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Rise of the Data States: How the Big Internet Players Became Global Powers

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When the Oval Office accepts your inbound call you know that you're important. That's why Mark Zuckerberg's disclosure that he called Barack Obama directly to discuss concerns over online privacy confirmed to many of us what we already thought to be the case: we have entered an era where holders of mass data are now being considered international actors with power beginning to match that of nation states.

And it's not difficult to see why. Earlier this year, Facebook passed 1.23 billion active users per month, a milestone that puts its user figure fractionally below the population of India, the world's second most populous country, and within touching distance of China. Similarly, if market capitalization was the equivalent of GDP, Facebook would comfortably be in the top 60 richest nations globally. Google would be pushing into the top 30.

Of course, such comparisons shouldn't be taken literally, but they do demonstrate why Internet companies are beginning to be taken very seriously on a world stage. These positions of power are built on something that governments simply don't possess: rich data on behavior, personal preferences and social circles. Governments have relied on costly paper-based censuses to get a snapshot of their populations, often years apart. Google and Facebook know even more about their users, and in real time.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the Google Flu Trends experiment. By analyzing search terms, Google has been able to, with some success, make predictions around regional outbreaks of the influenza virus. No nation would ever be capable of making such projections without access to this type of rich data, and this goes part way to explaining why the world's most powerful nations are so keen to develop allegiances.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, CEOs of technology companies have become some of the biggest draws. It is in this environment that it is clear that holders of data and owners of strategic web infrastructure are now actors on the world stage, and its CEOs, if not quite equal to heads of state, occupy a plane which elevates them above other leaders of industry. Eric Schmidt's 2013 visit to North Korea showed how Google could act in a way that may have led to sanctions on other less influential global players -- nation states included.

The truth is that these Internet companies have the power to become even more powerful than nation states. Their ability to transcend international borders, geography and cultures means that they can become Data States, with direct and instant interaction with their users that no nation state can ever match. They have developed an understanding of their populations that no government could ever match, governed by power structures and hierarchy that are unaccountable to its populace.

The greater the amount of data harbored by these Data States, the more powerful they become. The more we rely on their services for basic human needs such as communication and consumption, the further we become ensnared in this self-fueling mechanism, all the while feeding in more and more data. Just as it is almost impossible to live our lives without the support of the state, we are in danger of our increasingly data-defined digital lives being incapable of existing outside of the Data State.

Democracy gives us the freedom to affect change in the community that we live in, but the current structures of the Data State do not afford us such liberties. Of course, we always have the choice to leave, but we are naturally social animals, and from the outside the increasingly divided nature of the Internet will mean that we won't even be able to look in.

As our lives become more connected, our choices appear to be more limited. But the Internet is built on open architecture and the protocols that allowed the Data States to grow to these levels of influence can allow us to carve out own personal boundaries, where we decide how and when we interact with others, and how our data can be used. And if enough people decide that they want to own their own digital identity, the problem of being 'locked out' becomes less of an issue.

We can build a new interconnected ecosystem with the help of trusted service providers. Rather than handing our data, and, in turn, power straight over to the Data States, we can host our own data and control our own channels on information and communication. It may come at some personal expense, but what price can we put on our freedom.

Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the Web, recently called for a global "bill of rights" to protect Internet users. But more than that, we need Internet users to take action and help to build the Internet that they want to see.

Right now have the ability to shape the destiny of our own data, but we might not have this chance forever.

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