This year, Google bought Nest. Why was the world’s biggest search engine acquiring a thermostat company? Because through Nest, Google will get to know what temperature you prefer in your home, or when you come in and go out during weekdays and weekends.
Everyone wants data. It is why The Economist claimed that “(t)he world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data”.
In today’s digital world, fighting for privacy is fighting a losing battle. What we can instead fight for is making privacy a bargaining chip. Giving up your data to different people only makes sense if you know what you get in return.
Earlier last year, when US Senator Orrin Hatch asked Mark Zuckerberg how Facebook remained free, a mildly amused Zuckerberg replied, “Senator, we run ads”. The clip went viral and highlighted the need for regulators to get up to speed with technology.
People who understand how Facebook and Google work may know how they get their revenue by selling ads. They monitor your clicks; how much time you spend on a website; and what webpages you visit to target what they should be showing/selling to you. So, if you spend some time viewing videos of cats or say, an iPad, Facebook and Google will make sure that the content targeted to you is based on cats or iPads. However, the workings behind targeted advertising mean that it makes sense to think about privacy as a bargaining chip rather than an absolute right.
Debates in technology change fast. Over the past year, different aspects of tech policy have been highlighted. There was an argument on intermediary liability on whether platforms should be considered the same as information publishers. We also have the ongoing debate on data localisation and where they should be physically located. Facebook’s launch of Libra shifted conversations to cryptocurrency and whether Facebook needed to be broken up. In the middle of all this chaos, the argument for user privacy seems to have died down. The news attention cycle is partly to blame.
An equally big, if not bigger, part of the blame should be put on how big tech (Facebook, Google and Amazon) operates. The business models for a lot of platforms (including Facebook, Google, Reddit, and Twitter) is responsible for it. Let’s look at Google. The idea is to offer services in exchange for your data. You don’t pay when signing up, but instead give money to the platform’s clients after the application has used your own habits against you. Remember searching for that specific shoe wishfully, only to desert it midway, but the ads popping up for several weeks?
The bottom line you need to understand in case of big tech making claim to your data is that they will provide you services in return (think Google Drive, Google Photos or Google Search).
It is not just big tech that wants your data. The government wants it too. While big tech might offer you services in exchange for that data, the government is not obliged to make any such promises. Instead, the government’s argument is that it needs access to data to maintain law enforcement, ensure national security and have supervisory access. This is a global trend that spans across contexts.
For instance, the Reserve Bank of India wants unfettered supervisory access to financial data. India’s updated Information Technology Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules wants data on the originator of content on platforms. The Australian government has exclusive access to its citizens’ healthcare data, which cannot be shared outside its borders. There is also a big sentiment for states, especially developing economies such as India and China, to view data as a form of national wealth that can be used for development. This, in addition to the argument for law enforcement, makes the state naturally take an opposing stance to Facebook and Google when it comes to data access.
These conversations are bound to become more complex as technology advances and the state plays catch-up. We are already looking at years of discussion on Facebook’s Libra project, which will also be a defining battle for the short-term future of cryptocurrencies. There is also Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s proposal for a multilateral data-sharing framework, called the Osaka Track, which was proposed at the recent G20 summit. Over time, emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and the internet of things are bound to raise the stakes as well, as both are closely linked to data.
With so much happening in and around data and technology, it can be dizzying to keep up. The privacy debate gets left behind. The only big company making any noise about privacy seems to be Apple.
So, it’s time for us to get the bargaining chip. I know how this is a controversial opinion, especially for people who consider privacy to be an absolute right, and rightly so. I am not implying that the battle on privacy is lost. I am implying that it is a losing battle. Quoting Shoshana Zuboff, the nature of the internet and ‘surveillance capitalism’ leaves us with little choice.
In such times, thinking of privacy as a bargaining chip only seems to be a bi-product of a pragmatic assessment of the situation. You can use your privacy in a transaction to get goods and services. You pay with your privacy when you sign up for Google or Facebook and opt in to their services. Similarly, you lose your privacy when the government has sensitive data on you (which may or may not be optional). Giving up data about yourself only makes sense when you know what you get in return. ‘Privacy is a bargaining chip’ is one of the few phrases that is always central to the debates in tech policy and helps us make sense of the world around us.
The author is a former scholar from the University of Westminster and is currently working as Project Manager at The Takshashila Institution. Views are personal.