international analysis and commentary

Knowing the nation: data and the need for vision


“Give me control of a nation’s money supply, and I care not who makes its laws”, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the patriarch of the powerful French-British banking dynasty allegedly once said. In the Rothschild era those who controlled the world of finance could stay above the state, above the law. In present times the same applies to those who control our core technologies and our data.

We live in an ‘information-society’ and data has become the new gold. Throughout human history useful data has always been valuable, in the hands of those who knew how to exploit it; in this respect our modern society does not differ. In the early days of the explorer travellers for example, proper maps providing information on sea routes and newly discovered coastlines were one of the most valuable assets to have (and trade). In many ways they were much worthier than gold.

But today’s unprecedented scale of concentration of data and the technological possibilities to connect the raw pieces of data available bare a profound risk to our society.

Today companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter know a lot about us – about almost everybody. Much, much more than we realize. These companies are often referred to as tech giants, but to get a clearer understanding of their motives and business model, it would perhaps be better to call them ‘data mining companies’. Those of us who still think we are being given a free email account or search engine should realize that, in fact, we pay a high price; not in euros, dollars or yuan, but by giving away privacy, the currency of the 21st Century. As the saying goes: there is no such thing as a free lunch. For example, you only have to visit the Facebook website once for your computer to send company information about your surfing behaviour for years after. As Aiko Pras, a professor of internet security, recently warned: ”Most people do not realize this, and they would be frightened if they knew the full facts”.

Not only do many data companies know much more about us than we realize – in many ways they know much more than even our democratically-controlled institutions know about us, and about themselves. And so far we allow this to happen – not only by providing the information ourselves when we use our Gmail account or update our Facebook page, but also by not regulating these companies and their behaviour properly. Information gives power, especially when you know a lot more then others do.

The concentration of information on the servers of Google and other ‘data miners’ allow them to have a huge influence on society. They can steer and control elections if they want to, without the people even realizing it. On a more daily basis they can steer and influence personal behaviour by a phenomenon called ‘micro targeting’. Based on their knowledge of your browsing behaviour, online shopping history, writing style and a variety of other factors, they can send you very specific adverts and other impulses to push you in the direction they desire, leaving you under the illusion that you made a free and autonomous choice.

Who would have believed, fifteen years ago, that we would now collectively be allowing companies to penetrate deeper into the patterns of our private lives than the most efficient secret service did during the Cold War? The irony here is difficult to miss. On the one hand our society spends a good deal of time and energy debating (and fighting) the powers of public intelligence agencies. But while googling, tweeting and posting about it, they give away most of their information to commercial companies instead.

Fighting the hidden influence of data mining companies – or tech giants as you have it – is not easy, as one cannot fight what one doesn’t know or see. Ironically, one can only start to fight the power of information by having knowledge of it – and the reasoning comes full circle to the importance of information. Therefore, increasing public awareness on this issue is key.

Over the last few years there has been some debate in Europe about whether to allow data miners to grow so powerful, especially those based outside the EU. But sadly this debate seems primarily to be one of a few worried citizens, not yet one of politicians and legislators. It is time we, both the people and the public leaders of Europe, start thinking and acting on this matter.

When debating solutions, many people point at the government. Legislation, they say, is key. This is only partial solution at best. Of course our society needs a proper legal framework that fits our 21st century reality, a reality that needs a much broader thought-system regarding concepts such as privacy, data concentration and the democratic balance of power. It is a reality in which the need to safeguard these rights has become more stringent than ever. Having said that, I do not believe that more government control or supervision is the Holy Grail that will bring eternal salvation on this matter.

Balancing the relationship between data miners and the society in which they operate – our society – requires action by these companies, but it also requires something from customers/users. An important step in dealing with the dangers to democracy that lie ahead if we do not act, is changing our collective behaviour. If people want to keep some control of their own lives, they should keep themselves to themselves a bit more.

This leaves the matter of attachment to infrastructures. Most people cannot function without a good online search engine anymore. Considering the way society works today, this is understandable. But it doesn’t mean that such search engine should be privately owned, or that it should be exclusively money-driven. A line of action that could contribute to bringing more democratic balance in the relationship between entities that store our data and society is by creating ‘public’ alternatives to Facebook and Twitter.

Why don’t we have a government that provides a public alternative to some of the services that have become quasi-basic needs to us, such as email or maps – just as it does with other infrastructure such as roads and bridges? Or why can’t there be a version of Google (or its mother company, Alphabet) that is owned by the people, owned by all of us? These are questions most people do not ask themselves, because they have become either ignorant or lured into the convenience of the status quo, in which Google rules the waves.

However, recently I came across various people and organisations in Europe who do ask these questions, and who act on them. They are busy developing not-for-profit search engines, free email and maps, accessible to everyone and owned by everyone. I hope these initiatives will bring a higher level of awareness, and that they will inspire people to broaden their vision.