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Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Data Plutocrats and a need for a Data Democracy

Yesterday certainly wasn't the first time someone opined the term privacy was counter-productive in relation to data.

"Privacy" is a one-sided open-ended discussion about risk with no consideration of reward.

"Privacy" is an amorphous concept easily spun by proponents of one side or the other.

Privacy: is wholesome, positive, for victims of crime themselves becoming victims of press intrusion; or, privacy gives terrorists and child abusers the space they need to hide amongst us in society.

Discussion about data privacy and related topics could, perhaps, be more constructive if framed as a discussion about balance of power.

After all, privacy primarily concerns us because of our fear that our secrets can be used against us, creating an "information asymmetry" (ht @OrwellUpgraded) that could be abused by the nefarious and amoral.

So should privacy advocates instead be arguing for a data democracy?

Taking a step back, democracy is not a goal in itself.  The end game is a comfortably stable, affluent and sustainable society; which, if one trusts in the inherent good in human nature will itself be a fair and just society.

Similarly, in data terms, we want a society where we are all "data wealthy" - ie have access to information, communications, entertainment; and benefit from the resulting advances in science, medicine, etc only possible through smart use of data.

We want relative stability - a society nimble enough to keep pace with advancing technology, yet resilient enough not to be cajoled into dangerous change.

We want a just and fair society where individuals, corporations and governments can't use our personal data, our everyday secrets, to exert undue control on anyone.

Democracy is probably the best place to start - at least in analysing and attempting to understand the problem.

Today we probably have a data plutocracy, where data power is concentrated in the hands of a few global corporations.

No-one knows for sure whether this itself is inherently dangerous.

Data power has certainly been used for good: the rapid emergence of useful services, the construction of data infrastructure on a truly massive scale, a level of free "social" services.

Data plutocrats like Google provide services like Blogger, which in turn strengthens the power of the individual to challenge traditional autocracies and, for the time being at least, discuss the issues associated with a data plutocracy.

But clearly such concentrations of data power could easily be abused; either by sticky-fingered employees dipping their hands in the data till, by governments, or by corporations themselves in search of profit.

So maybe we should be looking to promote data control structures and data economies that are inherently more democratic.

But how can we go about understanding the data power balance?

I believe we'll find, over time, that many democratic (and economic) concepts are applicable to data.

Already I see a clear left-right political spectrum, at one end "the state" or other controlling force being responsible for administering and apportioning "data fairness" if you like.  The "clean internet" brigade - a worthy cause... But, as we all know, some data animals are more equal than others.  Who governs the governors, who watches the watchmen?

And at the other end, the right-libertarians, who argue the state should not interfere, leaving the question of who will protect the "data weak"?  Who will guard the technologically incapable from losing out when real-world services increasingly rely on the internet?  Who will provide their broadband, guard their personal data, and defend their computers from hackers?

Over the last two decades the data privacy debate has entered the mainstream - that itself is a good thing, but it's now time to move on to talk about the wider issue: a data democracy.


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