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Peter Ganten already warned back in the 1990s that the misuse of software by governments and large corporations would put our democracy and freedom in serious danger. In China’s authoritarian and obscure use of high-tech, the psychologist and software entrepreneur now sees some of his worst digital nightmares come true. What can be done to counter the horror scenario of Social Credit and the like, before China exports it to the world? More open-source software and a finer awareness of digital autocratic tendencies, Ganten explains to our author Marcel Grzanna in our interview.
Meanwhile, China’s first local Omicron outbreak in Tianjin, a city near Beijing, is the cause of more pressing concern. Not far from one of the venues for the Winter Olympics and one of the country’s most important ports, several people were reported to have contracted the highly contagious virus variant. The “impregnable fortress,” as China now confidently calls itself in connection with Covid, is on high alert. This is because the Chinese vaccines may not offer sufficient immunity against Omicron.
In the past year, it seemed that hardly any week could go by without Chinese fighter jets entering Taiwan’s airspace. The saber-rattling has become louder. But there are also reassuring assessments. Our Beijing team reports that there is no threat of military conflict for the time being. The mutual dependence between China and Taiwan is too great. Local German companies are not worried either.
Disclaimer: This interview has been translated into English and is not considered an official translation by any party involved in the interview.
Mr. Ganten, why do you think open source software is an important element in defending democracy and global freedom?
As early as the 1990s, I became convinced that freely accessible source code, which can be viewed, modified, and used by anyone, has a social impact similar to that of the printing press. Back then, access to knowledge and thus to power was only reserved for a few, before the mass reproduction and distribution of information could set democratic development processes in motion in the long term. Today, private communication, economic activity, and governmental administrative processes are controlled and influenced by software. Whoever controls this software, controls who can communicate about what with whom. He can also control who can make what changes to processes and communication flow. Open-source software enables everyone to understand processes controlled by the software and to change them based on their own ideas or to connect them to other systems. By empowering the general public in this way, open-source software helps to counteract autocratization tendencies.
Could you give us an example?
Look to China. The country is showing us how universal and centrally controlled digitization is being used, not only to predict but also to control all processes of private communication and behavior, as well as political and economic processes. We are slowly realizing that this type of digitization is very dangerous and incompatible with our fundamental European values and our view of humanity.