Public debate

Antonio Casilli

The digital giants have the power to decide what we watch and learn

Following the adoption of the Copyright Directive by the European Union in March 2019, French sociologist Antonio Casilli, specialist in social networks and author of Waiting for robots, an enquiry into clickwork (Seuil, 2019), gives us his take on the digital giants, artificial intelligence and the disillusionment caused by the worldwide digital transformation.


Antonio Casilli is a lecturer in digital humanities at Télécom ParisTech and a research fellow at EHESS's (School for Advanced Social Studies) LACI-IIAC (Critical Interdisciplinary Anthropology Centre).

Updated on 23/05/2019

5 min

Antonio Casilli
Antonio Casilli
© Hermance Triay

What place do the digital giants currently occupy?

First we need to understand who the digital giants are. As well as GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft), there are also other large companies such as IBM, Baidu, Alibaba on the Chinese side and Naver - the equivalent of Google in Korea... These are oligopolistic platforms, that is they are relatively few in number and tend to absorb smaller competitors. They occupy a position of hegemony in their market, with a concentration of powers that is dangerous from an economic point of view and that also threatens civil liberties. Economic power also means power over imagination and cultural production: these companies tend to standardise cultural production. Rather than directly supporting content, they implement indirect practices for “algorithmic” selection, “automatic” moderation and distribution of works etc.

These companies tend to standardise cultural production

How can their power be limited? Is the legislative route the answer?

The regulatory approach is not enough and may even prove counterproductive, as shown by two recent European initiatives. The so-called "Copyright" Directive adopted on 26 March 2019, which regulates copyright on the internet, and the European regulation on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online, adopted at first reading by the European Parliament on 17 April 2019. The former gives platforms the power to censor the content they host. It will thus theoretically no longer be possible to share even a quote on Facebook, in the name of copyright protection. Whether or not this fear proves to be justified depends on the choice of digital platforms, and there is enormous room for manoeuvre here...the rules of procedure, for their part, provide that judges may ask to remove content they consider doubtful from any platform within an hour. However, no platform will be able to comply with this obligation without using the filtering tools developed by GAFAM. Online censorship would then be heavily managed by the digital giants, with smaller sites unable to moderate their content themselves 24 hours a day.

The directive has resulted in a lot of media coverage, while the regulation has gone almost unnoticed, which is particularly serious considering that these new rules both have important consequences on what can be said and done on the internet. They give the digital giants the power to decide what we are going to watch and learn. Our politicians should have given more thought to this approach: they have just given these platforms immense power over our culture.

hey give the digital giants the power to decide what we are going to watch and learn

But Europe is trying to counter the American giants...

In reality, France and the United States are alas heading in the same direction. Despite the laws and declaring their opposition to Silicon Valley, Europe is reproducing the same oligopolistic mechanisms without offering an alternative. National initiatives have no better ethics than the digital giants: the start-ups and “nuggets” of the French technology sector will probably also turn to using underpaid workers in the Philippines or in Madagascar...are we not inventing an ethical virginity when, at the end of the day, we are faced with the same moral and even political contradictions - since this affects labour law?

These underpaid workers are part of the "click workers" group that you mentioned in your last work, Waiting for robots... 

The click workers go from the regular user reporting illegal content to the paid-in-kind or micropaid volunteer moderator rewarded by a few cents and outsourced to the Philippines…they improve the quality of content, similar to how YouTube operates, by identifying and deleting the most controversial videos, and also police and judge intellectual property by removing content where copyright is infringed. However, platforms claim to carry out this work using intelligent robots - the famous "bots". It is in fact an exploitation of human work.

Can copyright be applied to artificial intelligence?

Believing that artificial intelligence can resemble human intelligence and develop creative ability is a pure fantasy. The creation comes exclusively from the inventor of this artificial intelligence, and it is therefore the human who is its author. If we take the thinking a step further, we can say that it is not only the engineer or the owner who created it, but all the collectives, or even the masses of click workers, who enable AI to operate by continually providing it with data. What's more, the term artificial intelligence should be replaced by machine learning which better describes the phenomenon.

The term artificial intelligence should be replaced by machine learning which better describes the phenomenon

What advice would you give to the latest generation of internet users?

Work to inform and educate, not just the youngest children, but also teachers and parents, needs to be carried out. Digital skills must be taught because no one is actually a “digital native”. My recommendation is to educate yourself and learn more.

The Institut français and the sociologist

Antonio Casilli will be in Asia – Tokyo (Japan), Seoul (South Korea) and Taipei (Taiwan) – from 12 to 18 May 2019 as part of a cycle of discussion of ideas entitled: "What regulation is there of the digital giants? ".


These discussions are supported by the Institut français as part of the Alembert Fund.

L'institut français, LAB