Almighty Google : Whoever owns our data will determine our fate

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This is a subtle matter that is not often talked about in public debates.  The big companies are not just gathering data about individuals like authoritarian governments, but also using machine learning algorithms to model the minds of those individuals. Regulators can only access the thin outer rind of the scheme, the raw data, but not the valuable heart of it.

Noone should be allowed to influence online activities

I must warn readers about the rise of a professional class of digital policy experts who promote the notion that they can come up with laws upholding privacy and other cherished values that anticipate the manipulations of future digital architectures. As a technologist I don’t find the claims of these types of experts to be credible. Nonetheless they seem to have influence in EU circles. I am amazed that this is so.  

Furthermore, the politics of regulating a company like Google is difficult because the population becomes addicted to the “free” services and will in many cases take the company’s side. This is similar to the way that many people always side with authoritarian regimes because they perceive a short term self-interest.

So Europe needs to learn to think in new ways. The primary remedy I have been exploring is to make the USE of data cost money.  Since I am an American, and a creature of the tech world, I have been interested in finding a market-based solution. Therefore I have focused on schemes in which individuals could set the price for the use of data about themselves.  This would constrain the power of both companies and governments.

Another approach that has been proposed in many variations is a data tax. In that case, regulators would tax businesses based on the benefit they receive from having free access to data about citizens.  My concern in this case is that it could over-empower governments and lead to new cycles of corruption, but it still worth considering.

Another option, what might be called the nuclear option, or perhaps the anti-nuclear option, would be to ban the spending of money to influence online content in any way at all. If we are to have the open internet advocated by the Pirate Parties, then it ought to really be that. There should not be a double standard, in which everyone acts out of generosity except for a few cosmically-enriched American companies. That would mean that neither businesses nor politicians could spend money to influence online activities. The internet would start to become the open, honest tool that is often claimed to be, but which it has never yet actually resembled.

Not a game a government is likely to win

Either the commercial aspect of the Internet must be extended to embrace all its users as first class citizens, or it must be made non-commercial. The idea of a partially commercial Internet, where only a few giant companies tower and everyone else is subservient or addicted to “convenience” and “free” services is absolutely not sustainable.  Since it is hard to imagine evicting the commercial sector at this late date, the more likely scenario is to bring more individuals into the formal online economy, by paying them for their data, whether through a universal micropayment scheme, as I have been exploring, or through taxation and government social welfare programs.

There are many interesting ideas, such as the Brazilian notion that information gathered in Brazil must be stored in Brazil, in order to maintain a semblance of national sovereignty. However, on closer examination, all such schemes would be vulnerable to technical workarounds. Sure, the data might only be stored in Brazil, but unregulated calculations might be made elsewhere, while the data is in flight.  “Elsewhere” might include the unregulated barges out at sea that Google has murmured about. To clamp down utterly and refuse to allow data to leave Brazil at all would be to renounce the international Internet and embrace data isolation.

So once, again, regulation becomes difficult. It becomes a struggle to anticipate the antics of clever programmers. Not a game a government is likely to win. A process of elimination leads back to making it cost money to use data gathered from individuals. That is a concrete, enforceable idea that doesn’t rely on qualitative notions. The EU should consider this option strongly.

Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, inventor, composer, artist and author who coined the term “virtual reality”. He supervises, as lead scientist, the National Tele-immersion Initiative, a joined project of several universities exploring the “Internet2”. He teaches at the School of The Arts at the University of New York as well as at Columbia University. He is a co-founder of the International Institute for Evolution and Brain at the universities of Paris and Harvard.

Among Jaron Lanier’s line-up of “firsts“ are the first “avatar“ for network communications, the first moving camera virtual set for TV production and the first performance animation for 3D computer graphics. In 2013 he published Who Owns the Future, a visionary reckoning with the effects network technologies have had on our economy.

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