LUCIANO FLORIDI, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab at the University of Oxford
On May 6 the front cover of The Economist was dedicated to Big Data, which it defined as “the world’s most valuable resource”. According to the British weekly, however, the enormous concentration of data in just a few hands (Google, Facebook) “changes the nature of the competition.” What do you think about this?
Competition is often based on opaque rules: I know neither the original recipe for Coca-Cola nor Google’s algorithm. Generally, this opaqueness is creative, in that we develop different solutions in order to improve the product. It is for this reason that a certain level of protection exists for innovations: patents and copyrights serve this purpose. Having said that, it is also true that, the more information is circulating in the world, the more likely it is that there will be just one winner. The alternative to competition is not collaboration but monopoly: Google in search engines, Facebook in social media, Apple in music, and so on. The direction we are heading in is one of powerful monopolies. Of course, there are tens of other search engines, but who uses them? The more people use Google, the more Google improves its product: these processes are self-sustaining and facilitate continuous improvement.
In Europe over 90% of internet searches use Google. Nowadays, kids younger than 13 are tempted to join Facebook because their classmates are on Facebook. It is the phenomenon of the two sided network, which has been studied in the case of credit cards: clients ask to pay by credit card and the more clients ask, the more shops are willing to provide this form of payment, thus making the form of payment easier. The shops that don’t adapt will end up being excluded. Finally, today we enjoy a certain competition of advertising resources but if the big firms made a deal with one another they could divide up the world. In summary, I’m concerned because it could get worse.
The Economist proposed greater transparency and more data sharing in order to remedy the situation
Here I’d like to distinguish between what will probably happen and what should happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if these giants simply don’t accept to share the data: Google and Facebook don’t sell our data to anyone, they sell people the possibility to advertise on our profiles, so I would be very surprised if they agreed to share the data. In the future there will be more superfluity, not more sharing. Everybody has my name, surname and address, but not because they will be shared.
Things could, and should, be different. We could stop the escalation of advertising, which obliges firms to invest increasing amounts not in their products but in the presentation of their products to potential clients. According to this logic, those who do not invest sufficiently in advertising lose out. Digital is holding analogue hostage. We could start by being more careful: it would be great if we were more attentive about what we put online. Maybe it’s too late and the dam has already burst, it’s unlikely that the world will reconstruct that sense of privacy that I would call anonymity, like when we were leaves in forests of millions of other leaves. Nowadays, the digital map is very accurate, the individual is profiled and monitored in a very specific way. Really only a few elements are required to identify me: for example, I’m an Italian, professor at Oxford, I travel the same route each day. Today we are all individuals, the idea of the masses is no more.
For Big Data we don’t just mean the data that we knowingly make available to people (age, address, eye colour, etc.) but a lot of other information that concerns people, for example, transport movements, shopping habits, online behaviour. Concerning this information the European Data Protection Supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, has said that in the future the focus will be on data ‘clusters’ rather than personal data.
Buttarelli is right. Data is becoming slightly clouded with blurred boundaries. The physicist Erwin Schrödinger said, “We must not confuse an object with blurred contours with a bad photograph of an object that actually has defined contours”. Big Data takes a very precise and detailed photograph that is actually blurred because the data that we share is blurred. With Big Data we can distinguish between two approaches. The first perceives the individual in a group. For example, Maria is in a group of people that go on holiday to the mountains. If after 20 years she decides to go on holiday to the seaside, the system will continue to place her in the group that goes to the mountains. The second approach is what we are headed towards. People are spending increasing amounts of time online, rather than “onlife” as I like to say. Therefore, we can be monitored 24 hours a day. As soon as Maria changes her mind about holidays, the system can recognize this and make adaptations.
Rather than being a topic for a few cognoscenti, how can a wider public come to comprehend the practical benefits that Big Data can offer? Do real applications already exist for Big Data in the public sector, for example in welfare or transport?
The positive uses of Big Data on a social level offer great opportunities unprecedented this century. Italy has the chance to exploit what is called “leapfrogging”, avoiding all of the mistakes made in the past in the digital sphere and using data intelligently, for example in logistics, welfare and medicine. This will require political ability and also skill in communications. Here in Britain, for example, the unification of the health data banks was sold very badly to the public and the popular reaction led to the agreement being overturned at great expense. The complexity that we are generating should be managed with Big Data: cities like Rome and Milan are no longer manageable without Big Data.
Why does the idea of Big Data in public hands provoke comparisons with Big Brother while in the hands of Google and Facebook we are less concerned?
Citizens are right to be more worried about the state. The state was conceived in order to have a monopoly on violence. Throughout the history of humanity the worst abuses have been committed by the state, not by private companies. This can also be seen in the history of the last century. My wife and I have recently had DNA analysis, for reasons of scientific coherence and curiosity, and we did so through a private company that is very close to Google, but we were not particularly concerned about this. Living in Britain, however, perhaps I should be more worried. Here in the UK the data agreement between British hospitals and Google DeepMind is on the limits of existing regulations and the question is still the subject of much debate. It seems that only these big companies have the capacity to operate quickly, with a rapid timeframe and an enormous availability of resources and with governance that is much better suited to the high speed requirements of the age in which we’re living.
“The Internet is broken” said the founder of Twitter, Evan Williams. Is the network vulnerable because we created it open?
Yes, that’s the case. We created it like that. But the idea that the Internet is the same all over the world is a myth that has never been true. What the various networks have in common is that they have this property: information is open and would circulate everywhere, but we need to make the effort to unblock it. Back in the 1990s in the US they talked of a new frontier: this was an exaggeration. The world is made up of human beings. The Internet is vulnerable and IT crime will only disappear when it is no longer worthwhile. Digital is the only technology that has the ability to be self-reflexive, digital works on digital, it improves itself, so we will be raising ever improving defences. Already today it is very difficult to do something completely anonymously on the Web. On the subject of the latest cyberattack, “Wanna Cry”, the point is not that someone chose to do this, but that we all have the tools to impede it (antivirus, system updates etc.) yet thousands of people did nothing, they performed no maintenance. Rather than blaming the Net, more culpable are its users because the Net is us.