Commission: Make Denmark a leader in internet ethics

A Djøf commission set up to look at ways to prevent technology from running roughshod over established social norms has proposed requiring big tech firms to pay taxes on their revenue in Denmark and preventing websites and apps from hoovering up our data.

By Tine Santesson

In February, YouTube came under hefty criticism when its app for children was found to contain content that offered advice for how to commit suicide. How, it was asked, was something like that possible when often harmless films are stamped with age restrictions that prevent children from seeing them in the cinema?

The example is just one highlighted by Djøf’s TechDK commission of how rapid technological development keeps legislators on the back foot and prevents them from taking measures to protect us from the downside of technology.

The commission’s report, released in June, proposes 16 ways that Denmark can address the ethical and moral dilemmas brought about by the rise of the internet. For the most pressing of them – taxation, privacy and user rights – it presents detailed recommendations for how the proposals could be implemented.

The taxation plan, titled Model 5-5-5, would impose a 5% tax on a firm’s Danish revenue, if its annual revenue exceeds 5 million kroner in Denmark, and 5 billion kroner globally.

When it comes to privacy, the commission calls for websites, apps and browsers to use “do not track” as the default setting, replacing the generic, uninformed consent cookie warnings users must currently agree to, even though they are regarded as ineffective and distracting.

In order to make it easier for users to see whether a website or app lives up to various data-protection regulations, the commission recommends establishing a rating system that offers a seal of approval complying firms can display.

Djøf spoke with Thomas Høgenhaven, a tech entrepreneur, at the time of the report’s release to discuss the proposals. Djøf asked why three specific topics should be highlighted. To this Thomas Høgenhaven answered:

 "These were the topics we felt needed particular attention, and they were topics we could work on with the state legal advisor and other organisations to come up with some specific proposals".

5-5-5: a model for making firms pay tax

Is it realistic to think that big tech firms will pay taxes?

"I do. France is doing something similar. It would be best if we could address this at the international level, but we can’t sit around waiting for that to happen. I’d like to see Denmark become a leader in internet ethics A consequence of doing this could be that Danish firms might find themselves being taxed harder abroad. That complicates things, but I still believe that it is realistic – and necessary – to do something now".

In 2017, the Folketing passed a law that had the effect of making it impossible for Uber to operate in Denmark. Høgenhaven believes that the same strategy could be used against other companies

"The problem is that the bigger the company gets, the less economic pressure Denmark can exert on it. So, the earlier we start on this, the better. But this is something we should have done well before now".

Just say no to tracking

Would your “do not track” proposal prevent organisations like Djøf from coming up with information and promotions for members based on the profile of the individual who logged on. For example, if they were a recent graduate, rather than a senior employee, or someone in the public sector.

"No, but we would like to see a movement away from lumping all data into one category. There are several types of data. We see no problem with what we call functional data: data that can be used to customise the experience for a member or a user. But we’re against commercialising data in order to target advertising or to sell to a third party.

Take Google, for example. Just because I’ve searched for something doesn’t mean I want the search kept for five years in a personal profile that can be sold to an insurance company so it can show me an advert because it thinks I suffer from a certain illness".

But, again, isn’t it hard to force international tech firms to change their behaviour?

"GDPR applies just as much to the big tech firms, and we can see that they are kind of complying. And even Mark Zuckerberg has started talking about the need for more legislation. So most people expect we will see regulation in some form. A year ago, I’d have ruled out any form of legislation. Now, it’s not looking impossible".

Smiley, you're approved

The final recommendation calls for coming up with a seal of approval, perhaps using a smiley face, that would let users know that websites and apps abide by certain minimum standards. 

Wouldn’t that just be showing that they meet GDPR regulations?

"Yes and no. There’s also an educational element to it. We want to make it possible for companies to show they abide by the law, but we can also help consumers and individuals to consider what might happen to their personal data when they log on to a website or use an app. And, making companies compete on data security and living up to the law can make individuals more aware that their data is something that needs to be protected".

Do you expect some kind of public agency to go around handing out smileys to companies that behave the way they should?
"Yes. Whoever was doing it would need to be trustworthy, and, in that respect, it makes most sense for it to be a public agency". 

Even though there are costs associated with that?
"Yes. But there’s a widespread assumption that digitising is the same as cutting costs. It’s dangerous to think that way, because there are a lot of costs for society and the individual that aren’t immediately apparent. That’s why we suggest using money to come up with a seal of approval that consumers start to look for and that motivates firms to treat our data ethically". 

Different types of data

There were 17 people on the commission, was it easy to get them to agree?

"Early on we agreed that the point wasn’t for everyone to agree about every detail. In addition to academics, the commission was made up of representatives from small and large companies, so of course people had differences of opinion, but I feel that we’ve come up with something that most of the members feel is mostly sensible".

Is one of the recommendations dearer to you than the others?

"It has to be the one about different types of data. We need to learn how to talk about data in a different way than we do today and to spilt things up, so we can keep the functionalities we like but cut back on the commercialisation".

The commission's report is available in Danish on Djøf's website.

TechDK also has plans to publish a report about technology's influence on democracy and one about its influence on culture.

TechDK members

  • Stine Bosse, executive (chair)
  • Thomas Høgenhaven, entrepreneur (vice-chair)
  • Lea Korsgaard, editor-in-chief, Zetland
  • Stine Carsten Kendal, managing director, Dagbladet Information
  • Philipp Schröder, professor in economics, Aarhus University
  • Mikkel Flyverbom, professor of communication and digital transformation, Copenhagen Business School
  • Merete Eldrup, managing director, TV2
  • Henrik Funder, chair, Djøf Privat
  • Vincent F. Hendricks, professor of philosophy
  • Camilla Mehlsen, media researcher
  • Imran Rashid, physician and author of a self-help book for surviving the digital age
  • Thomas Terney, consultant and author of several books about artificial intelligence
  • Marie Louise Gørvild, director, Techfestival
  • Andreas Wester Juni, consultant
  • Jacob Mchangama, founder and director, Justitia
  • Torben M. Andersen, professor of economics, Aarhus University
  • Thomas Bolander, professor, DTU Compute

This article is published by Djøfbladet. It originally appeared in Danish online at djoefbladet.dk.