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Almighty Google : Whoever owns our data will determine our fate

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Jaron Lanier points out possibilities to resist the seemingly almighty Google. Bild: picture alliance / Karten Lemm

Mathias Döpfner, Chief Executive Officer of Axel Springer AG, warned of the danger of Google’s omnipotence. No country will be able to wrestle down the monopolist by means of regulation. Some possibilities to limit Google’s power, however, remain.

          You can’t break up Google in the way that other companies have been broken up, because it only makes money in one way from one narrow, indivisible business. Well over 90 percent of Google’s revenues come from just one activity, the placement of little link ads. 

          It is a uniquely holistic business model. There isn’t any way to split Google’s ad placements into ads that appear in phones versus computers, for instance, because that isn’t enforceable. Anyone can already open a browser on the phone to see web pages that might have originally been intended for computers. Soon it might become more common to run phone apps on a computer as well. Google doesn’t have to do anything to encourage this option other than let the open evolution of the Android operating system take its course.

          The complexity of setting privacy preferences is insane

          Similarly, there is no way to break the business into data spied from cars, homes, retail stores, or phones, because data from one type of sensor migrates freely to the others. Our phones already interface with our cars and with shops we visit, for instance.

          Meanwhile, the idea of regulating what can be done with data is hopeless because any possible law can be routed around by a clever architecture or algorithm. We have long seen a clear example in the way that bluntly stated copyright laws were routinely outmaneuvered online over the last 15 years. 

          You alone are Google over all the kingdoms of the earth: Google wants to expand the internet to even the remotest of areas.

          Even when there is a clear case of breaking the law, it becomes an impossible burden for a copyright holder to chase down every violation.  Unfortunately, any violation is as bad as a million violations online, so long as people can find it, which they can because of search engines. 

          This type of asymmetrical burden will disadvantage individuals and small businesses even more dramatically when it comes to well-meaning - though useless - privacy regulations. The complexity of setting all the privacy preferences relevant to an individual is already insane. What little latitude you have to adjust your preferences with the big companies (Google, Facebook, etc.) is inadequate because you also inevitably interact with a multitude of other entities that do business with them.

          Raw data is only the outer, valueless rind of the scheme

          Only maniacal, obsessive, technically-minded individuals can really keep track of it all. And enforcement is only a fantasy. The effort needed to track down violations of privacy policies is already an impossibly high, and will only get worse.  

          Let us simply state the truth: The idea that individuals will decide how much information to share based on setting preferences is based on a false understanding of the dynamics involved. It is an impossibility and a hopeless goal for lawmakers.

          Another prominent example of how digital networks can outrun the law is the use of such networks to avoid taxation. There is a difference, however, between the bizarre futility of the endless debates about privacy policies and the situation with taxation.  

          In the case of taxation, the law can ultimately be enforced, because at root what it states is quantitative and concrete. Companies should pay taxes. Meanwhile, privacy is hard to define. There are cultural and emotional aspects of privacy that might never be precisely explicated.

          Governing the earth: Google logo on solar panels in California.

          When the topic is the qualitative use of information, as in the case of privacy, it’s hard to imagine that the law can ever keep up. This is why government has had such a hard time making itself relevant to copyright in the digital age. There is simply no way that the letter of the law can anticipate the agile programming of computers when the concepts at the heart of the law include qualitative concepts. 

          If it is declared illegal to transfer complete files of movies or books, then they might be streamed, perhaps from foreign computers, or between individuals in a peer to peer network, and perhaps no single individual will ever possess the complete file at one time. We have all watched these games unfold over the years. Many people are sympathetic to the clever coding schemes that have been used to avoid copyright regulations. I used to be one of them. But consider the analogous game that is unfolding related to privacy.

          Suppose that individuals become legally empowered to access all data that has been gathered about them. Then companies will still keep secret the correlative results that are used to anticipate and manipulate people with statistical efficiency.  

          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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