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Culture, information and competition: identity and multipolar governance

Rome, 14/02/2019, National Roundtable

Concomitant with the adoption of more stringent European copyright rules, any discussion of innovation and competition in the information sector necessarily involves examination of the current digital revolution. The instruments of governance inherited from the traditional sectors of publishing and telecommunications no longer suffice to deal either with the changes under way or the high concentration of market shares and financial resources in the hands of so few: large scale platforms and major American and Asian digital operators (in terms both of hardware and software). Europe finds itself wedged between its mission to safeguard competition within its internal market (by limiting corporate mergers) and the growing penetration of extra-European operators that, in point of fact, are violating the very principles of fair competition. The tendency of governments to promote interests defined as strictly national is exacerbating the problem, in the face of processes of continual technological innovation that call for scale economies and, at the same time, a cohesive legislative framework. The entire debate must therefore take into account what are obviously obstacles to the creation of global – i.e. transnational and international – governance systems.

Moreover, there is a need to strike a balance between innovation (which presupposes a favorable ecosystem and the possibility to experiment with a certain amount of freedom) and controlling behavior according to shared rules (up to the eventual impediment of illegal behavior). A theoretically balanced solution would be to correct the effects of some particularly damaging actions rather that to expect to regulate digital activity in minute detail.

In any case, the business model adopted by the key actors on the scene is producing a strong monopolistic tendency that exploits big data (thanks to the algorithms they use) to attract advertising income (often providing services free of charge). The commitment to ensuring net neutrality has often obstructed attempts to regulate these new markets, along with claims that the platforms are merely infrastructures that allow the production and dissemination of content and not, on the other hand (and also), the presence of active publishers. The result is that the dissemination of information and opinions is being seriously distorted by the specific interests of a few actors who, in reality, are confining users to a “cognitive bubble”, and therefore pose a serious threat to an open and liberal society, and even to the full functioning of democracy. It is in this context that “fake news” and the manipulation of information flows are located, which can surely be more adequately confronted by raising the wider public’s level of culture and awareness – in any case, a valuable antibody when navigating major digital networks.

The development of Artificial Intelligence makes all the more urgent the development of new instruments by which to monitor and regulate – not least at bureaucratic and judicial levels – the algorithms that will increasingly be self-generated by software. In addition to the protection of privacy and other individual rights, some very real national security concerns have already emerged regarding data networks and some “critical infrastructures”; concerns destined to dominate the political debate of the coming years along with those more specific regarding competition and information.