Information is power, but what happens when most of the world’s data is concentrated in the hands of just a few big corporations? In their new book Access Rules, Oxford professor of internet governance and regulation Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and technology writer Thomas Ramge make the case that Big Tech may at times be detrimental to the economy, not to mention societal progress. I had a chance to connect with Mayer-Schönberger and Ramge recently to get their take on why this monopoly is so troubling—and what we can do to fix the problem, drive increased economic competition, and find solutions to our society’s biggest problems.
You open the book with a fascinating view of Benjamin Franklin and his role in US postal services. What lessons did he, and by extension all of us, take away from his experience?
Benjamin Franklin experienced information power. Someone of a lesser noble mind might have concluded that it’s important to occupy information bottlenecks of control. But Franklin, to his great and lasting credit, understood that society benefits most when information flows aren’t controlled by a single entity and instead can be accessed freely. We need to bring his strategy into the data age.
This was an early lesson in the importance of access to information. How do you see access to information in today’s world?
Superficially, we have easier access to more information than ever before. But that’s only the visible part. The data trove is far, far larger than what is being made accessible. Even if some information is freely accessible, most of the data is far more concentrated than ever before.
Given this, what’s your view of the power of either government or big tech?
National governments can (with the help of legislatures) create and enforce rules. But big tech operates globally – its information power reaches well past national borders and big tech has technical tools in place that enable concentration of information and power far beyond that of nation states.
How is all of this changing innovation? Tell us about the lessons from Joseph Schumpeter.
Until recently innovation required a good idea and enough capital to bring it to market. Today that’s no longer sufficient. More and more ideas need to be paired with data – to learn from and train with – to lead to innovation. But data is not accessible; not even with more money, as the large digital platforms are so profitable, they don’t need to accept any outside money for access to their data. Schumpeter already feared that innovation would become concentrated among large firms because capital was too concentrated. Angel investors and venture capital fortunately proved him wrong. But today Schumpeter’s nightmare is back: it’s no longer capital, but access to data that’s too concentrated.
You argue that data that is non-personal should be shared. But many are suspect of whether we can trust data to be depersonalized. How do you balance privacy versus sharing?
Privacy is important. But broadening access to data does not necessarily require us to choose between privacy and sharing. Much data, perhaps more than half of all data collected, is non-personal, like sensor data from jet engines, weather data, or machine data on factory floors. That data can be shared without privacy concerns. Other data has personal identifiers in it. Often, they can be erased or replaced: de-personalized. That reduces the value of the data a bit, but almost always the remaining data retains value and insight. Some experts suggest that de-personalized data can be re-identified; even when this is possible, it requires huge amounts of effort (if the de-personalization was done well).
In terms of access and Big Tech data, your subtitle ends with “for a better future.” What is your hope for the future? What does a better future look like?
Our hope for a better future is that access to data is … strengthened, innovation is rekindled, and society can progress. This will enable us to tackle and perhaps address the huge challenges of our times, from global warming and treating the scourges of illnesses like Alzheimer’s to feeding a global population of nine billion without killing the planet.
For more info see Access Rules.
Image Credit: Sigmund