Dear Commission President,
dear Mrs. von der Leyen,
Today I am addressing you in an open letter because my concern is of the greatest public European interest and you are at the same time the President of the institution that can solve the problem.
It's not about the global pandemic, but it's about a challenge that may possibly be even bigger and more momentous than the coronavirus.
And it's about a danger that Covid-19 has made even more acute.
The point is that technology platforms from America and China are about to question the sovereignty of the citizens, that is, to make the sovereign into a subject and thus undermine democracy and an open society.
It's about freedom, the rule of law and human rights.
It's about the idea of modern Europe.
In 2014 I wrote an open letter to then CEO of Google Eric Schmidt.
I described the dangers that a regulatory unrestrained platform such as Google poses for the individual rights of citizens and for the diversity of competition and freedom of expression.
The letter was both a warning and a confession: "We are afraid of Google."
At that time it was often said that I was exaggerating.
Unfortunately, I have been an understatement.
From today's point of view, I have to state that the risks arose faster and more seriously than I could have imagined at the time.
And it's no longer just about Google.
It's about whether supranational mega-corporations are above the law, above a government and the democratic order.
And it's about whether machines serve people.
Or the people, the machines and their overpowering operators.
The development was foreseeable for a long time.
The coronavirus and the consequences of fighting it have accelerated and intensified everything.
More visible and larger than under a magnifying glass.
And maybe that is exactly our chance now.
The diversity of competition is eroding
As of January 2020, the market capitalization of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Tesla was $ 3.9 trillion.
In January 2021 - one year after the global Covid-19 outbreak - the market value of these six companies was $ 7.1 trillion.
This corresponds to an increase in value of 82 percent.
In money: $ 3.2 trillion.
In the same time, 255 million jobs were lost worldwide.
In Europe, unemployment rose from 7.5 percent to 8.3 percent.
Only the instrument of short-time work prevents a much higher increase.
In Germany, for example, according to a study by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 175,000 companies feel threatened with insolvency as a result of the effects of the corona crisis.
Only massive government loans and aid programs ensure that these companies do not go bankrupt.
But how long?
Millions of self-employed have to give up.
Because they can no longer shoulder the consequences of the lockdown.
The diversity of competition is eroding.
Because the beneficiaries of the crisis, which is an accelerator of digitization, are the large technology companies.
The competitive advantage of the platforms, the unreachability increases.
Partly deservedly because they are just great, innovative companies.
But partly undeservedly because some of these companies have dubious business practices.
Now one can say: this is how things are.
Or one can ask: is that good for the sovereign?
Google and Facebook alone generated around $ 230 billion in advertising revenue last year.
That's 46 percent of the global advertising market.
According to forecasts, the market share will increase to more than 60 percent by 2024.
The absolute dominance of the platforms also means, in perspective, the almost complete disappearance of the diversity of journalistic, artistic and commercial offers.
Why, for example, should someone research information extensively when a few platforms end up doing big business with it?
Now you can say: That's just the way it is.
But one can also ask: What is the reason?
It's because - to put it simply - the business model of ad-supported platforms is to spy on their customers like secret services.
In the case of the platforms, algorithms do this.
Algorithms are the product of human programming.
Algorithms sound neutral.
You are not.
They are the result of human will.
Coders have given the algorithms a personality, in case of doubt also a consumer personality or even a political-ideological persona.
What we should want
Algorithms analyze our behavior and tell us what we should want.
Or as Eric Schmidt put it years ago: “We know where you are.
We know where you have been.
We more or less know what you are thinking about. ”With this mechanism of so-called
(behavior tracking), platforms like Amazon, Facebook and Google analyze what we do, what we want and decide what we should want.
You make us “suggestions”.
They know that we are thinking about buying a new car, they reinforce and channel our desire and they give us suggestions that their manufacturers will pay the platforms for.
Perhaps you, Ms. von der Leyen, have already spoken to someone about a purchase wish and shortly afterwards you received emails that offered similar products.
Algorithms and thus platforms not only know that we want a new sofa and therefore suggest which one, they also know that a woman is probably pregnant before she even knows it.
Or that a man is gay before he knows it.
You know because of our behavior.
What emails we read.
Which pictures we look at.
What products do we buy.
Behavioral patterns that the algorithm compiles and analyzes from data more reliably than any wife or lover.
Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls this
in her epochal standard work of the same name.
We, the citizens, reveal our innermost, our most private things - to optimize the advertising revenue maximization model of the platforms.
The more transparent the citizens, the richer the platforms.
Do we have to, do we want to keep doing it?
Or is there an alternative?
The alternative, the way out, dear Ms. von der Leyen, is impressively simple.
The data just has to once again belong to those who actually always owned them.
In China the model is like this: the data belongs to the state.
Communist-capitalist, i.e. state capitalist corporations collect the data, monitor their citizens and pass the results on to the Communist Party.
He does what he wants with it.
For example, he rewards women loyal to the regime.
Or he censors artists.
And muzzle critics of the regime.
Or set up concentration camps for Uyghurs.
In America it's incomparably better.
The data belong to capitalist corporations.
Companies like Facebook, Amazon or Apple collect, collect and save data and use it to optimize their business model.
They monitor and analyze our behavior so that we can consume more.
To the economic advantage of the platforms.
That is much more harmless than in China.
But not as it should be either.
The citizens become puppets of capitalist monopolies.
We need the legislature's help
Now, dear Ms. von der Leyen, you can say: It is up to the citizens themselves to change that. After all, they allow themselves to be manipulated more or less voluntarily.
I expressly agree to the terms and conditions of the platforms.
That is fundamentally and above all theoretically correct.
But how many users really read through the endless terms and conditions if they want a product or service as quickly as possible?
How many are really aware of the indirect and long-term consequences of their actions?
And what are the real alternatives for consumers in heavily monopolized markets?
In short: I think citizens need to become more self-critical and self-confident.
But they also need help from politics.
Europe has a historic opportunity - by you, dear Ms. von der Leyen, asserting what Europe has always made in its best times: the sovereignty of the sovereign.
That means: In Europe - and hopefully soon in all countries of the Western community of values - the data does not belong to either the state or a company.
But always only to the individual.
And I am sure the United States will follow Europe in this case.
It is one of the few cases in which Europe has the chance to become the avant-garde of digitization.
In concrete terms, this means, and now it is becoming very concrete: in the EU, platforms should be prohibited from storing private (i.e. personal and sensitive) data and using it for commercial purposes.
This must become law.
And it must go beyond the applicable General Data Protection Regulation and other existing laws in one decisive point: Any relativization through alleged voluntariness must be excluded.
Consent to the use of this data must not even be possible.
Sensitive personal data do not belong in the hands of dominant platforms (so-called gatekeeper groups) and states.
For a better world of freedom and self-determination
It's not any platform's business whether I'm gay or straight.
It is none of their business if I am pregnant.
It is none of their business who I choose to vote for.
It is not a gatekeeper 's business whether and in which God I believe.
If you, dear Ms. von der Leyen, and your colleagues, forbid the commercial use of private data, you will change the world.
You make the world a better place.
Otherwise we will surrender to a new order.
An order in which human rights, self-determination and freedom within the framework of the law no longer apply.
We are surrendering to a surveillance capitalism that turns everything Europe stood for on its head.
Do you think I'm exaggerating?
Let me share with you just two observations from the past few weeks.
Facebook and Twitter have decided to block Donald Trump's account.
One may intuitively take that to be correct, because this president endangered American democracy from above.
But is it correct that a capitalist corporation decides which politician can say what to whom?
That a company (and on top of that one that has almost three billion customers, i.e. a clearly dominant market position) puts itself above the law and democratic institutions?
in Australia, the government has decided that Google will pass on a fair share of the proceeds it generates from journalistic content to publishers.
If Google does not come to an agreement with the publishers, an independent arbitrator will decide.
As a result, Google threatened to stop all Google search functionality in Australia.
That would put Australia at a massive disadvantage.
Because people only have limited access to knowledge.
And companies have greatly reduced access to their customers.
In clear terms this is called: blackmail.
If you don't want how we want, we'll show you what that means.
The Australian government has not been intimidated so far.
Prime Minister Morrison made it clear: "Australia sets the rules for things you can do in Australia." This is where the government seems to be making decisions.
Who decides in Europe?
Dear Ms. von der Leyen, Your Deputy Thierry Breton recently said: “Europe is the first continent in the world to initiate a comprehensive reform of our digital space with the bill on digital services and the bill on digital markets.
They are both based on a simple but strong premise: What is illegal offline should also be illegal online. ”There is really nothing to add to that.
You don't want people to be spied on to find out what sexual preferences they have?
Don't want people to be monitored to find out what they are consuming?
Don't want to be spied on to find out which party they are voting for?
So prohibit what you have forbidden in real life for decades, also in virtual life.
And strengthen what has made Europe strong: the power of the people.
The platforms will tell you that doing so will destroy their business model.
That is not true.
It just gets a little worse.
Like publishers and every blogger (the publishers of the future), the platforms can still monetize their reach.
Or like any retailer or wholesaler, the platforms can still sell their products or services.
But billions will flow back to thousands of publishers, artists and dealers.
To entrepreneurs who captivate their customers with the quality of their offers.
And not by monitoring their behavior.
Platforms of this market power are
They are de facto monopolies.
No alternative for consumers.
Different rules must apply to such companies.
Otherwise competition will suffer.
And with it the market economy.
Netflix proves that platforms can do different things (for transparency: I sit on the board of directors).
There is no advertising and no analysis of private data.
Only consumer behavior related to one's own product, the films, is tracked.
A kind of European fundamental right is needed
Dear Ms. von der Leyen, with this simple measure, perhaps for the first time in the digital economy of the EU, you have the opportunity not to swim against the tide of progress or to repair something retrospectively.
You can proactively shape the digital future.
Regardless of whether it is a copyright reform or an amendment to data protection or an e-privacy regulation - so far the EU has almost always come too late, took too long, and tech companies have been resourceful in avoiding or circumventing their rules.
It was like the race between a rabbit and a hedgehog.
The hedgehog has always been there.
Smarter and faster.
With this measure - a kind of European fundamental right - the EU is ahead of its time and at the same time impossible to catch up.
It does not swim against the current, but with the current in the service of its citizens.
I appeal to you in all seriousness: Prevent people from being monitored by prohibiting the storage of all personal private sensitive data.
Limit the overwhelming power of monopoly platforms from America and China.
Encourage and empower the citizens of Europe to lead a self-determined life.
And enable a competition of ideas, opinions and concepts in a Europe of diversity.
Pluralism of lifestyles, opinions and ideas has always made Europe strong.
Surveillance, collectivism and heteronomy have almost destroyed us.
Total transparency always ends totalitarian.
Europe today is the opposite.
Dear Mrs. von der Leyen: seize the opportunity of Europe.
Here the subject does not serve the mighty.
Here the state serves the sovereign.