With just days to go before the U.S. election, politics was on everybody’s mind during an online panel “Data as the 21st Century’s Most Valuable Commodity,” held at Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival.

“Digital platforms are governing public debate. It’s a good example of the helplessness of the political sector,” said Philipp Staab, professor of the Sociology of the Future of Work at Humboldt University Berlin, and Einstein Center Digital Future. “While there was an attempt to make Facebook accountable for the [allegedly] criminal content on its platform, it just implemented these companies themselves as the watchdogs,” he said, adding that as a result of public criticism, younger platforms like TikTok tend to stay out of politics.

“This is a worrying sign as well, because there is an erosion of public discourse if people are only talking about sneakers and lipgloss,” he added.

Sociologist and social theorist Ondřej Lánský, head of the Department of Civics and Philosophy at the Faculty of Education at Charles University, also noted that digital platforms tend to “exploit and enhance tendencies that are present in politics,” while the people behind them, among the richest in the world, use their power for political gain.

“By being rich, you also erode the society. We are talking about oligarchy here. These people use part of their fortunes to divert democracy to their own advantage, and these platforms widen the gap between people. You just look for opinions that match your own.”

Pointing out that the concentration of power can be problematic not just in the political sphere, the experts discussed worrying tendencies in the digital market, with just a few companies steadily growing in stature.

“The rise of the internet came with high hopes for decentralization of power and access to information. Now, a handful of companies basically run the internet in terms of infrastructure and content,” said Staab, mentioning Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and, to a certain extent, Microsoft, as far as the Western world is concerned.

“They are not companies acting in markets. They are markets upon which other companies act. Despite the fact they were heralded as champions of innovation and rejuvenation of capitalism, they basically deal with taxation of market transactions. Whenever we consume something on the internet, they take their share from the producers, extracting value from the economy.”

The problem, as pointed out by Kateřina Smejkalová, a researcher at the German public think-tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, is that this system (“or a regime”) is quite new. With people struggling to understand its logic, not to mention manage it.

“That’s really frightening,” she said. “Digital data is essentially the information that you leave behind, no matter what you do in the digital space, and in digital capitalism, it’s being monetized. There is no area of human life, be it healthcare, education or school system that’s not happening online, at least partly. Data is everywhere and that’s why these giants are expanding into areas that have nothing to do with their original focus.”

While some debate whether data should be regarded as “black coal of our century,” Smejkalová seemed hesitant.

“Data is not coal or oil, and it’s not work, if we regard work as an effort to obtain certain goals. Digital data is something very different from what we know from the past. It’s not a commodity, it’s not capital. So am I a customer of Google or a product?”

Discussing issues characteristic to their own countries, they also underlined the need for regulation and data protection.

“People need to take these companies to court to then find out what the legal norm means as a legal reality. You need to fight now for the General Data Protection Regulation to become a strong reality,” said Staab. Adding that so far, the Open Data Strategy has been a one-way road. “In a way, this is a terrible idea. It only means that companies like Google, who are more competent in dealing with this data will get even more powerful.”

“We should know about the transactions these companies make. In Prague, we don’t even know how many [apartments] are being rented on Airbnb,” said Smejkalová, also noting the general laissez-faire approach in her country.

“There should be a wider public discussion about what it does to the society, but we don’t like to criticize capitalism. We can’t pressure these companies as much as bigger countries can, so maybe it would be good to have a coalition of several countries within Europe.”

Unfortunately, with the ongoing pandemic we are becoming even more dependent on the tech giants, experts observed.

“We really need an overview of their activity and it’s something we don’t have, because it’s regarded by law as a business secret. It’s just not right,” said Lánský.

“I can’t wait to get back to the situation when we are only ‘normally’ dependent on these companies,” added Staab. “We have people who are experiencing their dependency on Zoom and others who were suddenly defined as ‘essential workers.’ If that’s an indicator for other crises to come, we need to shift our focus from criticizing this concentration of power to constructive building of the society.”

The debate took place at the Inspiration Forum, a discussion platform of the Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival. The discussions will continue until Nov. 6, with all the recordings available on the festival’s YouTube channel.