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.

          5 Min.

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

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

          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.  

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