Imagine a commodity that immediately creates an unstoppable, ridiculously lucrative industry force that invades every aspect of our socio-economic infrastructure. If I asked you this in 1920 at a corner speakeasy, you’d tell me that oil was the product in question. Fast-forward nearly a century, and we’ve seen the very same degree of monopolistic dominance brought about by an entirely different good – the privatized data of others.
Just as Rockefeller’s horizontally-integrated empire controlled the refinery of 90% of the oil sold in the US, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have continued to shock the world with egregious profits and a very similar stranglehold on the data of internet users. Whether or not you support the direction of these enterprises, one thing is for certain: your data has become the oil of the internet age, and it’s revolutionizing the way we perceive technology, economics, and social good.
I think what many of us gloss over is the sheer amount of profitable data that each of us creates on a daily basis. The music you listen to, videos you watch, articles you read, feeds you scroll through, and links you click generate terabytes of data per second, all the while producing billions of dollars. This data sharpens the ever-present edge of machine learning clusters that know you better than yourself. They know what you’re buying next and where you’re going before you grab your keys. Now, something to understand is that this isn’t all bad or as horrifying as it may seem. In fact, many of the products and services that have changed our lives for the better are constantly made improved by this infinite stream of data. Companies are provided with endless metrics that help to elevate their products. Tesla’s autopilot software becomes smarter with every mile driven, and your Facebook newsfeed curates itself with every second of screen-time.
So you get it; a shit ton of people know everything about you and there’s nothing you can do about it. So what? Well, all of this draws attention to the underlying issue of competition. Our data has made five or six companies so much money that they throw hundreds of millions at others in “shoot-out acquisitions” that eliminate potential rivals by swallowing their technology. Instead of encouraging the push for the bigger and better, we’ve devolved into stagnated creators that build something half decent to get acquired by a tech-titan that only cares to exercise your influence from the free market. Now, we can’t just break up these companies. That would be stupid because our data is webbed. It exists in every corner of the internet, and shutting down one server only makes the hard-drive of another much bigger.
What’s required is transparency. By forcing these conglomerates to reveal what information they use and the paychecks they receive because of it, we can create a shared data economy, where data is used in a much more public measure. Demanding shared access to certain types of data could greatly level the playing field, so that anyone can make a great product by having the same rights to data as a select few.
Now you may be asking yourself, isn’t that a huge security concern? And to that I’d say, ask yourself: is it better to have your data controlled by six companies that shield you from its contents, purpose, or selling price, or to build a shared community of information with restrictions and equality for all at an incredible premium?
We are talking about the internet, a tool built with the fundamental goal to encourage the global spread of information without constraints, and here we are disregarded from its most important application. It’s a scary thought, but without discussion and discourse we’ll get nowhere. It is our responsibility as internet users to control the flow of the information we create, and ensure its ethical use and equitable distribution.