments which are influencing the way people work and produce knowledge today.

Surging power of big tech

She said that an unintended consequence of present-day digitisation was the surging power of large tech companies. She compared this to the ‘market masters’ of old, where today’s platform companies decide who gets access to information, guide interactions between users and convert those interactions into data.

Maex claims that this impinges on academic sovereignty and goes well beyond the ‘publishing function’ originally vested in a large number of firms.

At the Dies Natalis event, Professor Emeritus of Harvard University Shoshana Zuboff received an honorary doctorate from the University of Amsterdam for her “ground-breaking contribution to research into the power of technology conglomerates and the socio-economic consequences of the system of ‘surveillance capitalism’ they have introduced”.

She is the author of an influential book warning about the influence of the tech giants, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power, and Maex referred to her work in the speech.

Maex said: “Our honorary doctor Shoshana Zuboff zeros in on the power of big tech over academic sovereignty by way of three questions: ‘Who knows?’, ‘Who decides?’ and ‘Who decides who decides?’ Answer these questions and the conclusion is clear.”

Moreover, she said, the power balance has become “so skewed that it is virtually impossible to resist: we have no choice but to conform. Those who don’t, are finished.”

Data harvesting without consent

According to Zuboff, the digital age really started in the year 2000. Back then, only 25% of the world’s information was stored in digital format. By the year 2007, the figure was closer to 97%. In her book she describes how companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook, without consent, harvest information about our online behaviour that we provide these companies by using their ‘free’ services.

“We are no longer using data services, but data services are using us. More so, internet companies advance into the intimate cores of ourselves, our homes, emotions, childhood, biology, excitement, empathy, curiosity, disease, our unconsciousness,” Per Jørgen Ystehede wrote on the webpage of the department of criminology and sociology of law at the University of Oslo when in October 2020 Zuboff’s book was published in Norway.

Special need of universities

According to Maex, private companies are continuing to expand their role while the public character of our independent knowledge system is further eroded.

“But that’s not all. In addition to supplying data storage and search functionalities and information gathering, those same companies also play a considerable role in steering wider public discussions. In doing so, they draw no distinction between scientific information and, for instance, political or other interests,” Maex said.

“And what must we do to ensure that the added value provided by platforms and data companies serves universities in their public role? For example, the European Parliament has called for companies to provide transparency about algorithms and to respect user rights.”

But Maex warned that the Digital Services Act “does nothing to support universities and their independent role in the knowledge system”.

She said there is an important lesson to be learned here from the role universities and libraries have for centuries fulfilled in organising the knowledge system: “Society needs a guardian of scientific knowledge – a guardian that serves the public interest, based on public values. We need a central space where information can be accessed, found and is widely accessible,” Maex argued.

She said that the added value that large platforms and data companies provide must not result in them gaining so much power in universities’ public space that it fundamentally restricts university operations. And to fulfil universities’ teaching and research missions and secure independence is the argument for a separate digital act for universities, she said.

How to gain more control?

Dr Oskar J Gstrein, assistant professor at Campus Fryslân, University of Groningen in the Netherlands, whose main research theme as a member of the Data Research Centre is ‘human dignity in the digital age’, told University World News: “While universities emphasise their heritage, often symbolised through impressive buildings and rituals, the academic community of the 21st century primarily interacts online.

“The necessary shift towards more online education and research post-COVID has put this long-term trend in the spotlight.

“As a consequence of this change, it is also necessary to redefine the added value of universities in the digital age. The academic community needs to carefully scrutinise its relationship with IT giants. Their products and services might offer comfort and ease of use, but at the same time threaten academic freedom and autonomy.”

Mikaela Almerud, who is principal consultant at the Technopolis Group in Stockholm and was a national expert on the education committee in business at OECD in Brussels for eight years, told University World News: “If a special digital university act is required to secure and ensure universities’ status as independent education and research institutions, it indicates other problems in the university sector than pressure from tech companies.

“The big tech companies are part of the same knowledge eco-system as universities and in order to succeed they must work together and find ways to benefit from each other rather than suggest ways to exercise control.”

INNOPAY, a leading consulting firm in the Netherlands, said in a statement on their website that as a member of the Data Sovereignty Now movement, proposed legislation is “a step in the right direction towards realising a human-centric data economy that holds true to European values. This move shows that the European Commission is prepared to take bold and pragmatic steps to reach its goals.”

However, Data Sovereignty Now said the legislation does not go far enough to solve the underlying problem and the new laws will only tackle the symptoms rather than the cause.

Mariane ter Veen, director of data sharing at INNOPAY, told University World News there is a “broadly felt, imminent need for ‘data sovereignty’ – for putting people and organisations (which also means academics and universities) in control of their data”.

“One solution would be to create a soft infrastructure consisting of uniform agreements between public and private parties. By ensuring that access to data is easy and secure, such an infrastructure would help all of us to share and use data in a data-sovereign way,” she said.

“A soft infrastructure would also facilitate European ‘data spaces’ to foster cross-border collaboration within specific sectors. In that context, it could be extremely beneficial to create a data space especially for scientists to enable them to access and seamlessly share scientific data easily and securely.

“This would shift the ‘data benefit balance’ with respect to digital learning and research tools back in the right direction and help members of the scientific community to gain – or regain – control over their data,” she said.

Mareile Kaufmann, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of criminology and sociology of law at the University of Oslo and researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and a recipient of the European Research Council grant “Digital DNA: The changing relationships between digital technologies, DNA and evidence”, told University World News: “I could not agree more that we need to pay close attention to the ways in which the production of and access to knowledge become integrated with new technologies.”

She said these claims have long been subject to discussion in, for example, science and technology studies. With the integration of digital studies across disciplines, calls to evaluate different forms of digitisation and the powerful decisions that are part of it have been raised by an increasing number of scholars.

Drawing on informed sources

“So the good news is that informed voices already exist. We should draw on them, but we should not stop there,” Kaufmann said.

She said that, ideally, a sensitisation about the digitisation of knowledge would emerge from inside the universities rather than being regulated top-down only.

“The role of private companies as providers of digital learning tools is a relevant example. Many universities had to rush decisions about the transition to digital learning tools during the COVID-19 pandemic. An assessment of the kind of tools we use here is due and should not be postponed.

“Already before the pandemic, digital instruments had become critical to the everyday of doing research, but that does not exclude an attitude of criticality towards them. If we are now at a point where we decide how we want to live our research lives with these technologies, it is crucial that we all at least attempt to understand how digitisation processes influence knowledge production.”

She said in the debates to come, she would try to avoid combining topics as different as ‘open access to publications’, ‘open access to research data generated by universities’ and ‘giving researchers access to data gathered on social media platforms’.

“These are quite different challenges, which require different voices to be heard and different bodies to act.

“The debate about open access journals, for example, is one that did not only become relevant with digitisation. Precisely if we do not want knowledge to be regulated by paywalls, advertising or economies of citations it is important to include the viewpoints of all relevant actors before more concrete regulation is developed.”

She said the debate about open access to research data generated by universities is also ongoing and needs to pay attention to very diverse research traditions: from those who have a longstanding culture for citing datasets to those who work with highly confidential data. This emphasises how hard it is to find good ways to make research data as openly available as possible.

“To increase the transparency of social media companies is not only a discussion relevant for researchers, but for anyone who has an interest in their digital persona.

“Regulation concerning the sharing of social media data affects the fields of personal data protection, but eventually also practicalities of storage capacity and expertise to analyse this data – or the lack thereof. So here, too, regulation is not a simple task.”

She said she commended any initiative to engage with the digitisation of knowledge, “but I also plead for a careful discussion of specific solutions”.

Matt Stoller, research director at the American Economic Liberties Project and author of Goliath: The 100-year war between monopoly power and democracy, told University World News: “The problem isn’t that hard. These companies profit by addicting, surveilling, and manipulating users with conspiracy theories and incendiary content.

“If you want to do something about it, change the business model. Break up these platforms and end targeted advertising.”