Fri. Apr 19th, 2019

‘Chutzpah,’ manipulation, and ‘fact-free polemics’: Mathias Döpfner unloads on Silicon Valley after Europe votes to change the face of the internet

‘Chutzpah,’ manipulation, and ‘fact-free polemics’: Mathias Döpfner unloads on Silicon Valley after Europe votes to change the face of the internet

Döpfner Mathias

  • The European Parliament passed controversial new laws on internet copyright in March. 
  • German publication WELT spoke to Mathias Döpfner, President of the German Publishers’ Association, about the new laws.
  • Döpfner, who is also CEO of German media company Axel Springer, WELT and Business Insider’s parent company, hasn’t previously given an interview to an Axel Springer publication. In this case, he made the comments in his role as President of the German Publishers’ Association, not as Axel Springer CEO. 
  • He said: “I am absolutely convinced that this decision will allow the Internet to become freer and more diverse. A lot of people who were against the reform will come to realize that.”
  • He also took aim at the tech companies that fought against the laws.
  • “The efficiency and the chutzpah they have shown in manipulating the users have taken on unbelievable dimensions,” he said. “It’s shocking to see how these platforms have won over certain age groups and target groups with their fact-free polemics.”

The European Parliament’s approval of the copyright reform is a historical turning point, not only for the media industry and the entire creative sector.

Mathias Döpfner, President of the German Publishers’ Association and CEO of Axel Springer, sees it as far more, namely as a sign that citizens are starting to emancipate themselves from the excessive power of the American tech giants. (Axel Springer is Business Insider’s parent company).

Welt: Mr. Döpfner, large numbers of Internet users protested against the copyright reform passed by the European Parliament, because they are worried that it could destroy the Internet. Do we have a case here of the free press asserting itself over the free Internet?

Mathias Döpfner: No. Firstly, it can’t be a case of the press asserting itself over the Internet, because this reform has nothing to do with the press, or with newspapers. It’s about the future of digital journalism. And anyway, as far as large number of Internet users go – a representative German survey showed that only 10 percent of those questioned actually reject the EU Parliament’s decision, while 41 percent welcome the reform. The rest are undecided. This clearly shows that the Parliament’s decision reflects the opinion of the citizens. I am absolutely convinced that this decision will allow the Internet to become freer and more diverse. A lot of people who were against the reform will come to realize that. In future we’ll see more content, more diversity of opinion and more innovation in all areas, whether music, film or journalism.

Welt: What makes you so sure of that?

Döpfner: Because the reform creates incentives. All those people who create content will finally have the chance to develop a business model for what they do. If the situation we have had up to now continues, where people use the intellectual property of others for their own commercial ends without being obliged to pass on a fair share of the revenues, then in the long run people will stop producing content. Except, perhaps, the platforms themselves. And nobody can want that. At the moment, the platforms take all the content and use it without paying a penny for that. Quality journalism, for example, is expensive. Investigative research means traveling, and colleagues sometimes even risk life and limb to uncover a story. Enough people will only stay in the business in the long term if it remains a viable business model. Every blogger, every founder of a content start-up now sees opportunities arise. And that will stimulate innovation and competition.

Welt: Publishers have been campaigning for stricter copyright laws for a long time. As head of the German Publishers’ Association do you feel like you’ve won a victory?

Döpfner: The notion of victory is very old school. I’m just happy about the outcome. Almost exactly ten years ago, I said in public for the first time that digital journalism will only be able to survive if it finds readers who are willing to pay. And that there would only be paying readers if a legal framework was in place that protects intellectual property. Back then people laughed at you for thinking like that. They thought you just didn’t understand the Internet. Reach and clicks were the currency of the Internet, not money. The industry has come a long way since then.

Welt: Have the media houses not contributed towards the no-cost mentality on the Internet themselves?

Döpfner: Yes, they have, because publishers worldwide misunderstood the Internet, seeing it as an advertising platform for their analog products. They underestimated the Internet. It soon became clear, however, that the Internet is not a marketing instrument for newspapers, but rather a new form of newspaper. That’s why it’s nonsensical propaganda to say that publishers only support the copyright reform because they want to rescue their dying newspapers. Not one single printed newspaper will extend its life because of the reform.

Welt: Critics say that the large, established publishing houses will benefit most from the reform.

Döpfner: The opposite is true. Large media enterprises could very easily survive without this reform, because they all have enough other fields of business. And also because, just by virtue of their size alone, they are more able to represent their interests vis-à-vis the tech platforms than, for example, a regional newspaper that has to become digital, or a blogger who wants to turn his idealistic interests into a profession he can live from. Copyright laws that work are vital for the small entities out there.

Welt: It’s even more surprising in the debate that many users took Google’s side instead of supporting the creative industry.

Döpfner: If we really did need any more proof of why a regulatory initiative like this is vital to counter the unfair competitive situation that favors the American tech monopolies, then we have it now. The efficiency and the chutzpah they have shown in manipulating the users have taken on unbelievable dimensions. It’s shocking to see how these platforms have won over certain age groups and target groups with their fact-free polemics. Self-proclaimed experts on the Internet, who haven’t come up with one single useful proposal about how to finance free
journalism in the digital world. Churning out the same old arguments like a broken record – because the copyright reform is the end of the no-cost Internet. But they don’t have any real arguments.

Welt: People’s anger is aimed mainly at so-called upload filters, which can be used to check whether uploaded contents contain material that is protected by copyright.

Döpfner: That’s a buzzword being thrown about at the moment that I don’t even want to go into, because it’s symptomatic of the lack of sophistication in the debate.

Welt: How so?

Döpfner: Article 13, …

Welt: … which is now Article 17 and aims to make sure that creatives are rewarded financially when their contents are uploaded onto digital platforms…

Döpfner: … is a paragraph that for the most part serves the music industry and to some extent the film industry. We as publishing associations have never campaigned strongly for Article 13. And yet, people said, “The publishers want the upload filter and they’re destroying the Internet.” That’s just not true.

Welt: But you weren’t against Article 13 either.

Döpfner: No, because if we all only stand up for our own specific interests then things will never work as a whole. And the principle of intellectual property is right and applies for the entire copyright reform. It’s urgently needed because intellectual property has to be protected differently in the virtual world than in the analog world. People didn’t put newspapers onto photocopiers to earn money with the brands and texts of the publishers. But to do something comparable on the Internet, all it takes is just one click. That’s what it was about for us. As for Article 13, we understand that it’s important to the music industry. What we don’t understand, however, is that the tech platforms act as if upload filters are the only way to protect intellectual property. That’s a joke!

Welt: Why don’t you understand that?

Döpfner: They can do a lot more than just identify copyright-protected material. The artificial intelligence that platforms like Google, Youtube, Facebook and Amazon use know our decisions before we’ve even reached them ourselves. AI can find out whether a man will be fired or a woman is pregnant before they even know it themselves. “Behavioral Targeting” is a characteristic feature of surveillance capitalism.  And that’s why the copyright reform is so important. It defends values that we can be proud of.

Welt: Because it gets in the way of America’s tech platforms?

Döpfner: It’s not about protectionism, or about cutting ourselves off from America – anyone who says that is just spouting propaganda. This whole subject has two dimensions, one of which is highly political. The question is, what kind of social system do we want to have and to what extent will the citizens of Europe and America resist being completely dominated by the regime of the American and Chinese tech giants. The copyright reform is the first case of citizens defending themselves against the manipulative monopolies. It’s a really big thing we’re talking about here, nothing less than the sovereignty of the citizen and the boundaries of surveillance capitalism. Who does data belong to? That’s the crucial question in digitization.

Welt: And the answer is?

Döpfner: Certainly not a corporation. Or a state. There can be only one answer: the citizen, the individual. Our data are our property and we have a right to know what happens with our data. The fact that Facebook apparently created countless shadow profiles of citizens who never even used Facebook is frightening.

Welt: A lot of citizens obviously don’t feel that way. In the 1980s, many people took to the streets to protest the census, and today they give all their data away voluntarily.

Döpfner: Responsibility can be hard work. So, relinquishing our responsibility sometimes seems like a sweet option, but it seduces people into being naïve and lethargic. But the mood is changing. More and more people, especially the very young, are realizing that, while most of these services don’t cost anything on the face of it, we pay the price by handing over our data. That’s a high price to pay, because the result is mass surveillance.

Welt: Has this led you to change your own behavior?

Döpfner:  Yes, I only use services like that sparingly. You won’t find me in Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Despite that, every time I enter a search term, I create a user profile, and the geotagging on my smartphone supplies information to unknown third parties about everywhere I go.

Welt: Is the message then: Yankees go home?

Döpfner: It has nothing whatsoever to do with anti-Americanism. I’m more pro-America than most Americans. This decision on copyright is nothing less than the first step towards citizens taking back their knowledge and their will. It’s a need that is growing in America as well. In Switzerland, citizens are referred to as sovereign. And citizens should also be sovereign in Europe and in the USA. In the last twenty years, Europe has allowed the tech giants to rob its knowledge and its will to a large extent. Anyone who gets a hold of information from the data resources of the large tech platforms, information down to the tiniest detail, will inevitably strive for dominance, not only economically, but also politically. Until now, we have subjugated ourselves to a kind of intoxication brought on by progress and technology. And finally, for the first time, we’ve done something to start turning the tide. My hope is that this movement will spread outwards from Europe and take hold in America.

Welt: And, in the end, Google and Facebook will be destroyed, like Standard Oil?

Döpfner: That is, in fact, what many economic experts, professors and politicians are demanding. And recently even an American senator. I don’t want to go that far. That should remain a last resort. However, if Facebook becomes a media company that decides what news or opinions are good or bad, and who should be allowed to read what. And if Google transforms from being a search machine into an answer machine that trawls its information from the entire store of human intellect without paying for it – then yes. That’s why I believe stronger regulation to be vital. Mark Zuckerberg, by the way, obviously sees it that way too. For example, to protect the private sphere. That’s something he recently publicly reaffirmed. A consensus that many people have thought impossible to date.

Welt: And what’s next? The ancillary copyright law that was first introduced in Germany in 2012 has not fulfilled expectations. What makes you so sure that the same won’t happen at European level?

Döpfner: The platforms won’t just ignore the democratic will of 500 million citizens. We now have a historic opportunity to create a healthy ecosystem between platforms and creative enterprises by making a few changes to the way we behave. People will be clever enough to grasp this opportunity and, by doing, prevent bad things from happening.

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