It has never happened before. But as they say, there’s a first time for everything. And so it is that the meeting of G7 interior ministers in Ischia, Italy, on Thursday and Friday will include a substantial delegation from the cream of the crop: Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter. The theme is the fight against terrorism, and the corporate leaders will sit at the same table as the government ones.
This marks a general acknowledgment of the reality that the nation-state can no longer be defined within the customary spatial and temporal bounds typical of the analog age, but rather as a small part immersed in a much larger whole. Besides the financial powers-that-be, who for a long time have had access to the critical area of the control room, nowadays the data oligarchs are also confidently striding in on the red carpet: They’re the exclusive owners of the algorithms that govern the architecture of knowledge, the custodians of our digital identities. They know that these belong to them, and not to us, mere user-subjects.
“Datacracy” is, according to the media sociologist Derrick de Kerckhove, the true realm towards which the post-democratic world, the territory of this ongoing transition, is heading.
And, to give a clear example, the downsizing of parliaments and elected assemblies is one of the steps on this path.
The institutional dialectic that the state and the rule of law have bequeathed to us is being replaced by a diverse collection of gatekeepers. And the large aggregators of the Internet are the stars of the show. In Ischia, where the Italian prime minister is a guest, world governments are granting them sovereign status. This was wisely noted by the journalist and professor Michele Mezza, the author of many writings that are dismissed by the ruling classes.
In short, the G7 is merely telling the truth: Not just technology, but politics itself has been made digital.
There is also a hint of the grotesque here. The heads of government are giving a star welcome to those who are still not paying the taxes they owe, so much so that Vestager, the European Commissioner, hit Google with enormous fines.
Only now, after years of discussion, a “digital tax” is being envisioned for the Budget Act. And what’s more, just as newspapers warned even before communications scholars did, election results are being influenced to a large extent by the “profiling” of citizens connected to social media or recognized by their myriad interactions with the “Internet of Things.”
The case of the United States and Trump’s victory (should any of the laurels even go to him at all?), or the adventures of the Russian hackers (among many others), can teach us that yes, old school broadcast television still matters, but a lot less than it used to. So now, at last, those who rule over the fortunes of these very governments are taking part directly in summits, together with their clients.
Of course, dialogue with the main protagonists of our digital post-democracy is useful and necessary, but diplomacy has always been the one to dictate, almost obsessively, where the seats at the table were.
And thus, the story of Ischia cannot be reduced to a necessity dictated by the summit’s delicate agenda.
It is precisely the fight against terrorism that requires, now more than ever, a generally accepted framework which should be discussed together with the vast world of the internet itself, not limited to trust in the system.
The United Nations has set up a specialized body, the Internet Governance Forum, whose first coordinator was Stefano Rodotà. Why won’t the IGF be represented on the island?
Unless, after all, the topic of these negotiations should prove to be the necessary prerequisite for writing the shared rules of a public space, transparent and participatory, without proprietary algorithms. After all, what did Minniti, the Italian interior minister, say? Terrorism can be stopped only by democracy, not by transfers of power.
As the title of a great book goes, call it a “utopia for realists.”